Pirates fans are currently wondering if their team is for real this season--after two straight late-season collapses, it's hard to blame even the most die-hard fan for being a little leery. While I can't say with any real certainty that this will be the year Pittsburgh finally clears the Clint Hurdle and has at least a winning season, there is some tangible evidence the Buccos are indeed for real in 2013.
For starters, the Pirates are 15 games over .500, and it's only June 23rd. A season ago, Pittsburgh didn't reach its high mark of 16 games above .500 until early August--shortly before its historic collapse.
Another reason these Buccos may actually do it this year is their depth, especially at pitching. Staff ace A.J. Burnett has been on the disabled list with a calf injury, and the number two starter, the very efficient Wandy Rodriguez, has also missed a few starts due to injury. The past two seasons, when the club was dealing with similar injury issues, this would have probably sent things into an irreversible tailspin. However, Jeff Locke, one of the pieces in the controversial Nate McLouth trade from a few years ago, has been as solid a starting pitcher as any in baseball and leads the National League with a 2.01 ERA.
The other pitching prospect to come from Atlanta in the McLouth trade, Charlie Morton, has made two starts since coming back from Tommy John surgery and has been more than respectable, going 1-1--including a huge effort last Tuesday in Cincinnati, where he not only pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in a 4-0 win over the Reds, he plunked Shin Soo Choo with the first pitch of the game after Cincinnati pitchers had taken liberties with Pirates hitters the night before.
And what about Francisco Liriano? Since making his season debut in May after recovering from a broken hand, he's 6-3 with a 2.30 ERA and 61 strikeouts in nine starts. Liriano would probably be this year's Burnett if he had the same presence. However, if he can just continue to pitch at his same efficient level, I"m sure the folks in Pittsburgh's clubhouse would be satisfied with that.
And what more can you say about the young phenom, Gerrit Cole? Cole made his third start in Anaheim Friday night since making his MLB debut two weeks ago and won his third game, going 6 1/3 innings in a 5-2 victory over the Angels.
There's talk that Cole will be sent down to avoid "Super two" arbitration status, and I'm sure that would outrage a lot of fans, but really, what other choice is there? Once Burnett and Rodriguez come back, what's Cole supposed to do? Sit in the bullpen? The Pirates aren't going to take Locke out of the lineup, same with Liriano. I suppose there is a possibility that Cole can stay in the rotation if Morton doesn't pan out, but even if Cole is sent down, I don't think the front office should suffer much in the way of poor publicity. Would it be financially motivated? Almost surely, but with the arms that gm Neal Huntington has cultivated over the years--don't forget Jeanmar Gomez and James Mcdonald, who have also been down with injuries--the team now has pitching options and the luxury to do whatever it desires with Cole.
In terms of offensive depth, the Pirates certainly seem to have that this year. Take the catcher spot, for instance, where they're light-years ahead of where they were a season ago, when Rod Barajas was the starter and Michael Mckenry was his back-up. While both certainly had their moments in 2012, neither was great offensively, particular Barajas, and both struggled mightily at throwing out baserunners. This year, with the signing of Russell Martin, Pittsburgh has something it hasn't had since the days of Jason Kendall--a true number one catcher. As for Mckenry, he's settled into his role as the back-up catcher a lot better now that he's not expected to carry more of the bulk of the load and has even contributed a couple of key hits--including two home runs in a comeback victory over the Reds in April.
At shortstop, Jordy Mercer has finally surpassed Clint Barmes. If Mercer's defense continues to be consistent, the obvious offensive upgrade could pay huge dividends moving forward.
At first base, Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez have quietly combined for 11 home runs and 52 RBI in a platoon situation.
At third base, Pedro Alvarez is slowly becoming one of the top power bats in the game and has paced the offensive attack with 18 home runs and 50 RBI despite his .234 batting average and habit for striking out.
At second base, Neil Walker continues to provide solid play, and if he can stay injury free this season, he has the look of someone who could come through in clutch situations down the stretch.
In the outfield, Andrew McCutchen might not be having the MVP-like year he had in 2012, but his numbers are still more than solid, and if he heats up like he did around last year's All-Star break, well, that would be just another reason this might be the year Pittsburgh finally reaches the Promised Land--even if that ground is just a winning record.
And if Starling Marte ever truly harnesses his raw talent (he's only 24), he could be every bit as good as McCutchen and would give the Pirates one of the more talented outfields in baseball.
And let's not forget the bullpen. The Shark Tank has been one of the best pens in baseball, behind closer Jason Grilli and set-up man Mark Melancon.
The bullpen has been so good, when I see that Pittsburgh is up by a run or two after six innings, I almost put the "W" in the win column.
I believe the talent is there for these Pirates. If they can stay healthy and continue to get key contributions from key players, they should, I say SHOULD have a very successful final three months to the 2013 season.
Heck, the Pirates have taken two in Anaheim so far in a weekend series against the Angels, an American League team. The Pirates are winning on the West Coast AND against an American League team? If that's not a watershed scenario, I don't know what is.