SweetSpot: Pedro Alvarez

Pirates must rely on big reinforcements

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19

This is a big week for the Pittsburgh Pirates, perhaps even a defining week. Monday night’s loss to the Atlanta Braves was their sixth straight. They’re now two games back in the wild-card standings, with the Braves between them and the Cardinals and Giants.

The big factor that people no doubt worry about is that they’ve gone 5-9 since the grudging acknowledgment that reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen had to go to the disabled list. Add in that second baseman Neil Walker has been healthy enough to make just five starts in August in what had been his best season since his rookie year, and the Pirates have had to get by a whole lot of Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez. Some of those losses have been especially tough, including getting swept over the weekend in a trio of one-run losses to the Nationals, and losing four one-run games during McCutchen’s absence. Operating without their best hitter, as well as their best starting pitcher -- Gerrit Cole -- and those margins are that much tighter.


With Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole returning this week, will the Pirates make the playoffs?


Discuss (Total votes: 41,348)

I’d argue that the absences of Cole and Charlie Morton have been every bit as critical as the losses in the lineup. Since the break, the Pirates have averaged 4.6 runs per game, and even 4.1 with McCutchen on the DL, slightly above league-average for the NL. But on the pitching side, since the All-Star break the Pirates have seen some things unfold that they have to have anticipated: Jeff Locke’s transient magic once again fading with repeated exposure to National League lineups that have cranked out a 1.60 WHIP in his last six starts, while Edinson Volquez has been looking very much like nothing more than a No. 5 while allowing 4.9 runs per nine in his six turns in that time. These are not the guys you’re going to win a division with; they’re whom you get by with when Cole and Morton are out. The happier news is that Vance Worley looks like a keeper, but we’ll see if he pushes past Volquez to enter postseason rotation consideration.

One of the things you can consider a lesson learned is that the enthusiasm for the Pirates’ young outfield is still mostly deserved. Starling Marte has been excellent since the All-Star break, with an 1.132 OPS. Gregory Polanco, not so much (.632 OPS), but it’s too soon to see if he’s going to have to join Pedro Alvarez on the team’s growing pile of disappointing superstars-to-be (or not). But another happy surprise is that Josh Harrison seems as ready as Omar Infante was to make people eat those “that guy’s an All-Star?” taunts, hitting .331/.369/.570 since the break.

The weeks to come are going to provide all sorts of interesting questions for Clint Hurdle and company as they try to get back on top, because the Pirates and Hurdle have proven themselves reliably creative when it comes to lineup solutions in particular. I think it’s fascinating to see them play Harrison at shortstop these last four games. Breaking out a rare “small sample-size” caveat this late in the season, it hasn’t been lovely (the first three games were at a minus-38 Defensive Runs Saved level for a full season), but if by some chance he proves that he can play short as a regular, that creates an expanded range of options in the lineup. It might even provide Alvarez a chance at redemption at third base, at least against right-handed pitching -- if the choice is between Jordy Mercer (.656 OPS, career) or Clint Barmes and Alvarez (.790 OPS) against a righty. I’d like to see a loose Alvarez-Mercer platoon in the lineup. Maybe Harrison is only affordable at shortstop on days when Cole pitches (because of his large number of strikeouts) or Worley (because he’s a fly ball-out guy), but it’s interesting to see Hurdle and the sabermetrically savvy Pirates experiment, even at this point of the season.

And that’s because, with 37 games left, everything is still possible. The good news is that they’ll get McCutchen back from the DL on Tuesday, and Cole should make his return from the DL on Wednesday, in time to face these Braves. Sometime around Sept. 1, they should have Morton back to start for them as well.

As long as the Pirates are within a game or two, when you’re talking about adding that kind of talent, you’re talking about a team with a chance. Last year’s playoff appearance should not be a one-time thing. And after what Pirates fans endured for two decades, you have to hope it wasn’t.

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Pirates-Cardinals. Game 5. Sounds like a good time for our first running diary of the postseason.

Two key stats heading into the game: (1) Adam Wainwright has that great curveball -- batters hit just .171 against it in the regular season -- and the Pirates were 27th in the majors in the regular season in batting average against curveballs; (2) Gerrit Cole has allowed one hit against off-speed pitches since the beginning of September. I’m expecting a low-scoring game, with maybe a bloop and a blast being the difference.

First inning: The talk in Pittsburgh was whether Clint Hurdle should move around his lineup since Starling Marte and Neil Walker, the first two players in the lineup, are a combined 1-for-32 in the series. Hurdle’s rationale to keep things as is: “They’re due.” I see this one both ways, but for me the biggest reason to shuffle the lineup would be that Pedro Alvarez and Russell Martin, hitting sixth and seventh, have been having good at-bats all postseason. Why not move them up in the order to try to get them an extra at-bat? Cleanup hitter Justin Morneau hasn’t homered since joining the Pirates (although with a .363 OBP, maybe it would be wise to move him into Walker’s spot). You could hit Morneau second, move Alvarez to the cleanup spot, keep Marlon Byrd in the five-hole and move Martin up to sixth, sliding Walker down to seventh.
[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
Jeff Curry/USA TODAY SportsGame 5 would wind up being Adam Wainwright's to win … and he did.

Anyway, Wainwright throws two bad curves to Walker (who walks on a 3-2 pitch), but recovers to strike out Andrew McCutchen on a lovely hammer and get Morneau to ground out.

There were reports out there that the Cardinals were licking their chops to get at Cole again, who allowed just two hits and one run (a Yadier Molina home run) in six innings in his Game 2 effort. The Cards didn’t face Cole in the regular season, so maybe having seen him they will have a better approach. Good luck. In his past nine starts, Cole has allowed more than two runs just once.

An easy one-two-three inning for Cole. He gets Carlos Beltran, Mr. October, with a 96 mph called strike at the knees and then what I think was a 90 mph changeup that Beltran pops to short (MLB.com lists the pitch as a cutter, but Cole doesn’t throw one).

Yes, I said 90 mph changeup.

Second inning: Byrd gets a leadoff single but Alvarez stings a line drive right to second baseman Matt Carpenter, with Byrd doubled off after he broke for second on contact. The Cardinals don’t shift a lot but Carpenter was shaded way over toward first, even with a double-play situation.

With two outs, Cole walks Jon Jay on a 3-2 fastball. He gets David Freese to 1-2, throws a slider, low but middle-in, and Freese lines it over the wall in left, drawing a curtain call, and then drawing complaints from angry Pirates fans on Twitter about receiving a curtain call.

Not a terrible pitch, not a great one, but Freese must have been sitting on the slider there. Of course, Freese had that monster postseason for the Cards in 2011 -- 21 RBIs in 18 games – but he’d been 2-for-23 in the playoffs going back to last year before that home run.

I said a bloop and blast, but maybe a walk and a blast. I won’t be surprised if those two runs hold up.

Third inning: Wainwright cruises through Clint Barmes, Cole and Marte, and then Marte makes a spectacular diving catch near the left-field line to rob Matt Carpenter. One thought: Hurdle has pinch hit for the weak-hitting Barmes early in games a couple times in this series. Too early in the third? You’re already behind in the game; you need offense now, not defense. Earl Weaver used to subscribe to that philosophy: Start your good defensive team and then go for offense if you need it. Using Jordy Mercer wouldn’t have been the worst idea, although I can understand not wanting to burn a position player so early in the game.

Fourth inning: Pete Kozma turns into Ozzie Smith and makes two outstanding defensive plays, a diving catch on Walker’s soft liner and then throwing out Morneau, who granted doesn’t exactly run like Usain Bolt. Not looking like the Pirates’ night.

Although ... After Matt Adams singles and Alvarez throws away Molina’s swinging bunt, Cole works out of the second-and-third jam by getting Jay to ground into a fielder’s choice where Adams was thrown out and then striking out Freese looking on 98 mph gas. (Maybe should have thrown that pitch in the second.)

Fifth inning: This game is moving along. Just over an hour. This is not American League East baseball.

The one thing that makes Wainwright’s curve so tough is that he can throw it on any count. While most still prescribe to the basic theory of getting ahead with the fastball and putting hitters away with your off-speed stuff, Wainwright will throw the curve at any time, which allows him to pitch "backwards" at times. And he throws that curve a lot -- the only pitchers who threw more curveballs this season were A.J. Burnett and Bronson Arroyo. But he backs that up with great command of both his fastball and cutter, which is why he walked one batter or none in 24 of his 34 regular-season starts.

Consider this sequence to strike out Alvarez: curveball called strike, cutter for a ball, swing and miss on a curve, 94 mph four-seam fastball fouled off, curve low, swing and miss on another curve. All four of Wainwright’s strikeouts have come on the curve. He’s at 60 pitches through five and the only question may be if it’s still 2-0 in the ninth if Mike Matheny goes to Trevor Rosenthal (my prediction: no).

Sixth inning: Barmes lines a 2-2 high fastball to left for a leadoff single. Easily the worst pitch of the night for Wainwright. Garrett Jones hitting for Cole, which I think is the right call here, even with Cole at only 75 pitches. You need runs and you’re barely getting baserunners and Jones could get lucky and pop one. You have to trust a bullpen that’s been terrific all season.

Jones swings at the first pitch and flies out to center. Marte grounds into a double play. Like I said, should have let Cole hit there.

Well, Hurdle’s strategy backfires. Matt Holliday singles, Molina walks and then Justin Wilson falls behind 2-0 to Jon Jay (the 1-0 pitch a borderline strike) and Jay grounds an RBI single up the middle. I don’t want to say this game is over, but ...
Seventh inning: A breath of life for the Pirates. Morneau reaches on an infield single with two outs when Carpenter slips making the play. Byrd then hits a grounder up the middle but instead of flipping to second baseman Carpenter, Kozma lazily lobs the ball to first and Byrd beats it out.

Pretty much all the Pirates could now ask for at this point: NL home run leader Alvarez up with two runners on. You get the feeling this could be the ballgame.

Curveball and Alvarez can’t hold up.
Curveball in the dirt that Alvarez lays off.
Curveball outside.
92 mph fastball, foul tip. Freese hit the one mistake Cole made. Alvarez just missed launching this into the right-field seats.
Curve way outside. Full count. Drama.
Curveball. Routine grounder to first base ... and hits the bag! Bounces over Adams and scores Morneau. Three straight routine grounders, three infield hits, one run.

Russell Martin, having produced tough at-bats all season, grounds out to Kozma on a first-pitch cutter. Tough six-out inning for Wainwright. Really, the only hard-hit balls off him have been Alvarez’s lineout double play back in the second inning and Barmes’ liner to left.

Eighth inning: It’s 3-1, so the Pirates are at least a bloop and a blast from tying it up. Wainwright is at 88 pitches but this is a guy who led the majors in innings pitched. The Pirates have five hits, only one hit hard. Matheny did get Seth Maness warming up last inning, but I have a feeling this will be Wainwright’s game to win or lose.

The Pirates get their bloop from Jordy Mercer, bringing up Marte with one out. Lines it to Carpenter, Mercer freezes a few steps off first base, Carpenter throws to Adams ... Mercer is called out by first-base ump Paul Nauert. Bang-bang. Let's go to the booth! Oh, wait ...

Initial replays make it appear Mercer was safe. After the commercial break, a frame-by-frame look makes it appear he was out. Either way, Mercer cannot get caught off base there. The split-second hesitation cost him. Second baserunning error of the game for the Pirates.

Then: Game over. Adams annihilates a Mark Melancon pitch for a two-run shot to right. Adams, playing for the injured Allen Craig, a kid from Slippery Rock, Pa., who grew up rooting for the Pirates, just crushed the little bit of hope remaining for Pirates fans.

Ninth inning: The TV broadcast flashes to Pirates fans watching the game on a big screen in Pittsburgh. Makes me a bit sad, but it was a great season, Pittsburgh. You'll be back.

Wainwright finishes it off, striking out Alvarez, a dominant 107-pitch effort. Not a bad trade years ago for St. Louis: The Braves traded away the local kid from Georgia for one year of J.D. Drew. Wainwright was a 22-year-old minor leaguer then who had recorded a 3.37 ERA in Double-A. Now he's one of the best pitchers in baseball, a guy who can carry his team all the way, riding that big, beautiful curveball of his that dances in the night.
Michael Wacha last pitched 13 days ago. You may remember that he was pretty good in that game: He lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning on Ryan Zimmerman's infield single.

Amazingly, in just his 10th career start, Wacha followed up that start with not just the game of his lifetime, but almost the game of anyone's lifetime, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning before Pedro Alvarez crushed a meteor to right-center field with one out. Still, while Wacha was five outs short of the third no-hitter in postseason history, following Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series and Roy Halladay's no-hitter for the Phillies in the 2010 NLDS, his dominant start gave the Cardinals a 2-1 win over the Pirates in Game 4 to even the series.

Many believed the Cardinals should have started Adam Wainwright on three days' rest in this game, but Mike Matheny had ultimate confidence in his young rookie -- just like he has confidence in the five other rookies on his playoff pitching staff. Like Wainwright, Wacha is tall and thin, but while Wainwright relies on that nasty curveball, Wacha's best off-speed pitch is a lethal changeup that makes him extremely tough against left-handed hitters, who hit just .197 off him this season.

On this day, Wacha dumped his curveball and stuck with the fastball and changeup. After an eight-pitch seventh inning, the no-hitter was no longer a fantasy but appeared to be an impending reality. Wacha blew away Marlon Byrd with a 96-mph fastball for the first out. Up stepped Alvarez, who had the big hit in Game 3 and had homered in the first two games. Wacha fell behind 3-1 and, not wanting to walk him to bring up the tying run, threw a 93-mph four-seamer into Alvarez's wheelhouse and Pedro didn't miss, sending it 438 feet into the Pittsburgh afternoon.

After Wacha walked Russell Martin (who has had great at-bats all postseason), his day was done after 96 pitches. The one questionable decision in this game: Matheny turned to Carlos Martinez, one of those rookies, leaving closer Trevor Rosenthal (yet another rookie) in the bullpen. Rosenthal has just recently become the team's closer and had pitched two innings on six occasions, so is certainly capable of going five outs, but Matheny went with the Martinez (who, like Rosenthal, can hit 100 mph with his fastball).

Josh Harrison pinch-ran for Martin and Jose Tabata pinch-hit. On a 2-1 pitch, Clint Hurdle sent Harrison but Tabata missed the pitch on what might have been a hit-and-run. Yadier Molina's one-hop throw was in time to get Harrison, who started his slide too early and looked like he was diving into quicksand. Tabata fanned on a 3-2 curve, quieting the Pittsburgh faithful. I don't have a huge problem sending Harrison there; ahead in the count, Tabata had to be sitting fastball and he's pretty good contact guy. He did get fastball; he just missed.

Pirates fans had one last moment of hope in the ninth when Rosenthal inexplicably walked Neil Walker on four pitches with two outs to bring up Andrew McCutchen. After falling behind 3-0 to McCutchen, he finally got him to pop up to second on a 3-1, 96-mph fastball.

Now Matheny's decision to bypass Wainwright puts the Cardinals in the driver's seat. He has his ace going in Game 5 at home, where Wainwright had a 2.53 ERA. Hurdle will have to decide whether to stick with A.J. Burnett, who got hammered in Game 1, or go with rookie Gerrit Cole, who dominated in his Game 2 start. With the off day on Tuesday, Cole would be pitching on regular rest.

I know what I'd do: As Wacha showed today, have faith in the youngsters. Especially when they have talent on the level of Wacha or Cole.

* * * *

Wacha's final Game Score ended up as 79 ... a great start, although not historical, at least by the Game Score method. Here are the best starts in postseason history by Game Score:

Roger Clemens, 2000 ALCS, Yankees vs. Mariners: 98 (9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 15 SO)
Dave McNally, 1969 ALCS, Orioles vs. Twins: 97 (11 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 11 SO)
Babe Ruth, 1916 WS, Red Sox vs. Robins: 97 (14 IP, 6 H, 1 R, 3 BB, 4 SO)
Tim Lincecum, 2010 NLDS, Giants vs. Braves: 96 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 14 SO)
Roy Halladay, 2010 NLDS, Phillies vs. Reds: 94 (9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 SO)
Don Larsen, 1956 WS, Yankees vs. Dodgers: 94 (9 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 7 SO)
Ed Walsh, 1906 WS, White Sox vs. Cubs: 94 (9 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 12 SO)

Before the postseason, Pedro Alvarez looked like the key guy for the Pittsburgh Pirates, as much as one player can be the key guy (this isn't basketball, after all).

Alvarez is a prodigious slugger -- he tied for the National League lead with 36 home runs -- but he also hit just .233 and led the league with 186 strikeouts. He can carry a team when he gets hot, like he did in June when he hit .309 with 10 home runs and 24 RBIs. But he's also prone to spells of strikeouts and little production, like when he hit .180 in April or a 25-game stretch from late August through into September when he hit .178 with just two homers.

A good sign for the Pirates was Alvarez snapping out of that last slump with two home runs the final weekend of the regular season in Cincinnati. He went 0-for-3 in the wild-card win over the Reds, hitting a sacrifice fly, and then homered for the Pirates' only run in 9-1 loss in Game 1 against the Cardinals and went 2-for-4 with another home run in Game 2.

So Alvarez has been swinging the bat well, which set the stage for two key plate appearances in Sunday's critical Game 3, which ended up a 5-3 victory for the Pirates -- critical because, of the past 15 division series that were tied 1-1, the Game 3 winner has won the series 14 times (the exception being the 2011 Cardinals beating the Phillies).

[+] EnlargePedro Alvarez
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPedro Alvarez's problems with lefties should make him a target for late-game matchups, but he beat the rap on Sunday.
In the sixth inning, with the game deadlocked 2-2, runners at second and third with one out, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had starter Joe Kelly intentionally walk Alvarez and brought in ground-ball specialist Seth Maness to pitch to Russell Martin, who hit a sacrifice fly. You can quibble about Matheny's move here, but it looked like a toss-up: Maness had a double-play rate of 30 percent in possible DP situations; Alvarez had a strikeout rate of 30 percent during the regular season. The third option would have been using lefty Randy Choate to face Alvarez and go for the strikeout, and Choate is basically here to get Alvarez out in a big situation. But again, Maness versus Martin isn't a terrible matchup for St. Louis, even if it did load the bases (which I'm rarely a fan of).

(If anything, the bigger issue was letting Kelly start the inning with Andrew McCutchen leading off. Considering the Cardinals are carrying 12 pitchers on the roster and considering the magnitude of the game, letting Kelly go through the order a third time was the risky move. Numbers show pitchers fare worse the third time through an order, and while Kelly did have a 2.69 ERA for the Cardinals, he also outpitched his peripherals; there was good logic to go with the bullpen to start the inning. McCutchen walked and Marlon Byrd doubled with one out, knocking out Kelly.)

Anyway, Martin hit a sac fly off Maness to give the Pirates a 3-2 lead.

To the eighth inning, after Carlos Beltran homered to tie the game (paging Reggie Jackson: somebody wants to borrow your nickname). Matheny went to rookie Carlos Martinez with McCutchen again leading off -- choosing Martinez over veteran Edward Mujica, the team's closer most of the season who hit the wall in September when he allowed 18 hits and nine runs in 7 1/3 innings.

Martinez just turned 22 and has just 28 innings in the majors but has a monster arm that can hit 100 mph on the radar gun. If they say the postseason is about power pitching then you can't argue too much with this move, and Matheny and the Cards have decided they're going with the kids this October -- installing rookie Trevor Rosenthal as the closer late in the year, giving other key outs to rookie relievers Maness and Kevin Siegrist, and they'll start Michael Wacha, another rookie, in Game 4.

But Martinez is also a bit of a one-pitch guy with an inconsistent curveball and batters did hit .313 off his fastball. McCutchen fouled off a 101-mph heater but Martinez then threw two balls and McCutchen knew what was coming and doubled to left field off a 97-mph heater. Justin Morneau grounded to short, with McCutchen foolishly darting for third where he was easily thrown out. Marlon Byrd walked on a 3-2 curveball -- seven of the eight pitches Martinez threw him were curves, certainly an interesting set of calls by Yadier Molina -- setting the stage for Alvarez.

Matheny correctly went to the hard-throwing lefty Siegrist, who averaged 95 mph and touches 99 on his fastball (where do the Cardinals find all these guys?). Alvarez hit just .180 against left-handers with just three of his 36 home runs. You could argue that Clint Hurdle should have hit for Alvarez, but Alvarez is one of his guys, do or die.

Toeing the rubber, Siegrist threw three fastballs. At 1-1, Alvarez lined the third fastball into right for an RBI single, scoring pinch-runner Josh Harrison. Good decision by Matheny, better result by Alvarez. Russell Martin added another RBI single for the final margin.

One interesting note is how the Pirates played aggressively in the field -- it hurt when McCutchen got caught at third -- and also on the managerial front. Hurdle pinch-hit for shortstop Clint Barmes with Jose Tabata in the sixth when the Pirates led 3-2; with two runners on, he was hoping to get an insurance run and was willing to sacrifice defense. While Matheny waited a couple batters too long to pull Kelly, Hurdle removed Francisco Liriano after six innings, even though he'd allowed just three hits and lefty Jon Jay was leading off the seventh for St. Louis. Liriano was only at 101 pitches, so he could have remained in the game, but Hurdle was not going to wait a batter too long to remove his starter.

Wacha faces Charlie Morton on Monday, and I'd give the pitching edge to Wacha, but the emotional and home-field edge to the Pirates. The Cardinals need leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter (.091, .231 OBP in three games) to get on base in front of Beltran. Both pens are in good shape and with an off day on Tuesday neither manager should hesitate to go to their relievers.

In other words: I expect another key matchup for Mr. Alvarez.
Some quick thoughts on Tuesday's results and a look forward to Wednesday.

Blown opportunity No. 1: The Orioles led the Yankees 4-1 after Chris Davis belted a big two-run homer in the fifth off Ivan Nova, but Alfonso Soriano and Mark Reynolds homered off Miguel Gonzalez in the sixth. Then it got interesting. Kevin Gausman had a one-two-three seventh inning, striking out Lyle Overbay and Brett Gardner, so Buck Showalter brought the rookie back out for the eighth. It's an inning Showalter might manage differently in an alternate universe. Alex Rodriguez doubled to lead off the inning, but Showalter left Gausman in to face Robinson Cano instead of bringing in lefty Brian Matusz. Cano singled to tie the game, and then Soriano homered again. No Matusz, no Tommy Hunter, no Francisco Rodriguez (until the lead had been surrendered). Hunter had pitched the day before but not two days prior. Matusz ended up pitching in the ninth anyway. Showalter put faith in his rookie, but Matusz versus Cano seemed like the obvious matchup there, with Hunter or Rodriguez facing Soriano.

Blown opportunity No. 2: Like the Orioles, the Indians had a chance to pick up a game on the Rays with Tampa Bay losing to Boston. They had 12 hits but grounded into three double plays, and the Royals won 6-3. Carlos Pena did not pinch-hit.

Blown opportunity No. 3: The A's led the Twins 3-2 in the eighth with a chance to pick up a game on the second-place Rangers, who would lose to the Pirates. The A's had lost just four games all season when they led heading into the eighth, but Sean Doolittle gave up a single and Ryan Cook entered to face Josh Willingham, who promptly deposited the baseball on the wrong side of the fence (for Oakland) -- the first homer Cook had allowed to a right-handed batter this season.

Pitching performance of the day: David Price allowed three hits in eight innings for the Rays. Unfortunately, two came in the same inning, as Boston scored twice in the fifth and Clay Buchholz and three relievers combined on a four-hit shutout.

At-bat of the night: Milwaukee's Wily Peralta had a no-hitter going in a 0-0 tie in the sixth inning against St. Louis. With two outs and Matt Carpenter on after a walk, Peralta fired a first-pitch, 95 mph fast one and Matt Holliday crushed it 426 feet to center field. The Cardinals went on to a 4-2 win.

Most important win: The Yankees climbed back to just two games behind the Rays.

Most important loss: Tough one for the Orioles, but at least Tampa Bay also lost. With St. Louis and Pittsburgh both winning, the Reds dropped three games behind the Cards and two behind the Pirates after losing to the Cubs (and Tony Cingrani left in the second inning with a back injury).

Wednesday's best pitching matchup: A.J. Burnett versus Matt Garza (Pirates at Rangers, 2:05 p.m. ET). The Rangers are now 3-8 over their past 11 games, averaging fewer than three runs per game in that stretch. Garza likely needs a big effort as the Pirates go for the sweep. He's allowed four-plus runs in six of his past seven starts, not exactly what the Rangers expected when they traded for him.

Players to watch: Pedro Alvarez, Pirates, and Curtis Granderson, Yankees. Two similar lefty hitters -- home runs when they connect, but connecting can be a problem. Over the past two weeks, Alvarez is hitting .143/.217/.238 and Granderson is hitting .135/.200/.243.

The wild-card game is, of course, a bit mad. Or maybe completely mad. Telling teams they have to play 162 games to get into the playoffs and then one game to stay alive is akin to telling two NFL teams they've made the playoffs after 16 regular-season games and then get six minutes to determine who moves on to the next round.

That's my new name for the wild-card game: Six minutes of hell.

The one positive aspect of the wild-card game is one of its intended results: Winning your division is, of course, paramount. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon explained it succinctly the other day, telling the Tampa Bay Times, "I want us to win the division, period … and avoid that madness."

Madness. That's kind of what we have going on in the NL Central right now, in which the Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are now separated by just 2½ games. The Cardinals and Reds won on Sunday behind dominant pitching performances from Adam Wainwright (11 strikeouts in a 6-1 win over the Cubs) and Homer Bailey (three hits in eight innings against the Brewers), while the Pirates suffered a gut-wrenching 16-inning loss at home to Arizona when rookie Kris Johnson, making his major league debut, finally surrendered two runs in his sixth inning of relief work.

Right now, the Reds are hot, the Pirates are scuffling and the Cardinals are the team everyone bet on at the All-Star break. But it's anybody's race to win, and while all three will likely make the playoffs (the Reds are five games up on the Diamondbacks for the second wild-card slot), only one of the three can win the division. Let's ask some key questions and predict our winner.

Who has the toughest schedule remaining? Here are each team's remaining series against teams currently above .500:

Pirates: STL (3), at STL (3), at TEX (3), CIN (3), at CIN (3)
Cardinals: ATL (4), CIN (3), at PIT (3), at CIN (3), PIT (3)
Reds: ARI (4), at STL (3), STL (3), LAD (3), at PIT (3), PIT (3)

They all have home-and-home series with each other, so no advantage gained there. The Reds have one extra series against a quality opponent, but one big edge they have is 24 of their remaining 38 games are at home and they are 37-20 at home, 33-34 on the road. The Cardinals have a tough slate ahead, beginning Thursday when they have consecutive series against the Braves, Reds, Pirates, Reds and Pirates, but their final 19 games are against current losing teams.

Advantage: Reds and Cardinals. That season-ending stretch should play into the Cards' favor while the Pirates have to finish up at Cincinnati and also have more road games remaining.

Which rotation is hottest? There's no best way to evaluate this, of course, but over the past two weeks, the Reds rotation has the second-best ERA (2.16) in the majors behind the Dodgers. The Pirates are 30th -- worst -- at 6.11. It's only a span of 12 games and includes Francisco Liriano's 10-run blow-up in Colorado but also includes just five quality starts, none by A.J. Burnett or Jeff Locke in five outings between them. Locke was an All-Star, but since the break, he has a 5.58 ERA while allowing more than two baserunners per inning. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has regressed -- as many predicted -- and he's walked 21 in 30⅔ innings.
[+] EnlargeTony Cingrani
AP Photo/Morry GashSlotting Tony Cingrani into the rotation has made the Reds stronger still for the stretch run.

Advantage: Reds. Even though Johnny Cueto isn't healed from his right lat strain, the Reds are clicking on all cylinders. Tony Cingrani, their rookie starter, has outpitched the more highly touted Gerrit Cole of the Pirates with 111 strikeouts and a .191 batting average allowed in 94 innings. When your No. 5 guy is arguably is good as your No. 1, that's a nice rotation.

Hitters who can carry a team: On the season, the Cardinals have scored 578 runs, the Reds 533 and the Pirates 478, although the Reds do gain some runs from their home park while the Pirates lose a few.

Since the All-Star break, however, the Pirates have actually performed as well as the Cards or Reds, with a .311 weighted on-base average (wOBA) versus .299 and .298, respectively. This time of season, you're looking for that guy who can carry a team down the stretch, like Miguel Cabrera last September or Vlad Guerrero in 2005 or Chipper Jones in 1999. If you had to pick one guy from these three teams to do that, I go with MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, who has been one of the best hitters in the majors since the All-Star break with a .355 average and 1.056 OPS.


Which team will win the NL Central?


Discuss (Total votes: 10,905)

But the Pirates have another guy who can go on a hot streak in Pedro Alvarez, co-NL home run leader at 30 with Paul Goldschmidt. Alvarez is hitting .175 in August but hit .309 with 10 home runs in June, which shows what he's capable of when he gets in a groove. A good sign for Alvarez: Cingrani is the only lefty starter the Reds or Cardinals are using right now and Alvarez has hit 27 of his 30 home runs against right-handers.

Advantage: Pirates. Their offense might not look as good on paper, but it's been as good in the second half.

Who has the bullpen advantage? Aroldis Chapman isn't the automatic save he was most of last season, not with five losses (including one on Friday night), seven home runs allowed in 49⅓ innings and a 3.10 ERA. The Pirates have been without Jason Grilli, their All-Star closer, but he hopes to re-join the team in September and Mark Melancon and the other relievers have stepped up in his abscence. The Cardinals' back two of Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica have been dominant all season, and, now, rookie lefty Kevin Siegrist -- eight hits and 33 strikeouts in 24⅓ innings -- is looking like a third weapon out there, averaging 94.5 mph on his fastball and touching 97.

Advantage: None that I see. All three pens are strong. The Pirates have pitched the most relief innings in the majors, so that's an issue; they need Grilli to return healthy and pitching like he was. I love the way Rosenthal and Siegrist are throwing right now, and Cincinnati's pen has settled down after some early struggles.

Enough … make a pick already: The Reds have been the third wheel in this party all season, but they're finally on a good roll, winning nine of 12. This is the time of season when rotation depth plays a huge factor, as legs get tired and arms get sore. I like the way Cincy's five guys are throwing right now, and I like all the home games the Reds have on their schedule.

I'm picking the Reds now to win the division … putting the Pirates and Cardinals into six minutes of hell.

PITTSBURGH -- Baseball has too much on its plate these days to focus exclusively on the exploits of an inspirational team in Pittsburgh. The trade deadline is coming to a head Wednesday. Brian Wilson -- aka “The Beard” -- is about to pitch his way to Chavez Ravine. And there’s still the little matter of that Biogenesis situation left to resolve. According to reports, multiple PED offenders are lining up to accept their suspensions and take a baseball sabbatical for the foreseeable future. They’re the luncheon meat in the middle of a Ryan Braun/Alex Rodriguez contrition sandwich.

Thank goodness for feel-good stories. While Nelson Cruz, Everth Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta prepare to hoist the white flag, the Buccos remain insistent on waving the Jolly Roger.
[+] EnlargePittsburgh Pirates fans
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPirates fans are seeing something they've been waiting 21 years for.

If the Pittsburgh Pirates keep playing this well, they just might outgrow the adjective “pesky.” Early Tuesday evening, Alex Presley hit a ricochet job off reliever Kevin Siegrist’s glove in the 11th inning to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 victory in the opening game of a doubleheader with the St. Louis Cardinals. After grabbing a sandwich and a beverage and changing their jerseys, the Pirates came out and beat St. Louis again, 6-0, to stretch their lead over the Cardinals to 1½ games in the National League Central.

The crowd had thinned considerably by the time Jeanmar Gomez retired David Freese on a routine grounder to shortstop for the final out of the second game. But “Let’s Go Bucs” chants still reverberated through the stands, as a reminder that Pittsburgh fans have overcome their reticence and embraced their team entering its dog day push for the playoffs.

Consider: In their past 17 dates at PNC Park, the Pirates have averaged 33,764 fans. The crowd of 32,084 for the opener of the St. Louis series set a record for a Monday night at PNC.

“We’ve had fans come in drove on the weekends,” second baseman Neil Walker said. “But it’s something else for them to come out for a doubleheader at 4 o’clock on a workday. We’ve always seen what it’s like in places like San Francisco and Philadelphia. It can really be imposing when you go on the road and the place is packed. Now we have that here.”
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Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesPirates players have already celebrated more wins than recent Pirates teams have notched in entire seasons.

The Pirates haven’t been in first place this late in the season since they won their most recent division title in 1992. They’re 34-18 at PNC and 29-17 versus the National League Central this year. They win when Pedro Alvarez hits home runs, and when Andrew McCutchen makes sliding catches, hits home runs and gracefully and breathtakingly covers the 270 feet from first base to home plate on doubles in the gap.

Most of all, the Pirates win when they pitch well -- which is most of the time. In the first three games of a five-game series against St. Louis, the Pirates have outscored the Cardinals 17-3. Manager Mike Matheny’s lineup is batting .155 (16-for-103) with two extra-base hits thus far in the series.

If it’s not Francisco Liriano dealing for the Pirates, it’s A.J. Burnett or Jeff Locke or (feel free to take a break and consult Baseball-Reference.com) Brandon Cumpton.

When Tuesday’s makeup game created the need for an emergency starter, the Pirates recalled Cumpton, a former ninth-round draft pick out of Georgia Tech, from their Triple-A farm club in Indianapolis. He throttled the Cardinals on three hits over seven innings to earn his first major league victory.

Cumpton collaborated with catcher Tony Sanchez, whose main claim to fame to this point in his career was going No. 4 overall in the 2009 draft -- 21 spots ahead of a New Jersey high school outfielder named Mike Trout. Sanchez, a Miami native and Boston College product, has been a disappointment in the minor leagues and admittedly wondered when this day would ever come. He appeared for two games as Pittsburgh’s designated hitter in June, but made his first career start behind the plate against the Cardinals on Tuesday.

“I’m coming out of the bullpen and I have people fist-bumping me and saying, ‘We love you Tony,’” Sanchez said. “For the last few days, everybody back home in Miami kept telling me, ‘This is the biggest series the Pirates have played in the last 20 years.’ I’ve got my uncle telling me, ‘It’s going to be a playoff atmosphere there.’ Like I need that.

“When I came out of the dugout, it was nerve-wracking, overwhelming, all of those things. You feel like all the eyes are on you, because I’m the guy who has struggled the most and this has been such a long road for me. It doesn’t help that you read Twitter and you know people are anticipating your first start.”

By the end of the night, when Sanchez was hugging manager Clint Hurdle and coach Jeff Banister in celebration of the shutout, he got borderline misty. “I didn’t even care that I went 0-for-3,” he said.

The Pirates will get back to the grind Wednesday night when Locke takes on Adam Wainwright. At some point in the day, they can expect GM Neal Huntington to emerge from his bunker with a trade to report or a “stand pat” proclamation. Will Huntington add a reliever to take some of the burden off a bullpen that has logged the sixth heaviest workload in the majors, or a bat to supplement an offense that’s 11th in the NL in runs scored? The Pirates have been linked off and on with the likes of Houston pitcher Bud Norris and Chicago outfielder Alex Rios. But you have to wonder how motivated Huntington is at this point to trifle with what his team has going.

Whatever moves he does or doesn’t make, the fans in Pittsburgh are finding it progressively harder to remain disengaged -- recent late-season fades notwithstanding.

“I just tell them to keep coming out,” said Hurdle, who celebrated his 56th birthday Tuesday. “We love the support. We love the colors. We love the flags. We love the chants.”

Most of all the Pirates love the winning. That feeling is becoming contagious in Pittsburgh.

Eric and myself discuss some first half All-Stars and what to expect from them in the second half.

On the final day of June, on the final day of his first month in the major leagues, the 22-year-old Cuban named Yasiel Puig went 4-for-5 and Los Angeles Dodgers fans cried with joy and poets penned sonnets and the baseball gods shook hands and toasted their work with a cold beverage.

In truth, Puig was a little lucky on this day. Two hits were infield singles off the glove of Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Michael Young, plays that a better third baseman could have made. The triple was blooped to right field, a play that a more agile fielder than Delmon Young could have caught. Then he drilled a line drive between first and second and made it to second base as Young must have been stationed in San Bernadino.

But study those plays: That triple. Do most players make it to third base so easily? That double. The ball never reached the wall and Puig coasted into second like a passenger in a buffet line on a cruise. He added two steals on the day, and in case he hadn't yet fully showcased all his tools this day was a testament to his speed. Hit, hit for power, field, throw, run. The five tools. "He's something special," as my friend Eric e-mailed me Sunday night.

Thank you, baseball gods. We toast as well.

Puig earns our first grade of June, and it's an A+. Can we go higher? He has electrified not only Los Angeles, but baseball fans across the country. He ripped out 44 hits in June, the second-most for a rookie in his first month in the majors behind only Joe DiMaggio's 48 in May of 1936.

It's not that Puig's total of 44 hits in a month are all that unusual in itself -- Adrian Beltre, Manny Machado and Miguel Cabrera each had 44 in May, for example -- but he also hit .436 and the only other players since 2010 to finish a month with at least 44 hits and a .425 average were Josh Hamilton in June of 2010, the aforementioned Young in July of 2010, and Melky Cabrera last May. But those three weren't rookies with essentially two months of minor league action and they didn't have the same out-of-nowhere exhilaration behind them. Puig was the story of June and what a story it was.

More grades for June efforts:

Miguel Cabrera, Tigers: A+. He hit .378/.492/.704 in June with nine home runs and 21 RBIs. Cabrera's wRC+ -- an advanced hitting metric that compares him to a league average hitter of 100 (adjusted for home park) -- is 207. That currently ranks as the eighth-highest wRC+ since World War II ended, with three guys named Bonds, Williams and Mantle ahead of him. It's an all-time great season at the plate in progress, even better than his Triple Crown numbers of last year, and there's nothing unsustainable here going on. Cabrera, for example, had 31 "well-hit" balls in June compared to 19 for Puig.

Mike Trout, Angels: A. Trout matched Cabrera's MLB-leading total of 31 well-hit balls and hit .358/.433/.541, just in case you were forgetting that he's still pretty good. Despite Trout's big month, the Angels still earn just a C- for going 14-13 in June, a record gained only by winning their final six games of the month. They're still nine games behind the division-leading Rangers (and 8.5 behind the A's) at 39-43, but if there's one hope for Angels fans it's that they still have 13 games left against both teams.

Jason Kipnis, Indians: A+. After an eight-game losing streak early in June, the Indians went on a 14-5 run thanks in large part to Kipnis, who hit .419/.517/.699 for June -- with four home runs and 25 RBIs. As with Puig, the "well-hit" average suggests some luck involved but that luck may have earned Kipnis a trip to the All-Star Game.

[+] EnlargeIchiro Suzuki
Patrick Smith/Getty ImagesAfter a hot start, the Yankees have cooled off and had one of the worst records in baseball during June.
New York Yankees: D-. The Yankees went 11-16 -- only the White Sox and Giants had a worse record in June -- but that doesn't tell how poorly the Yankees played. Or shall we say how poorly the Yankees hit. At minus-34 runs, they had the worst run differential thanks to a .223 average (29th in the majors) and .330 slugging percentage (last). They hit three home runs against left-handed pitchers in 301 at-bats.

San Francisco Giants: F. The Giants went 10-17 and scored the fewest runs in the National League. They hit 14 home runs, fewest in the majors, and drew 57 walks, 27th in the majors. No power and not getting on base via walks equals a bad combo. But in the NL West they're still just 3 games out.

Chase Headley, Padres: D-. Last year's NL RBI leader continued to struggle, hitting .183/.270/.257 with one home run. The Padres have a shot in the wide-open NL West but need Headley to go on a second-half tear like he did a year ago.

Jeff Locke, Pirates: A-. At 17-9, the Pirates tied the Blue Jays for the best record in June (including winning their ninth in a row on Sunday). Locke was just 2-0 but with a 1.67 ERA in five starts. He has been the stabilizing influence in the rotation as he has held opponents to a .199 average on the season. OK, his .228 BABIP is second-lowest among starters and maybe he'll regress, but he's proving to be a better pitcher than anyone projected, relying on a sinking fastball (he throws his fastball 67 percent of the time, ninth-most among starters).

Justin Verlander, Tigers: C. A 3.92 ERA in June, following a 6.41 ERA in May. Over the past two months, batters are hitting .382 off his fastball and has 21 walks and just 15 strikeouts in plate appearances ending with the pitch. Last year, batters hit .253 off it and he had more than twice as many K's as walks.

Jose Fernandez, Marlins: A. Shelby Miller got the early hype for rookie pitchers, but Fernandez quietly posted a 1.67 in June -- tied with Locke for best in the majors. He allowed just two doubles and no home runs in the month. His team is going nowhere but he may end up as the best rookie pitcher in the majors this year.

Michael Cuddyer, Rockies: A-. He played 23 games in June and hit in all 23, extending his hitting streak to 27 games.

Pedro Alvarez, Pirates: B+. He hit .309 with 10 home runs and knocked in 24 runs and his defense is drawing improved reviews. The strikeouts are still extreme -- 35 in 26 games -- so I'm not saying he has turned a corner just yet. But when he goes on a streak he can help carry a team like he did in June. Plus, his home runs can go a long way, like this one from Saturday. (He leads the majors with nine "no doubt" home runs via the ESPN Home Run Tracker.)

Ian Kennedy, Diamondbacks: D. Kennedy's 6.83 ERA was second-worst among starters and he continues to fall further away from the guy who won 21 games in 2011.

Jay Bruce, Reds: B+. He got off to a slow start with one home run in April but hit seven in May and 10 in June, including this 472-foot blast, the longest of the month. He's now sixth in the majors with 43 extra-base hits.

Andrelton Simmons, Braves: B. OK, the bat is a work in progress, but the glove keeps making plays like this.

Chris Davis and Manny Machado, Orioles: A. Thirty-one home runs. (Are you kidding me?) Thirty-eight doubles. (Are you kidding me?) Good stuff. Great month. Three more to go before the playoffs.

Pirates first to 50, but they're no fluke

June, 30, 2013

First team to 50 wins, the Pittsburgh Pirates? For reals? Legit? By getting there behind Francisco Liriano’s start, a deep pen’s collective hold and save, and the homers hit by Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones, today’s Pirates might have done something no Pirates team has done since the franchise's 1960 championship squad.

Holy moly, we might be witnessing the end of professional sports’ longest, dimmest dark age, not least in terms of Steel City baseball history. Praise be that it might be done for; never have so many suffered for so long to so little reward. A generation of children born in Pittsburgh since the Pirates’ last winning season and postseason appearance have already been eligible to vote since the Buccos’ major-sports record of 20 consecutive losing seasons -- the past six with the Nutting family running the show -- got started. Give it much longer, and they’d have been graduating from college en masse. Say what you will about Cubs fans, but they’ve never had to endure something like this.

It might all seem improbable enough. But by notching his seventh win in Saturday's 2-1 victory over visiting Milwaukee, Liriano is making it clear that his initial strong start is not the flashy return from yet another injury, followed by a predictable fade. He’s notched five quality starts in his past six turns. His walk rate isn’t just down by 1.5 free passes per nine, it’s down below 3.5 BB/9, at which it was when he was helping pitch the Minnesota Twins into one-game playoffs and contention. As easy as it might be to write off Liriano as flaky, this is the guy who was once the sixth-best prospect in baseball (per Baseball America before 2006), and after a year lost to Tommy John surgery on his elbow plus five different 15-day disabled-list stints for shoulder woes and arm soreness, there comes a point at which you have to stop calling the guy flaky and recognize the talent he’s capable of showing when he’s healthy, as infrequent as that might be.

But there’s the rub: That fragility is part of what made him a Pirate, but that talent is part of why the Buccos were smart to get him. The fascinating thing about the Pirates making the leap from sub-mediocrity to best record in baseball isn’t that it’s a surprise. It’s that they have the talent to make it so.

These Pirates aren’t some ragamuffin band of misfit toys -- they are not the Oakland A’s of "Moneyball" legend or present-day fact. This is a team built around past top prospects, whether they belonged to the Pirates or others. Guys like Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker and Alvarez and Gerrit Cole are men that they picked and any team might envy; faded former studs like A.J. Burnett and Liriano and even a well-traveled veteran like closer Jason Grilli -- if you go back to the ’90s and his pedigree as a Giants farmhand 15 years ago -- are past top prospects who they have picked up, recognizing who they’ve been and what they might still be capable of.

[+] EnlargeJason Grilli
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsA Jason Grilli save is worth just as much in the standings as any other save, so why pay more than you have to?
Never mind that they’re rattling off wins while either three- or four-fifths of their rotation is on the DL. (That depends on how you feel about Jeff Karstens’ place on the depth chart.) With Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez due back from the DL within a week’s time, that just means Pittsburgh has the kind of depth in its rotation to sustain big weeks, big months and big seasons, no matter how well or badly its lineup is doing. Add their in-season fixes like switching from the oh-so-glovely Clint Barmes to better everyday option Jordy Mercer at shortstop, and it’s clear the Pirates are willing to fix things on the fly to aim for targets that might once have seemed sky-high.

But that’s the thing. As much as things are going right by reaching 50 wins first, for all that, these really aren’t your daddy’s Pirates. And why is that? How is it that the franchise of Dave Parker, or Roberto Clemente, or Paul Waner, as proud a legacy of right-field greatness as any team this side of Babe Ruth’s employers, could be producing a collective .656 OPS before Saturday’s action?

That’s the lowest RF mark in the National League, the worst among NL corner outfielders (even the Juan Pierre-hobbled Marlins), and worse production than 10 teams in the NL are getting from their center fielders. This is even more epically awful when you consider that right field is supposed to be one of your best run-producing slots, with production that bounces around the standard set by first basemen. It is a huge part of the reason the Pirates rank just 10th in the NL in runs scored per game, and it’s the most obvious fix that, once addressed, would provide a platform for them to really romp in the second half, something that goes beyond just hoping that the rotation's depth and McCutchen's inevitable monster month carry them.

The Pirates’ right-field issue is the biggest problem slot in any outfield in the National League, whether you’re just talking contenders or not -- and the Pirates, despite their recent history for second-half fades, have earned the right to be called contenders. So this isn’t just something on general manager Neal Huntington’s eventual to-do list -- it’s important, and it’s important right now. This is not a problem you solve by getting Jose Tabata back from the DL next week; it certainly isn’t something you settle for patching up by grabbing Jeff Francoeur off waivers and hoping he forgets he’s Jeff Francoeur for a few months. This requires a bold stroke in the same way that breaking from two decades of below-.500 baseball demands something more than an 82-win season.

If you think this is a coming-of-age trade deadline coming up for the Pirates, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that Huntington has actually been fairly aggressive at the deadline in recent seasons -- striking deals for Rodriguez, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider last season and Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick in 2011.

So as far as that goes, the Pirates have proven more than willing to play in the inexpensive end of the deadline market when it comes to the self-improvement sweepstakes. But what would it mean if the people signing the checks would pony up the cash to add a premium bat for right field? Everything. Or Nutting.

The Pirates will be defined not by their ambitions, but by their actions. As brilliant as those have been on the field, here’s hoping that they’re matched by off-field machinations in the month to come. The good folks in Pittsburgh deserve nothing less.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

The Pittsburgh Pirates: From A to Z

June, 27, 2013
Pirates celebrateOtto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe Pirates began Thursday at 48-30, tied with St. Louis for baseball's best record.

The Pirates -- the Pittsburgh Pirates -- have the best record in baseball. In late June.

Want to jump aboard the bandwagon? Here's everything you need to know about baseball's best team (as of this writing).

A -- Andrew McCutchen: Pittsburgh's center fielder is the face of the franchise. He even made the cover of "MLB 13 The Show" this year thanks to fan voting. And it was legitimate voting, not like when the mean kids in high school vote an unpopular girl prom queen as a prank. Almost all of McCutchen's offensive numbers so far are well off the pace of his 2012 career highs, yet the Pirates are still winning, and winning a lot. This is the most balanced Pirates team in decades -- excluding the many Pirates teams that achieved perfect roster garbage equilibrium, of course.

B -- Base-stealing: The Pirates have caught 28 percent of attempted base-stealers this year, good for 13th in baseball. What's so great about that? It's a massive improvement over last year, when they were dead last at 11 percent and caught just 19 baserunners attempting to steal -- the lowest total in baseball in 50 years. The reason for the improvement is twofold. New catcher Russell Martin has a better arm than Rod Barajas, and the organization has decided that ignoring baserunners and focusing solely on the hitter, thereby letting every even mildly ambulatory opposing player who reached first to jog to second, was probably not the best approach. Good thinking!

C -- Cole: The Pirates drafted Gerrit Cole with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft. He made his major league debut two weeks ago and struck out the first batter he faced on three pitches. He later broke a scoreless tie with a two-run single. With three starts under his belt, Cole is 3-0 with a 3.44 ERA. On Tuesday against the Angels, he became the first starter not named Justin Verlander to hit 101 on the gun since 2008. He probably should call Kate Upton.

D -- Division: The National League Central has long been considered one of baseball's weakest divisions, even though it has produced two of the past seven World Series champions and four of the past nine NL champs. But this season, the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds mean the Central has three of the four best records in baseball. Just imagine if they still got to feast off the Astros 15 times a year.

E -- Errors: The Pirates have the seventh-most errors in baseball this season, so that's a definite area for improvement. Errors go both ways, however, as the Pirates know well.

F -- Francisco Liriano: The Pirates agreed to a two-year, $12.75 million contract with Liriano in December, but that contract was renegotiated -- under more favorable terms for the Pirates -- after Liriano broke his arm playing with his kids. Liriano is now 6-3 with a 2.30 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and 10.0 K/9. A year ago the Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett, who promptly broke his face bunting in spring training and then had a very good season. The lesson is this: If the Pirates sign a veteran pitcher everyone has given up on and then he sustains a comical injury, watch out.

G -- Grilli: The fourth overall pick by the Giants in the 1997 draft, 36-year-old Jason Grilli was given the closer's job this season after Pittsburgh traded Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox. Grilli leads the National League in saves and has an absurd 15.1 K/9. Hanrahan underwent Tommy John surgery in May. It's a strange world when good fortune shines on the Pittsburgh Pirates.

H -- Hurdle: Manager Clint Hurdle has managed to keep the Pirates positive in the wake of last season's historic collapse. Even better, he no longer has the Pirates bunting every time a guy gets on first base.

I -- Inge: Do the Pirates have the best record in baseball because they are pitching well and getting timely hitting? Or is it because of the INGETANGIBLES provided by Brandon Inge? Inge has a .207/.232/.272 slash line, which only further highlights his intangibles.

J -- Jordy Mercer: One of Pittsburgh's biggest weaknesses was thought to be that Clint Barmes provides zero offense from the shortstop position. Barmes has continued to provide zero offense, but now he does it from the bench. Since the 26-year-old Mercer took over at shortstop full time two weeks ago, he has hit .326. While Barmes has a higher OBP than Inge, his name unfortunately doesn't work well with intangibles-related word play.

K -- Kansas City Royals: If the Pirates finally end their streak of losing seasons -- they need to play just .404 baseball from here on out to do so -- the Royals will take over as the baseball team with the most consecutive losing seasons. In football, the Raiders have the longest streak of .500 or worse seasons, because the Raiders.

[+] EnlargeJeff Locke
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesLefty Jeff Locke could go from maybe-fifth-starter material to the All-Star team.
L -- Locke: Twenty-five year-old Jeff Locke entered spring training as one of the options for the fifth spot in Pittsburgh's rotation. He's now 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA and a 1.11 WHIP and kind of has to be put on the All-Star team. He seems to be holding the team's depth chart upside-down.

M -- "Million Dollar Arm": "Million Dollar Arm," a Disney film starring Jon Hamm as J.B. Bernstein, the agent who signed Indian pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, is set to be released in 2014. The movie could have an even happier Disney ending if the team that signed Singh and Patel turns out to not be the laughingstock of baseball.

N -- Nineteen Ninety-Two: It's the year burned into the psyche of every Pirates fan. 1992: The last year the Pirates made the playoffs. 1992: The last year the Pirates had a winning season. 1992: When the sadness began. How long ago is 1992? Jaromir Jagr played in the Stanley Cup finals then. OK, maybe not the best example. But it's a long time ago.

O -- Organizational strength: Not only do the Pirates have the best record in major league baseball, but their Triple-A team has the best record in its league. Baseball America rated their farm system seventh-best at the start of the season, which was before the Pirates brought in two more first-round talents in the June draft. They also have McCutchen signed through 2018. It's going to be really hard to screw this up.

P -- Pedro Alvarez: The former No. 2 overall pick may never hit for average or even get on base much, but when he does connect, the ball often lands in a faraway land. If you want to compare Alvarez to a great Pedro from baseball history, go with Cerrano.

Q -- Quacks: The Pirates made news in the offseason when their bizarre practice of putting prospects through a "hell week" of Navy SEALs-style training was revealed. Of course, if the Pirates end the season with the best record in baseball, expect every organization to start doing this. It's a copycat league. Disagree with me and you owe me 75 pushups.

R – Rotation: In Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Cole, Charlie Morton, Locke, Liriano and Jeanmar Gomez, the Pirates have seven solid starters at their disposal, with James McDonald and Jeff Karstens set to come off the disabled list later this season for a total of nine. When Pirates general manager Neal Huntington took the job, Pittsburgh's rotation featured Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Matt Morris, Tom Gorzelanny and John Van Benschoten. An improvement, wouldn't you agree?

S -- Starling Marte: In his first full season in the majors, 24-year-old leadoff hitter Starling Marte is making headlines with a .340 OBP, 22 steals and eight home runs. His name also has "Star" in it and Marte loosely rhymes with "party," so he is a pun-loving headline writer's dream.

T -- Trades: Last season, the Pirates made the biggest trade deadline acquisition in their history by getting Rodriguez from the Astros. It was a fine deal for Pittsburgh, but Rodriguez isn't the kind of player who shifts the balance of power in baseball. Making a play for Giancarlo Stanton, however, as ESPN.com's David Schoenfield suggested? Yeah, that would do it. The Pirates have plenty of prospects and pitching to make a major deal happen. The one downside: If the Pittsburgh Pirates become heavy World Series favorites, the world probably ends. So there's that.

U -- Underwater: On June 1, Garrett Jones became the first Pirates player -- and second player in PNC Park history -- to hit a home run into the Allegheny River on the fly. Pirates ownership didn't even demand that he reimburse them for the lost ball, which is definitely a positive sign.

V -- Voting: No Pirates are currently on pace to start in the All-Star Game. Is there a better indicator that the team is relevant than getting ignored by All-Star voters? Also, is Cal Ripken still getting All-Star votes? I'm too afraid to look.

W -- Walker: Neil Walker is Pittsburgh’s second baseman. He is also from Pittsburgh. His nickname is the Pittsburgh Kid. Disparage him in any way at your own risk.

X -- eXplode: Burnett's rosin bag exploded in Pittsburgh's season opener.

Normally that would be a bad omen for the Pirates. But they played the Cubs that day, so the Cubs probably sucked up all the negativity in the environment like the sponge of failure that they are.

Y -- Yankees: When Russell Martin signed with the Pirates in the offseason because the Yankees didn't make a comparable offer, he was clearly disappointed to leave the pinstripes. Now the Pirates look clearly superior to the Yankees. There is no one of sound mind who can't enjoy that.

Z -- Zoltan: The Pirates make the "Zoltan" sign -- it's a reference to "Dude, Where's My Car?" ... don't ask -- when they get a big hit. Zoltan also served as the Z in an article very much like this around this very time last season, in which someone wrote that the 2012 Pirates probably wouldn't collapse like the 2011 Pirates because "there are big differences between the 2012 Pirates and 2011 Pirates." Ooof. So, yeah. We’ll see what happens. All aboard the bandwagon! For now. Know that the exits are clearly marked.

DJ Gallo founded SportsPickle.com and has been a staff writer for ESPN's Page 2 and Playbook.
Is there a more up-and-down team this year than the Cleveland Indians? They started 5-10, but from April 28 through May 20 they went 18-4 to climb into first place. That was followed by seven losses in eight games and then an eight-game losing streak that dropped them three games under .500. Now they've won nine of 12 after beating the Orioles 5-2 on Monday night.

The Indians are an interesting team in that they have a deep lineup but no obvious star; part-time outfielder Ryan Raburn is the only player slugging above .500. Justin Masterson has been their best starter, but he ranks just 15th in the American League in ERA. He's probably their most likely All-Star representative with his 9-5 record. However, the Indians have two other players who are worthy of All-Star consideration but are unlikely to find a spot on the roster.

The first is catcher Carlos Santana. With all the attention given this offseason to signing free agents Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn and Mark Reynolds, Santana still feels like the fulcrum of the Cleveland offense. He's hitting .276/.385/.476 and is seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, thanks to 43 walks (ranking behind only Miguel Cabrera's 47). Santana's defense takes a lot of knocks; he's started 11 games at first base and 13 at DH as Terry Francona keeps his bat in the lineup, and his caught-stealing percentage has dropped off dramatically this year, from a respectable 26 percent in 2012 (league average was 25 percent) to 12 percent. The Indians lead the league in wild pitches, and considering backup catcher Yan Gomes has thrown out nine of 16 base stealers, Santana might see even more time away from catcher in the second half.

[+] EnlargeCleveland's Carlos Santana
David Richard/USA TODAY SportsCarlos Santana's defensive reputation could keep him off of the All-Star team.
It's that defensive reputation that will likley keep him off the All-Star team. Joe Mauer looks like he'll be voted in as the starter and Matt Wieters will probably get the backup nod via the players' ballot. If there's a third catcher chosen it's more likely to be Jason Castro as the Astros' representative.

Jason Kipnis is quietly having a solid season as well. Compare these batting lines:

Kipnis: .282/.360/.486
Robinson Cano: .276/.354/.497
Dustin Pedroia: .311/.394/.418

Kipnis has nine home runs to Cano's 16, but has more extra-base hits, 32 to 31. He's stolen 17 of 22 bases. Kipnis had a solid first full season last year (4.0 WAR), but you'll remember that he started off red hot before fading. This year, he hit just .200 in April, but then blasted seven home runs in May and is hitting .392 in June. Cano and Pedroia are probably All-Star locks, but if the AL can find room for a third second baseman, Kipnis deserves consideration.

Here are other players flying under the radar who deserve All-Star consideration but have little chance of making a squad. (And here's a piece from Tommy Rancel arguing the case for a few middle relievers to make it.)

Kyle Seager, Mariners
In a league with Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Manny Machado, Adrian Beltre and Josh Donaldson at third base, Seager has no shot of making the All-Star Game, but he's quietly developed into the best position player on the Mariners. His WAR ranks 19th among AL position players on Baseball-Reference (2.2) and 11th on FanGraphs (2.7), ahead of Beltre on both sites. With 22 doubles and nine home runs, Seager sprays line drives all over the field, and has put up solid numbers despite playing in Seattle; seven of his nine home runs have come on the road.

James Shields, Royals
The 2-6 record means Shields can enjoy some hunting and fishing over the All-Star break, but the move from Tampa to Kansas City hasn't cut into his effectiveness. With a 2.92 ERA and league-leading 111 innings, he's been exactly what the Royals desired: a staff leader and a staff ace. Amazingly, Shields is winless (0-4) in his last 10 starts despite allowing only 23 runs. That doesn't mean he hasn't helped the Royals win, however; he has five straight no-decisions but the Royals won all five games.

Brett Gardner, Yankees
Adam Jones, Mike Trout and Nick Markakis lead the fan balloting in what is a lackluster year for AL outfielders. Despite playing for the Yankees, Gardner isn't in the top 15. After missing most of last season, Gardner has returned with more power; he has 28 extra-base hits, nearly equal the 34 he had during all of 2011. But what really ramps up his value is excellent defense in center field. In a game that matters, Gardner could be a late-inning defensive replacement, pinch runner or pinch hitter who will grind out an at-bat. You know, if managers actually played to win instead of just getting everyone into the game.

Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
Carpenter doesn't just lead NL second basemen in WAR -- he leads most NL position players in WAR. He's 10th on B-R and fifth on FanGraphs thanks to a .403 OBP and smooth transition defensively from third base. Brandon Phillips and Marco Scutaro are ranked 1-2 in fan voting and Chase Utley got off to a good start that could land him the backup job via the players' ballot, so it's going to be difficult to find room for Carpenter.

Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks
Carlos Beltran, Justin Upton and Bryce Harper lead the fan balloting, none of whom really deserve to start (although they aren't terrible choices). Once you include Carlos Gonzalez, Carlos Gomez, Andrew McCutchen and maybe Ryan Braun, that leaves Parra as a long shot. He's hitting .315/.378/.480, ranks second in the NL with 24 doubles and plays superb defense at all three outfield spots. Like Gardner, he would be an excellent late-game defensive sub or pinch hitter. Just don't ask him to steal: He's 6-for-15 trying to steal.

Pedro Alvarez, Pirates
Over the past calendar year, Alvarez is tied with Jay Bruce for the most home runs in the National League with 36. His .237 average and .303 OBP don't scream "All-Star," but he does have 19 homers and is slugging .572 versus right-hand pitchers. With Ryan Zimmerman struggling on defense and Pablo Sandoval having a mediocre year at the plate, Alvarez has a decent case as the backup to David Wright, but Zimmerman or Sandoval probably gets the nod.

Travis Wood/Jeff Samardzija, Cubs
I'm assuming one or the other will be the Cubs' rep, but both have good cases to make it, even though Wood is 5-6 and Samardzija is 5-7. They succeed in different ways. Wood is an extreme fly ball pitcher who limits hits despite a ho-hum strikeout rate; Samardzija is pure power, with 115 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings. With 14 NL starters currently sporting an ERA under 3.00, somebody is going to get squeezed.
Quick thoughts on Tuesday's slate of games ...
  • The Blue Jays belted three home runs off the Rockies' Jeff Francis (why is he still in their rotation?) in an 8-3 win, their seventh in a row. Now 34-36, the Jays are 8.5 out of first place -- although still in last place in the AL East. Can they really climb back into the playoff race? Well, let's do some quick math. With 92 games left, the Jays will have to go 58-34 the rest of the way to win 90, a .630 winning percentage (or 102-win pace over 162). Jose Reyes has begun his rehab in Class A, so he'll be back soon. Brandon Morrow suffered the same forearm soreness in his rehab start on Monday so his return remains down the road. Currently, we have the Jays' odds of making the playoffs at 17 percent; the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report had the Jays at six percent before Tuesday. While catching Boston will be difficult (if Boston plays .500 ball, the Jays have to win 17 more in a row to catch them), I think the Jays can make it an interesting summer in Toronto and get in the wild-card hunt.
  • Here's Adam Rubin's report on Zack Wheeler's impressive major league debut for the Mets. Wheeler or Gerrit Cole? My quick impression after watching both debuts is that I'd take Wheeler first, although one follower on Twitter suggested Wheeler's box score line looked like a Daniel Cabrera line: five walks, seven strikeouts. He certainly has to improve his command but he has a lot of life and run on his fastball. Cole's heater, on the other hand, is very straight, one reason he has just three strikeouts through his first two starts. Anyway, one or two starts don't mean anything, other than at least Mets fans two days a week the rest of the year to watch exciting baseball. Here's a good breakdown on Cole from Andrew Shen of Beyond the Box Score.
  • Speaking of the Mets, Matt Harvey was dominant in the first game of their doubleheader sweep of the Braves, taking a no-hitter into the seventh before tiring. He struck out Jason Heyward in the first on a pitch clocked at 100.1 mph -- the fastest pitch by a starting pitcher this year.
  • The legend of Paul Goldschmidt continues to grow as he hit a walk-off homer to lift the Diamondbacks to a 3-2 win over the Marlins. That's five go-ahead home runs in the eighth inning or later. That's how you win MVP Awards.
  • Nice win for the Pirates, a 4-0 shutout of the Reds to hand Mat Latos his first loss. The Pirates are scraping together a rotation right now with A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Jeanmar Gomez all on the DL, but Charlie Morton, in his second start since returning from elbow surgery, stepped up with 5.1 scoreless innings. It was the Pirates' MLB-leading 12th shutout. By the way, over the last calendar year, Pedro Alvarez leads all NL hitters with 33 home runs.
  • Mark Simon wrote about Carlos Gomez's ability to go back on balls last week. He did this Tuesday in Houston, running up that ridiculous hill to make one of the great catches of the season.
  • Jonny Gomes hit a dramatic walk-off homer to give the Red Sox a doubleheader sweep over the Rays. Don't miss the punt he gives his helmet as he trots home.
  • Tough loss for the Padres to see their seven-game winning streak end as the Giants scored twice in the bottom of the eighth to win 5-4. Juan Perez, filling in for the injured Angel Pagan, had two big plays, throwing a runner out at home and hitting the go-ahead single.
  • Yu Darvish is winless over his past six starts -- but he has a 2.66 ERA. Run support, my friends.
  • Another rough night for Josh Hamilton in the Angels' 3-2, 10-inning loss to Seattle. He went 0-for-5, grounded into three double plays, and struck out with runners in scoring position in the seventh and ninth. He's hitting .213/.269/.388 and over a calendar year is hitting .235 with a .302 OBP.

Finally, the torment and distress of the blogging world will be put to rest: Wil Myers is heading to the big leagues.

After hitting .314 with 37 home runs in the minors last year with Kansas City, many believed Tampa Bay's big offseason acquisition should have opened the season with the Rays. But they sent him back to Triple-A for more seasoning; most insisted the Rays were simply looking to save money for the future. By delaying his service time the Rays can push back his arbitration eligibility by a season, potentially saving a few million in the process if Myers develops into a good player.

That net gain, however, possibly resulted in a net loss so far on the field. Luke Scott, Ryan Roberts, Sam Fuld and Shelley Duncan have combined for 447 plate appearances with a .217 average, 10 home runs and -0.2 WAR. Myers wouldn’t have replaced all their playing time, but if he’d been with the Rays since Opening Day and played regularly he would have used up about 275 of the PAs and presumably hit better than replacement level. Not playing Myers may have cost the Rays a win, and that’s being conservative based on his potential production.

Of course, the Rays traditionally are more cautious in promoting their prospects. Yes, they’re pinching pennies, but they also want their players to be major league ready. Remember when David Price pitched out of the bullpen and dominated in the 2008 playoffs? He still made eight Triple-A starts the following season. Desmond Jennings had more than 1,000 plate appearances in Triple-A. When Matt Moore was blowing through Double-A and Triple-A in 2011, the Rays resisted the urge to promote him.

Other organizations hold a different philosophy. The Braves, for example, broke camp with Jason Heyward as their starting right fielder in 2010 even though he had just 50 games above Double-A. Freddie Freeman was the team’s first baseman in 2011 even though he was just 21. Evan Gattis had barely 200 PAs in Double-A last year but has been a huge asset to the big league club.

"We felt like now was the right time," Rays VP Andrew Friedman said of promoting Myers now. "He made some real adjustments in the last six weeks and that really stood out to us. It was something we were monitoring very closely."

Presumably, some of those adjustments, at least in part, included cutting down on his strikeouts. Myers fanned 140 times in the minors last year, striking out in 23.7 percent of his PAs. His strikeout rate has been the same this year -- 24.6 percent -- but has been down to 16 percent in June, during which he has hit .339/.377/.696, after hitting .289 in April and .255 in May.

Whether his improved performance has been the result of adjustments or just riding a hot streak remains to be seen. With the fewer strikeouts have also come fewer walks, so it could be a more aggressive approach at the plate or just better contact. It could just be a 22-year-old kid getting focused after disappointingly being sent down to the minors.

How will Myers do? I can’t answer that question but we can look at some comparable call-ups. Myers was the No. 4 prospect before the season on both Keith Law’s and Baseball America’s top 100 list, so I looked up the before and after results of other top-15 position players prospects who were called up around June 1 in recent seasons. (So the chart below doesn’t include players like Heyward, Freeman, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout and Travis Snider -- yes, he was a top-10 prospect -- who started the year in the majors or got called up early.)

The reason I wrote above about Myers' strikeouts is because the strikeouts are clearly a concern. In looking at his walk and strikeout rates, the most comparable player for Myers is Pedro Alvarez, and that's probably not the player the Rays and prospect hounds hope Myers will turn into. But they're pretty similar and I can see Myers developing along the Alvarez path as a low-average, high-power guy if he doesn't cut down on his whiffs. Myers is a year younger than when Alvarez reached the majors, so keep in mind he does have a year of growth ahead of him.

As for 2013, six of the 10 players in the chart produced an OPS+ above league average. Carlos Santana actually had the best followed by Buster Posey. Myers' minor league numbers don't compare with theirs, even when you adjust Posey's Pacific Coast League-inflated totals. Again, something like what Alvarez did his rookie season -- .256/.326/.461 -- seems reasonable. That's not great, but it's a lot better than what the Rays have been getting from Luke Scott & Co.

Of course, if the Rays are to improve, it's not Myers they need to rely upon. They need to get Price back and get Jeremy Hellickson figured out and decide whether to ditch Roberto Hernandez. Because if the rotation doesn't improve this team isn't going anywhere, no matter what Myers does.

Offseason report card: Pirates

February, 15, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 79-83 (78-84 Pythagorean)
651 runs scored (10th in NL)
674 runs allowed (7th in NL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agents Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. Re-signed free agent Jason Grilli. Traded Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to Boston for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel. Acquired Clint Robinson and Vin Mazzaro from the Royals. Lost free agents Kevin Correia and Rod Barajas.

What, you expected the Pirates to sign Josh Hamilton, Zack Greinke and Kyle Lohse? The Neal Huntington regime began in late September 2007. The GM took over a club that won 68 games and has won 67, 62, 57, 72 and 79 games. I guess that's progress. The club he inherited wasn't completely without talent, at least on offense:

--Jose Bautista: Traded in 2008 for Robinzon Diaz.
--Jason Bay: Traded in 2008 in a three-way deal. Pirates got Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris. Also known as the poo-poo platter (although Moss resurfaced with Oakland last year and played well).
--Adam LaRoche: Traded in 2009 for Hunter Strickland and Argenis Diaz.
--Freddy Sanchez: Traded in 2009 for Tim Alderson.
--Jack Wilson: Hit .296 in '07. Traded in 2009 with Ian Snell for Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno and two minor leaguers.

Look, Huntington took over a wreck of a franchise. The farm system did have Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, but not much else. But Huntington had five players with some value (six if you include Xavier Nady, who had a decent 2007), traded all of them, and got nothing in return. That's one reason the Pirates are still where they're at today.

Huntington's first draft pick was Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick in 2008. It took longer than expected, but he finally produced a decent season with 30 home runs in 2012. Still, he's hardly a star, hitting .244 last year with mediocre defense and no value on the bases. Buster Posey went a couple picks later. The Pirates selected catcher Tony Sanchez with the fourth pick in 2009, a choice widely panned at the time. He hasn't hit much in the minors (.268 AVG/.365 OBP/.403 SLG). With the second pick in 2010, the Pirates selected pitcher Jameson Taillon, who looks good, although Manny Machado was the next pick. Gerrit Cole was the first overall pick in 2011 and should reach the majors this year. Behind those two upside arms, Keith Law ranked the Pirates' system seventh overall Insider.

Will that be enough to save the Huntington regime? After contending into July the past two seasons only to collapse over the final two months, this may be a make-or-break season for him.

As for the offseason moves, it was smart to trade Hanrahan while his value was high, although I don't think the Pirates got much back. Melancon is just another relief pitcher and Sands has a chance to stick as a platoon outfielder. Martin is an upgrade over Barajas, although backup catcher Michael McKenry actually had better numbers than Martin, and Liriano has had an ERA over 5.00 in three of the past four seasons, so good luck with that. (And now he'll miss the start of the season after breaking his arm in a freak Christmas accident, the day before he was to fly to Pittsburgh for his physical. Only the Pirates.)

Position Players

Well, McCutchen is pretty good. He may have won the MVP Award if he had better teammates.

The Pirates had four regulars with an OBP under .300 last year, but only shortstop Clint Barmes is back in his starting role, and he's there for his glove. Young outfielders Jose Tabata and Alex Presley flopped, so this year's flavors of the month appear to be Blue Jays former top prospect/washout Travis Snider and homegrown Starling Marte.

Marte is a 24-year-old with tools, but in his first exposure to major league pitching he struck out 50 times in 167 at-bats and walked just eight times. That approach isn't going to lead to a long and fruitful career, that's for sure. His career walk rate in the minors was abysmal, so I don't see much -- if any -- star potential here. More time in the minors may be needed, giving Tabata another chance at full-time duty.

That approach is Pittsburgh's overall problem on offense: They were fourth in the NL in homers but last in walks drawn, leading to a .304 OBP. Walks are good.

Defensively, the Pirates ranked 24th in the majors at minus-25 defensive runs saved, with Barmes being the only real plus defender. Barajas was terrible throwing out runners a year ago: 93 steals and only six caught stealing (not a misprint).

Pitching Staff

There is some potential here for an above-average rotation if Burnett repeats, James McDonald figures out what went wrong in the second half (9-3, 2.57 before the break, 3-5, 7.52 after), Wandy Rodriguez pitches like Wandy Rodriguez, and Cole makes a rapid ascension into the big league rotation. Even Jeff Karstens isn't a bad No. 5 starter, a soft-tosser who at least doesn't beat himself.

On the other hand, it's still A.J. Burnett, McDonald's first half may have been a fluke, Rodriguez could be ripe for a decline, and Karstens isn't really that good. You know things are going bad if free-agent reclamation project Jonathan Sanchez appears in the rotation.

The bullpen had a solid 3.36 ERA in 2012, seventh in the NL, but I'm skeptical about a repeat performance. Hanrahan wasn't always dominant, but he blew just four saves each of the past two seasons. Veteran Jason Grilli came out of nowhere to fan 90 in 58.2 innings, so if he pitches like that again he'll be fine as the closer. But guys like Jared Hughes and Tony Watson are good bets for regression, and I don't see much depth.

Heat Map to Watch

What's amazing about McCutchen's final numbers -- .327 average, 31 home runs -- is that it's easy to forget he didn't hit a home run in April. He did fall off the final two months, hitting .252 in August and .254 in September, as maybe the weight of 24 teammates on his shoulders wore him down. He tinkered with his swing mechanics last offseason and it paid off, especially against fastballs. He hit .363/.423/.676 against fastballs, with 22 of his 31 homers. He had hit .280 off fastballs in 2011. The new revamped swing allowed him to do much more damage on inside pitches.

Andrew McCutchenESPN Stats & InformationAndrew McCutchen feasted on fastballs in 2012, especially those on the inner half of the plate.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Pirates win?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,043)

Is this the year? Can the Pirates finish over .500 for the first time since 1992?

I'd like to say yes. I'd like to say that Pedro Alvarez will hit .275 with 40 bombs, and both Travis Snider and Starling Marte will hit .280 (and combine for 40 home runs), and McCutchen will have another MVP-caliber year, and Burnett and McDonald and Rodriguez will win 15 games apiece, and Cole will come up from the minors in May and go 12-5 with a 3.27 ERA.

But I don't see it. The Astros aren't much competition (Pittsburgh went 12-5 against Houston) and the Reds and Cardinals look pretty tough again. But I hope I'm wrong.