Just like last year, the Pirates are one of the best stories in baseball. Only this time they have staying power. After a weekend sweep of the Marlins, the Pirates were 54--40, a half-game behind the Reds for first place in the NL Central and leading the wild-card race. Unlike the 2011 Pirates, who got a lot of attention for a similar midsummer run but finished a 19th straight losing season with an 18--41 stretch, this team is as good as its record. Since June 15, Pittsburgh is 22--9 and has outscored opponents by 75 runs. Since June 1, no team in the majors has scored more runs.
Pittsburgh's recent schedule has been heavy on teams with poor pitching staffs, but the offense has also benefited from two homegrown prospects who are finally giving MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen (right) a supporting cast. McCutchen has a .372/.427/.642 line, with 22 homers and 14 stolen bases, and the centerfielder is far and away the top threat on a team that has an OBP under .290 without him. But with second baseman Neil Walker (.297/.365/.431) and third baseman Pedro Alvarez (.232/.301/.502, 21 home runs) now producing, the Pirates have three former first-round picks (including McCutchen) who form the lineup core of a contender.
The rotation, however, has been patched together with imports—yet it has done more than cover for the team's streaky offense. Righthander James McDonald, 27, a trade-deadline pickup from the Dodgers two years ago, has sharply improved his command and has a 2.93 ERA through 19 starts. Righty A.J. Burnett, essentially a gift from the Yankees over the winter, has his lowest walk rate (2.8 per nine innings) since 2006, along with a 3.59 ERA. Lefthander Erik Bedard (nearly a strikeout per inning) was an off-season free-agent signing, and righty Kevin Correia signed as a free agent two years ago. Closer Joel Hanrahan (2.11 ERA, 28 saves), traded from the Nationals in '09, is on his third organization. As the Pirates, who have the NL's fifth-best staff ERA (3.49) even with a cut-rate rotation (total salary: $17.1 million), wait for recent top draft picks Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole to join the rotation, they're getting by on the savvy work of G.M. Neal Huntington and his staff.
Last year the Pirates had no business making a big trade at the deadline and didn't. This year they're rumored to be in the hunt for Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton—and should be. Whereas the dismal finish to the 2011 season was foreseeable, this year's team doesn't seem headed for that kind of collapse. Get invested, Pirates fans. If nothing else, your team will finally finish above .500—and may well be playing in October.