How far can the Pittsburgh Pirates go?


Travis Snider gets high fives.
Travis Snider’s home run helped the Pittsburgh Pirates get over the .500 hump for the first time since 1993.

In case you missed it, the Pittsburgh Pirates won their 81st game, clinching their first .500 or better season since 1992. While opinions vary on the extent to which this is cause for celebration, one thing seems clear: The Pittsburgh Pirates are likely to stay in the postseason hunt until the very end of the schedule. This, of course, begs the question: How far can the Pittsburgh Pirates go?

A reasonable place to begin would be with Andrew McCutchen, an MVP candidate who’s one of baseball’s most complete players. He’s been with the team since its leaner years, and he’s seen them show promise only to disappoint. Now that they’ve finally begun to break through, he’s rising to the occasion. He loves being a Pirate, and to top it off, his mom sang the national anthem in the team’s home stadium. He combines speed, power, defense and leadership, and he’s as important to his team as practically any single player in the majors.

McCutchen does have help, particularly in recent weeks. Neil Walker, another part of the Pirates’ core for recent seasons, is an athletic second baseman who provides both defense and offensive production. He’s still somewhat off the radar, but he carried the team to many of the victories they scrapped out during their transitional times. The talented but historically erratic A.J. Burnett has finally figured out how to pitch like an ace, while the bullpen has been strong and balanced despite losing closer Jason Grilli for much of the summer. Russell Martin has been a veteran presence behind the plate and in the clubhouse, providing occasional power and timely hits; he’s also got experience on winning teams, which will come in handy as the pressure increases in September. But the two acquisitions that may have secured them the division title occurred recently, when the Pirates landed John Buck, Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau.

In Buck, the Pittsburgh Pirates get a veteran catcher with power who has a history of starting and knows how to manage a game. Buck’s also a streaky but capable hitter, and when allowed to stay fresh, could hit the ball well in the closing weeks. The Pirates’ bench now includes more right-handed power to complement the left-handed power provided by first baseman/corner outfielder Garrett Jones. Jones is absurdly strong at the plate, but has also been frustratingly inconsistent. Fortunately, the Pittsburgh Pirates have secured solid everyday presences at first base and in right field, in Byrd and Morneau.

Marlon Byrd would seem to be this season’s indisputable comeback player of the year. A solid career hitter with one All-Star appearance, Byrd joined the Mets as a reclamation project after serving a 50-game suspension for a banned substance. His return season, at age 35, has surprised even those (like yours truly) who expected him to play reasonably well. Byrd is batting .288 this season, with 22 home runs and 78s RBIs, and he’s among the league leaders in outfield assists. In the seven games since joining the Pittsburgh Pirates, he’s hit .346 with a home run and seven RBIs in only 26 at-bats, including driving in the tying run in the game in which the Pirates ended their 20-year run of losing seasons. He’s provided lineup protection for McCutchen and Walker, and a strong defensive right fielder next to the Gold Glover McCutchen.

As for Morneau, he’s only 32 years old, and a multiple All-Star with an excellent glove and a legitimate middle-order bat. After struggling with multiple concussions in recent seasons, he’s putting together a solid second half, and he strengthens the Pirates on both defense and offense. Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers will appreciate another Gold Glove fielder starting most of their games, and McCutchen, Walker, Byrd and the rest of the lineup will benefit from his presence in the middle of the order. Morneau’s also yet another veteran with experience playing well in meaningful games.

As for the rest of the bench and role players, the Pittsburgh Pirates look solid. Travis Snider, the athletic outfielder with an occasional penchant for the spectacular, hit the winning home run in last night’s curse-breaking 81st victory. Jose Tabata, Felix Pie and Starling Marte are all promising young talents in the outfield, and Clint Barmes, Josh Harrison and Gaby Sanchez make for nice infield reserves. Their bench has speed, power and versatility as well as youth and experience.

The biggest question mark, and maybe the key to their eventual success, will be the Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching. Burnett has continued to pitch well in the second half, as has Francisco Liriano, another reclamation project who’s been mostly dominant. Jeff Locke, the young lefty starter who began the season impressively but has faltered of late, will have to rediscover himself for the home stretch. Closer Jason Grilli has returned from the disabled list, but the nature of his re-integration is in question since Mark Melancon has done well in his stead. Bringing up the rear of the starting rotation, Charlie Morton has begun to heat up lately and rookie Gerritt Cole continues to produce solid starts despite a 6-7 record.

As for the competition, the NL Central looks like it will be tight until the very end. The team that wins the NL Central might go on to represent the National League in the World Series, as the Braves are streaky and strikeout-prone and the Dodgers can’t seem to shake the injury bug. The Pirates have a good chance to finish the season with their fate in their hands, as they wrap up with a series in Cincinnati. If they win the division, two of the stronger teams in the NL will knock each other off in the Wild Card game. If they continue to heat up at the right time, the Pittsburgh Pirates have at least the proverbial puncher’s chance to make it all the way to the World Series.

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