Are the Pirates contenders?

All eyes will be on Pirates GM Neal Huntington as the trade deadline approaches. (Bill Wade/Post-Gazette)

That’s a question that’s going to be asked often about the franchise over the course of the next five weeks. The team finds itself in an unusual situation for this time of year — as of Friday, they’re two games over .500 at 35-33, and are three games back of both the wild card and the division lead.No doubt the Pirates have been one of the bigger surprises in baseball this year. I’m not sure anyone, including GM Neal Huntington or President Frank Coonelly, foresaw the team having this kind of success this year. But now, those two need to decided if the team should stand pat at the trade deadline and continue to develop their prospects for the future or break the bank and trade some of those prospects for a bat or two.

The biggest hurdle the team faces is that it’s in the highly competitive NL Central. The top three teams in the division — St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati — all have playoff aspirations this season, and not all three are going to make it. The nice thing about the division, though, is that all three of those teams are also beating each other up, and no one is starting to run away with the division; only three games separate the top four teams. That can certainly work to the Pirates advantage as the season progresses.

To the Pirates credit, they are holding their own in division games, posting a 16-10 mark this season. But the three aforementioned teams are more developed, and each has tasted the post-season in the past several years. Of the top four teams in the Central, the Pirates arguably have had the best pitching so far this season, and solid pitching is what wins championships. I’m not saying the Pirates have championship-caliber pitching, but they’ve certainly benefited from solid contributions from their staff this season. Unfortunately, all of that may be for nothing if the team doesn’t address their anemic offense sometime soon.

The team is in dire need of a bat if it wants to try to make a playoff push. As of Friday, the offense ranks 26th in MLB in batting average, 25th in runs, 22nd in OBP, and 26th in OPS. The pitching has been great this season, thanks in part to Ray Searage, but at some point one has to wonder if those arms are going to wear out. Too often, the team is winning games 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2. On the season, they’re 11-7 in one run games, which is great — it shows resiliency and the ability to hold leads, both marks of a winning team. But if management doesn’t start to provide the pitching staff with more run support, the team will likely fall off of the edge. For the most part, the team’s minor league system is barren on MLB-ready bats, so if the team wants to add, it’ll need to look outside the organization.

I think it could do the team well to add a bat, even if it isn’t to make a major playoff push; the message it will send to the fan base in Pittsburgh could make the move worth it. If fans see that management is committed to winning, attendance will continue to be up and more revenue will continue to come in. I’m not going to start naming potential players to bring that in, but positions that need to be addressed are shortstop and first base. The combination of above-average attendance this season and the team having the third lowest payroll in baseball scream, “We have some money to make a move!” But ultimately, upper management needs to decide if it’s worth it to sacrifice a piece or two of the future to do it. For years they’ve been developing the minor league system to win. Part of building that winner, however, is pawning off some of it for MLB-level talent to win now. Are the Pirates there yet? Maybe, but probably not. We’ll find out over the next five weeks.

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