“…if we win, on our budget, with this team… we’ll have changed the game.” – Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), Moneyball
On April 4th, 2012, ESPN published the predictions of 50 “experts” for the MLB season. Unsurprisingly, not a single expert picked the Pirates to win the National League Central Division. But why would they? Who in their right mind would pick the Pittsburgh Pirates to win a division or even have a winning season? Pittsburgh hasn’t seen a winning team since 1992, but the 2012 Buccos are playing some of the best baseball that the Steel City has seen in two decades. The Bucs entered the break atop the NL Central, eleven games over the .500 mark. With the second half of the season set to begin on Friday in Milwaukee, baseball fans around the country are asking the same question: are the Pirates for real? Here are five reasons to believe in the Pittsburgh Pirates:
1. Andrew McCutchen
McCutchen, who has emerged as an MVP candidate, is having a phenomenal season. His .362 batting average ranks first in MLB; he leads the Pirates in all major offensive categories. Cutch carried the team in April and May, and remained on fire as the offense has heated up in June and July. He didn’t hit his first home run until May 8th, but has been raking since then. Since that day, he has hit .391/.439/.730 with 18 HR and 53 RBI in 56 games. Obviously it’s nearly impossible to sustain that pace, and his .407 batting average on balls in play demonstrates some luck. While a bit of regression is nearly inevitable, it’s unlikely that Cutch will suffer in the second half as he did in 2011.
2. The Schedule
The Pirates knocked out the toughest part of their season in April; they battled through and put themselves in a good position to succeed. The first 19 games of the second half are against teams with sub-.500 records, and the Bucs have beat up on opponents with losing records this year. While there are no guaranteed victories, they still have solid chances to win ballgames. Hopefully the Pirates can take advantage of the weaker schedule.
Both the starting rotation and bullpen have been fantastic all season; pitching is the main reason for the Pirates success. James McDonald is having a breakthrough season, A.J. Burnett has bounced back, Jason Grilli has emerged as a stellar set-up man, etc. Now that the hitters have found a groove and the pitching has remained consistent, the Pirates have won games in bunches. The staff is built much better than last season, so a collapse is less likely. There are three strong southpaws in Triple-A (Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson) that can be called up if necessary. A starting pitcher may be acquired at the deadline to bolster the rotation.
4. Clint Hurdle
The second-year manager of the Pirates is an extremely enthusiastic and upbeat person, and he’s the perfect man for the job. While Hurdle is praised in the tabloids and on television, we witnessed his livelihood in person back in May. We were privileged to sit a few rows off the field on May 11th, right next to the Pirates dugout. While the grounds crew, Parrot, and ROOT Sports personalities rushed by us, we were stunned when Clint Hurdle voluntarily came over to interact with fans. Young and old alike stood along the railing awaiting players to emerge from the dugout, but it was the manager who first approached. He shook hands, signed autographs, and thanked the fans for their support. It was an awesome moment, and he’s truly a class act. Hurdle wants Pittsburgh to see a winner; we are constantly reminded of how he wants to rebond the city with the Pirates. He’s a great manager for a young team, and knows what it takes to make the playoffs. Hurdle managed Colorado to the World Series just a few seasons ago. There will inevitably be a losing streak in the second half, but the Bucs will have to overcome adversity. Hopefully Hurdle can lift their spirits, and avoid a collapse like last season.
5. Deadline Deals/Moves
Bucs’ GM Neal Huntington takes plenty of criticism for some moves he has made, but we have faith in him at the trade deadline. He’s shown that he can go out and be a buyer, and he’s likely to make some deals this season. There have been rumors of hitters such as Justin Upton, Carlos Quentin, and Chase Headley that the Pirates may be interested in. It depends on if they want to go “all in” this season and give up some of their farm system, or if they want to keep top prospects and plan for the future. However, Huntington won’t be restricted to trade. As we mentioned above, the Pirates have three potential pitchers in AAA. They also have their top position player prospect, Starling Marte, waiting in the wings. Depending on what moves are made, we believe that they can seriously improve the roster at the deadline and make a push for the postseason.
Is this season just another dream for Pirates fans? Are we waiting for a playoff push, only to watch another second half collapse? We think the Pirates can be for real this season, but only time will tell. With one of the best young players in the game, an easier schedule, an improved staff, an experienced manager, and potential moves to strengthen the team, there are many reasons to believe in the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates.
No team should strive for mediocrity, but Pittsburgh hasn’t seen winning baseball almost twenty years. Simply a winning season- just 82 wins- would be a step forward, but the playoffs aren’t out of the question. After Sunday’s 13-2 victory, A.J. Burnett said, “I’m proud to take the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates.” At the same time, we’ve never been more proud to be fans of this franchise, and no matter what happens in the second half, we’ll never forget this team. We believe in the Pittsburgh Pirates, and you should too.