The Pittsburgh Pirates are a first-place ballclub. Not only that, but they're tied for the best record in MLB.
Thanks to the St. Louis Cardinals' 4-3 loss to the Houston Astros on Tuesday, the Bucs share a 48-30 record and the NL Central lead.
Just a week ago, Pittsburgh was four games behind the Cards and Reds, matching its largest deficit of the season. That put the Pirates in third place. With St. Louis establishing itself as the best team in baseball, and the Reds not far behind with the sport's second-best record, it was natural to ask if Pittsburgh was ready to fall out of contention.
Yet so much can change in a week. The Cardinals have lost four of their past five games, including a three-game sweep last weekend at Texas. The Reds also lost four of five, dropping two at both Arizona and Oakland.
Meanwhile, the Pirates won their last five games. Actually, they've won six in a row and eight of their past 10 — or 11 of their past 15 games, depending on when you'd like to begin counting. That stretch includes a nine-game road trip, during which the Bucs went 7-2 and won all five of their games on the West Coast.
As exciting as having a first-place team might be for Pittsburgh, however, you might understand if Pirates fans aren't yet ready to believe in their team unconditionally. This team has been in a similar position during the past two seasons. Well, sort of.
Last year, the Pirates were two games behind the Reds in the NL Central. But they were only four games over .500 at 39-35, with the fifth-best record in the National League. Pittsburgh's offense had scored 267 runs, the second-lowest total in MLB, and had a run differential of -7.
However, in their next 11 games leading up to the All-Star break, the Pirates went on a 9-2 surge. That left them with a 48-37 and a one-game lead in their division at the midsummer hiatus. While MLB was taking four days off — providing an opportunity to evaluate the standings — fans, reporters and analysts saw the Bucs leading their division.
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh went 31-46 during the second half of the season. In September, the team's record was 7-21. The Pirates eventually finished in fourth place, 18 games behind the division-winning Reds and nine behind the Cardinals, who won a wild-card playoff spot. Their final 79-83 record was their 20th consecutive losing season. The division title days of 1992 seemed so far away.
In 2011, the Bucs were in fourth place. A 39-38 record put them four games out of first place in their division.
Yet in their following 13 games leading up to the All-Star break, Pittsburgh went 8-5, pushing them to within one game of the NL Central top spot. The Pirates then won four of five following the midsummer hiatus, resulting in a half-game division lead. That was a slim margin, obviously — the slimmest it could be. But Pittsburgh fans had a first-place team.
Reaching those heights made for a longer fall, however. The Pirates went 25-47 after the All-Star break. That collapse included an 8-22 record in August. Pittsburgh ended the season with a 72-90 mark, good for another fourth-place finish in the NL Central, 24 games behind the division champion Milwaukee Brewers.
Are the 2013 Pirates setting themselves up for another disappointing second half? Is this another surge to first place followed by an utter collapse following the All-Star break? Competing against the Cardinals and Reds, Pittsburgh is arguably in baseball's toughest, most top-heavy division.
Could this year's version of the Bucs be different? Is there any reason for Pirates fans to believe that the ground won't crumble underneath this team again?
There are some encouraging signs. The Pirates are scoring more runs than they had during the past two seasons while allowing fewer.
At this point last year, Pittsburgh had scored 267 runs — second-to-last in the NL. In 2011, their 290 runs scored ranked No. 14 in the league. This season, the Pirates have put 306 runs on the board, the eighth-best total among NL teams.
On the pitching side, the Bucs have allowed 270 runs — fewest in the NL. At the same point a year ago, Pittsburgh was second in runs allowed with 274. In 2011, Pirates pitchers had allowed 302 runs, placing them fifth in the league.
Pitching is absolutely the reason for Pittsburgh's success thus far. The Pirates lead MLB with a team ERA of 3.20. Their starters have the second best ERA in baseball at 3.32. Jeff Locke's 2.06 mark ranks second in the NL. Francisco Liriano has a 2.30 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 54.2 innings.
Pittsburgh's relievers are seventh in MLB with a 3.06 ERA. Jason Grilli leads the NL with 26 saves, while compiling a 1.82 ERA and a strikeout rate of 15.1 per nine innings. Setup man Mark Melancon has a 0.96 ERA and 40 strikeouts in 37.1 innings. If you like holds as an indicator of a middle reliever's effectiveness, Melancon leads MLB with 22.
Perhaps more promising is that the Pirates have been playing this well without three of their best starting pitchers.
Staff ace A.J. Burnett has been out since June 9 with a calf injury. Though he has a 4-6 record, his ERA is 3.12 and he's struck out 99 batters in 89.1 innings. Wandy Rodriguez has been on the DL since June 6 due to forearm tightness. He has a 6-4 record and 3.59 ERA. In addition, the left-hander is walking only 1.7 batters per nine innings.
Jeanmar Gomez was activated from the DL and started Wednesday's 4-2 win over the Seattle Mariners. The 25-year-old allowed one run and three hits during his five innings, striking out five batters and walking two.
Pittsburgh has enough starting pitching that the team has considered sending top prospect Gerrit Cole back down to Triple-A Indianapolis, despite going 3-0 with a 3.44 ERA in his first three major league starts. Cole has also hit 101 mph on the radar gun and thrown a slider and changeup effectively.
Yet he also has minor league options that enable a demotion. Additionally, the Pirates want to monitor Cole's innings as he progresses through the season. He threw 132 innings in the minors last season and is already at 86.1 between Triple-A and the majors this year.
General manager Neal Huntington hinted at an innings limit for Cole, but implied the Pirates would handle that much differently than the Washington Nationals dealt with Stephen Strasburg last year. In other words, Cole won't be shut down but will likely get some breaks between now and the end of the season. That indicates he'll be available in September when Pittsburgh is hopefully still in contention for a playoff spot.
Do the Pirates need more offense to stay competitive in the NL Central, however?
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen was a MVP candidate last season, posting a .327 average, .953 OPS, 31 home runs, 96 RBI and 20 stolen bases. His numbers this year — .287 average, .853 OPS and 15 steals — are certainly respectable, but aren't superstar level. Perhaps most troubling is his decrease in power, with eight home runs and 39 RBI.
McCutchen is getting some more help in the outfield this year with the emergence of left fielder Starling Marte. The 24-year-old is hitting .282 with a .794 OPS, eight homers, 24 RBI and 22 steals. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez has shouldered the power burden in the Pirates lineup, slugging 19 homers with 51 RBI and an .820 OPS. But he's been the Pirates' only consistent home run threat.
First baseman Garrett Jones has six home runs after hitting 27 last season. Right fielder Travis Snider continues to be a work in progress with unfulfilled potential. He's only hit three home runs to go with a .233 average and .653 OPS.
Snider's spot is where the Pirates will likely look to upgrade.
ESPN.com's David Schoenfield recently beat the drum for Pittsburgh to pursue the Miami Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton. While his 30-plus home run power would be an excellent fit for the Bucs lineup, and the Pirates have the prospects that would interest the Marlins in a potential deal, that kind of blockbuster trade goes against the approach Huntington has taken.
A target that seems more in line with the Pirates' philosophy is Nate Schierholtz of the Chicago Cubs. While he's not the star slugger Pittsburgh needs, Schierholtz is putting up strong numbers this season. In 226 plate appearances, he's batting .293 with a .950 OPS, 11 homers and 32 RBI. His left-handed bat would provide some middle-of-the-order balance as well.
Schierholtz's teammate, Alfonso Soriano, could also arguably be a nice fit. But his seven home runs are well below the pace of the 32 he hit last year. The Pirates surely want no part of what remains of his $18 million salary for this year, in addition to the $18 million he's due next year. Soriano can also only play left field, which makes him an awkward fit in Pittsburgh's outfield. Marte has played some right field in the minors, but would he handle a position change well?
Another Chicago outfielder — Alex Rios of the White Sox — might be another possibility. But he's also expensive, owed what remains of his $12.5 million for this season and is due the same salary next year. With a .276 average, .794 OPS, 11 homers, 35 RBI and 13 steals, Rios would certainly be an upgrade in right field.
One more option could be the Seattle Mariners' Michael Morse, when he returns from the disabled list. Morse has 11 home runs and 23 RBI, and is two seasons removed from slugging 31 homers with 95 RBI and a .910 OPS for the Nationals.
If the Pirates were hesitant to make a bold move last year, that conservative approach arguably backfired. The front office reportedly alienated the players by not making a more assertive move at the trade deadline — for a bat like Justin Upton or Hunter Pence — while the team was still in contention. Is that something Huntington will take into consideration or will he stick with the long-term view?
Perhaps it's ultimately smarter for the Pirates to bide their time while the Cardinals and Reds eventually lose some aging players from their roster. (Though the Cards have plenty of prospects to help reload.) Maybe trading away a top minor leaguer isn't worth the short-term gratification of a division title.
But MLB has become a sport in which any team has a chance if it qualifies for the postseason. If the opportunity at a playoff spot is still there a month from now, does the team owe it to the players and fans to take that shot? If yet another second-half collapse occurs, at least the Pirates can say they tried. The future appears bright in Pittsburgh, but the present looks damn exciting right now.