|Pitching leads Surprising Pirates||| Print ||
Written by Jim Mancari (Contact & Archive) on July 25, 2011
If you said at the beginning of the season that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be near the top of the division in the NL Central this late in the year, you would have received many perplexed looks.
However, with just over two months left in 2011, the Pirates are considered legitimate contenders for the first time in a long while.
It's been 18 years since the Pirates last had a winning season, when they finished 96-66 in 1992. Players like Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Doug Drabek highlighted a talented roster, while Jim Leyland served as the manager.
Heading into this season, things weren't expected to improve much after a 57-105 year in 2010. The team had many young, unproven parts that were still getting their feet wet in the Major Leagues.
The Pirates got off to a good start this year, but who really thought that they'd be able to sustain a long run, especially with the powerful St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Milwaukee Brewers in the same division?
A few wins turned into a string of victories that has led the Pirates to believe in themselves to the point where they may be buyers at the trade deadline. Pittsburgh has a ton of good prospects since they racked up on high draft picks after so many losing seasons.
Looking at individual offensive player stats, no one, except maybe Andrew McCutchen (.277, 14 home runs, 59 RBIs, 15 stolen bases) and Neil Walker (.275, 9 home runs, 62 RBIs), is having a stellar year. The team has relied on consistent performances and clutch hitting to score runs.
Rookie outfielder Alex Presley has provided a shot in the arm, hitting over .350 through his first 19 games in place of the injured Jose Tabata.
The Pirates have received adequate contributions from Lyle Overbay, Garrett Jones and Ronny Cedeno, but the team is far from an offensive powerhouse. They don't hit many home runs and on the whole don't drive in too many runs.
So just how have they been able to maintain their winning ways? Simple: pitching depth.
All five starters turn in quality efforts almost every night, which makes the offense's job much easier. The Pirates were notorious for not providing their pitchers any run support during their 18-year losing streak, but this year the pitchers are doing the heavy lifting.
Kevin Correia leads the way with his 11 wins. Jeff Karstens has finally figured it out on the mound and is pitching to a 2.28 ERA in 17 starts. James McDonald and Charlie Morton have been diamonds in the rough.
The ace of the staff, Paul Maholm, actually has the worst record at 6-9, but he's pitched in some tough luck this season as shown by his 3.06 ERA. He appears to be a trade candidate due to his contract, but the Pirates may try to hang onto him for the stretch run.
While the starting pitching has been great, the bullpen has been even better. All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan went from being a no-name to a household name after converting 28 consecutive saves. He's becoming as dominant as any ninth-inning man in the game.
The players providing the bridge to Hanrahan have been good as well. The Pirates bullpen leads the league in holds, with Jose Veras (19) and Chris Resop (13) accounting for the bulk. The team recently added veteran reliever Jason Grilli to take the load off these two in the later innings.
The next step for the Pirates is to determine if they are contenders before the July 31 deadline. They don't have much time, and most likely, the Cardinals and Brewers will be busy making deals to improve their teams.
Pittsburgh is rumored to have a need for an outfielder. Carlos Beltran of the Mets is drawing much attention, and the Pirates could make a huge splash by adding him. Cubs catcher Geovany Soto is also on the team's radar since both Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit have had injury troubles this year.
With so many good prospects, the Pirates can also choose to be patient rather than go all-in right now. Developing prospects like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker has been the reason for this year's success and can lead to more homegrown talent.Regardless of if the Pirates go for it all this season, one thing is certain: Baseball in Pittsburgh is relevant once more.