For Pirates, no guarantees but much hope
Franchise poised to distance itself from recent second-half disappointments
How cool must it be to be a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates? Let's count the ways.
Your club entered play on Saturday with the best record in baseball at 49-30, riding a seven-game winning streak. It has a one-game lead in the National League Central, which happens to have a Cardinals team that has the second-best record in the game and is on a pace to go 99-63.
Your club is easy to root for. There's center fielder Andrew McCutchen, one of the most complete players in the game.
Remember him, Pirates fans.
McCutchen's role in getting this thing started should not be forgotten. That's because he made a commitment to the organization when the renaissance was just beginning.
Yes, the Pirates were generous with McCutchen, signing him to a six-year deal worth $51.5 million. But he could have gotten that much -- maybe more -- from a lot of teams. He chose to play for the Pirates.
There's also third baseman Pedro Alvarez. He doesn't just have power; he has breathtaking power. As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said, "He has the ability to shrink every park."
Alvarez was the second overall pick of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft and has carried the weight of great expectations with him every step of the way. He's tightly wound and a relentless worker, and Hurdle has worked hard to build his confidence and to even out the highs and lows.
At the moment, Alvarez is on a high. This month, he has nine home runs, 23 RBIs and a 1.109 on-base plus slugging percentage. When he's on, Alvarez can carry an entire club, and although the Pirates have strengths here, there and everywhere, Alvarez is the guy in the middle of the lineup that most scares the other side.
And there's left fielder Starling Marte, another player from the terrific player development system general manager Neal Huntington constructed.
Marte was all of 23 years old when he was summoned to the big leagues. In the new math of player development -- Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Manny Machado -- Marte was practically an old man.
He hasn't seemed overmatched for a single day, and if you buy into Baseball-Reference.com's Wins Above Replacement stat, he's one of the 11 best players in the National League with a line that includes 14 doubles, eight triples, eight home runs and 22 stolen bases.
Even with those three star players, the Pirates are offensively challenged at times. They've had a great month, going 15-9 and scoring the sixth-most runs in the NL. But offense isn't their strength.
Huntington has done terrific work piecing together a very good rotation. For instance, had you heard of Jeff Locke before this year? Huntington acquired him with right-hander Charlie Morton in a deal with Atlanta for outfielder Nate McLouth four years ago.
Because Locke doesn't light up radar runs, he's not a guy every scout is going to love. He spent seven seasons in the Minor Leagues and began this one with one career victory in the big leagues.
Now, Locke is 7-1 with a 2.06 ERA and has been able to throw his 90-mph fastball in every corner of the strike zone. He's a reminder that location and movement are every bit as important as velocity.
Morton and Locke have been godsends this season for a rotation that has been without A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, both of whom are on the disabled list.
Winning teams are a hundred different pieces fitting together, and Huntington raised no eyebrows when he signed left-hander Francisco Liriano last winter. Liriano had posted an ERA over 5.00 in three consecutive seasons for the Twins and White Sox, but he has rediscovered the dominance of his early years, posting a 2.30 ERA through nine starts.
Likewise, Huntington's Minor League trade with the Indians for right-hander Jeanmar Gomez has paid huge dividends. Gomez has posted a 2.76 ERA after eight starts and five relief appearances.
And there's 22-year-old right-hander Gerrit Cole, the first pick of the 2011 Draft. He has won all four of his starts and looked polished and poised doing it. Right behind him in Pittsburgh's system is right-hander Jameson Taillon, 21, who was the second pick of the 2010 Draft.
So there's talent and there's depth. There's the clubhouse leadership of McCutchen, Burnett and others. There's the commanding presence of Hurdle, who has done magical work making the pieces fit.
Still, after bad finishes in both 2011 and '12, Pirates fans are wondering about the second half of 2013. The Bucs were in a first-place tie as late as July 18 last season but went 12-29 after Aug. 19. What guarantees are there that there won't be a similar ending this season?
There are none. Winning isn't like that. It's a process, at times a painful process. Huntington has sorted through the pieces, fitting here, discarding there. The Pirates aren't a perfect team, but they have pitching and they have toughness.
They're likely to fight it out with the Reds and Cardinals in the NL Central all summer long. And there is a red flag.
Pittsburgh's rotation is second in the NL with 31 victories and a 3.34 ERA. But only the Brewers have gotten fewer innings out of their starters. That's why getting Burnett and Rodriguez back in the second half could be important to keeping the train rolling.
Then again, that's part of the joy of having a team in contention. Nothing is guaranteed, but the ride can be a blast.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.