The Pirates win the Central?!?!

For the ESPN The Magazine baseball preview, we used Baseball Think Factory's ZiPS projections to simulate the season 100 times using Diamond Mind Baseball. In addition to producing standings for each season, the software also spits out the stats. Over the next couple of days we'll go inside some of the more eye-opening results.

As regular readers of Insider might remember, I wrote a piece a couple of months ago in which I explained why the Pirates have one of the best organizational plans in baseball. Seriously. Obviously, I was pleased to see the Pirates finish in first in three of our simulations (and tie for first in another). Even the most optimistic observer wouldn't expect Pittsburgh to make the post-season so quickly. Therefore, I had to check out how it all came together. Let's examine the Pirates 87-win season, which was their high-water mark in all of our sims.

Not surprisingly, Andrew McCutchen picked up right where he left off last year, and hit .302/.361/.437 with 11 homers and 23 steals in that "season". The real key, however, is Garrett Jones, who proved he's no fluke by slugging 33 homers while posting a .910 OPS. Of course the Bucs got some pitching help as well, most notably from Charlie Morton, who posted a 3.21 ERA in 188 innings while inducing 21 double plays. There's also Ross Ohlendorf, who proved the doubters wrong by posting a 3.84 ERA in 182 innings.

But for the Pirates to win 87 games, I think we'd all agree they'd have to get really lucky in some places. Enter Bobby Crosby. In this "season," the 2004 AL Rookie of the Year hit .278/.339/.400 with nine homers. That's nothing special, but it's a huge boost for the Pirates, whose shortstops combined for a .300 OBP with nine homers in 2009. Pittsburgh also got an .801 OPS with 16 homers in a bounceback season from backstop Ryan Doumit. Of course, the Pirates would have to get some luck elsewhere, and that's where injuries come in.

Yes, the software builds in injuries, and every player has a different risk factor. In this sim, Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter made just 18 starts. And Adam Wainwright, Carpenter's co-ace, pitched 135 innings and had a 4.35 ERA.

Of course there's also Pedro Alvarez, Pittsburgh's real secret weapon. The Pirates top hitting prospect bursts onto the scene in September to go 9-for-23 with five homers. (We don't have game-by-game data, so I'm guessing it's September because it's so few at-bats, and if he came up earlier in the season and hit like that, odds are he wouldn't go back down.) I'm calling it now: If Alvarez carries the Bucs to the postseason like this, he deserves Rookie of the Year, even if it is just 23 at-bats.

And yes, after all of this, the Pirates won 87 games and eeked out the Cards by one game for the division title. So if someone says to you, "there's no way the Pirates can win the Central," you can reply, "au contraire! If McCutchen and Jones continue to rake, Crosby and Doumit bounce back, Morton and Ohlendorf exceed expectations, and Carpenter and Wainwright are hurt and/or ineffective, then the Pirates might just win the division. Oh yeah, the Bucs would also need Pedro Alvarez to be a real-life Joe Hardy down the stretch. See, it could happen.

Matt Meyers is an associate editor at ESPN The Magazine.