I wrote an article last season which labeled the Pirates a team that were riding the success of two players, CF Andrew McCutchen and RHP AJ Burnett. Based on the construction of their team, those two players were essentially carrying the team. I feel different about the team this season. The Pirates currently sit in 2nd place in the NL Central and have a 47-30 record. From what I see, it could be considered more of a team effort. But the truth is, the Pirates are just a deeper, better team than they were last season. They have a much deeper rotation and a stronger lineup. The bullpen, though it may not be very different for the exception of flipping last year's closer Joel Hanrahan for setup man Mark Melancon, has simply performed at a different level than it did last season.
The Pirates currently sit at 47-30, 17 games over .500. Their high point during the 2012 season was 16 games over .500, on August 8, when they were 62-46. Of course, their late season collapse was well documented, as they finished the season 20-39 for their last 59 games (7-21 in September). For their first 77 games last season, the Pirates were 42-35, a ten game improvement this season. They are currently only one game behind the division leading Cardinals, who own the best record in all of MLB. No team other than the Cardinals has a better record than the Pirates.
The biggest strength for the Pirates has been their starting pitching. Burnett has pitched well (4-6, 3.12) after winning 16 games for the Pirates last season. However, he has been on the disabled list for the past week and will miss another start or two. Jeff Locke (7-1, 2.06) looks like he should be an All Star. Francisco Liriano (6-3, 2.30) has pitched like a completely different pitcher since he has joined the Pirates rotation. Wandy Rodriguez (6-4, 3.59) should return in about a week or so as well. Charlie Morton (1-1, 2.81 in 3 starts) has returned as well, making this a potentially deep rotation. 2011 number one overall pick Gerritt Cole has won his 3 MLB starts, giving the team another option is needed. A major surprise has been Jeanmar Gomez, who was gone 2-0, 3.07 in 12 games, 7 starts and will remain an asset when he returns to the bullpen. James McDonald, who won 12 games in 2012 and was one of the most consistent Pirates starters last season, may not even have a job due to all this depth. The Pirates have a starting rotation that should be able to compete with anybody in baseball.
The bullpen has been better than last season with the emergence of Jason Grilli (0-1, 1.82, 26 saves, 58 Ks in 34 2/3 IP) as their closer and Mark Melancon (2-1, 0.96) as the primary setup man. Justin Wilson (5-1, 2.08) has emerged as a second lefty to help out Tony Watson. Add in Gomez as well as guys like Brian Morris (4-2, 2.91) and Vin Mazzaro (3-2, 3.06), a case can be made for this being one of the top bullpens in all of baseball. However, unlike the proven starters such as Burnett, Rodriguez and Liriano, the Pirates are counting on relievers with small or non-existent track records, including Grilli, who is in his first season as a closer.
McCutchen had an MVP type season in 2012 (.327, 32, 96) while leading the league in hits with 196. Pedro Alvarez (.244, 30, 85) was really the only support McCutchen got last season. While McCutchen (.291, 8, 38) has not had as dominant a season, he has certainly gotten more support. Alvarez has 19 HRs to this point and Starling Marte (.283, 8, 24, 22 SB) has established himself. Russell Martin (.256, 8, 26) has given production which they were lacking last season from the catcher as well as helping the pitching staff with his game calling. Yes, the offense does not stand out as dominant, but more members of the order are contributing than last season. Plus, they have a bench led by veterans Gaby Sanchez and Brandon Inge as well as Jose Tabata, Alex Presley and Jordy Mercer (when he is not starting over SS Clint Barmes).
I think it is time to start considering the Pirates a legitimate playoff contending team this season. They are better and deeper than they were last season and seem to need less in regards to reinforcements this time around. Perhaps they could be interested in a shortstop and maybe a right hand hitting outfielder to play with Garrett Jones and Travis Snider. I am confident that not only will this team finish with an over .500 record for the first time since 1992, but could take this division if the Cardinals and Reds are not paying attention.