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The Pittsburgh Pirates: Will the 19th Time be a Charm?

An extremely rare occurrence transpired in sports last Friday night. No, Bartolo Colon didn’t forgo the super size on his value meal, nor did Rex Ryan make a prognostication about the Jets’ upcoming season. Rather, the Pittsburgh Pirates ascended t...

The Pirates will hope to bring a playoff game to PNC Park in September.

An extremely rare occurrence transpired in sports last Friday night. No, Bartolo Colon didn’t forgo the super size on his value meal, nor did Rex Ryan make a prognostication about the Jets’ upcoming season. Rather, the Pittsburgh Pirates ascended to the atop the NL Central standings, edging St. Louis out by just percentage points. It was a feat that not only proclaimed the legitimacy of the Pirates’ post-season campaign, but also had symbolic value, representing, even if momentarily, the end of the Pirates’ and their fan’s  misery of 18 consecutive losing seasons.

Someone would have to have been hiding under a rock in the City of Champions to elude the euphoria and sense of accomplishment that this achievement brought to the long suffering baseball fans. Pirates’ supporters across the city expressed their joy on Facebook and other social media. The Pirates enjoyed positive attention nationally when celebrities such as Dick Vitale, Seth Meyers, and others commended their feat on Twitter; in fact, their first place position was the lead story on the late night SportsCenter, which even came as a surprise to their anchors.

Not upside down.

Now, I realize that with the often erratic play of Major League teams and the fluidity of a 162 regular season, the Pirates’ 1st place status is subject to change. It may even change by the time I finish this column. (It did. Oh well.)  So neither the Pirates, nor their fans, should get too far ahead of matters, nor let complacency blur our vision of the grander task at hand- winning the division and making the playoffs. But I think that it is important to briefly stop and appreciate our first baseball season since 1992 that isn’t a train wreck.

So, stop and appreciate it. Are you done? Alright.

Now let us look ahead to the future and examine the some of the factors and realistic chances of your Pittsburgh Pirates making the 2011 playoffs (Playoffs!?!?), and accomplishing what would easily be the most improbable feat by a sports team in the last decade

The topic spiking everyone’s interest recently has been the Pirates making a trade before the deadline. The Brewers fired the first shot in the division when they acquired reliever Francisco Rodriguez (“K-Rod”) from the Mets. The Reds and Cardinals are expected to pull off a deal, for perhaps bullpen help, before the deadline.  So this begs the two-part question: a) should the Pirates, who are normally sellers at the deadline, become buyers and trade for a veteran who may or may not help them get into the post season?;  and b) if so, for who?

Let’s tackle the latter first.

The team’s most glaring need all season has been a big bat in the middle of the lineup; someone who can get on base, drive in runs, and help strengthen the league 23rd ranked offense . The other most glaring need, which became painfully apparent after the Pirates blew a 4-3 lead on Saturday night, is a setup man to bridge the gap between the starters and All Star closer, Joel Hanrahan.

When it comes to a potential deadline deal, there are a number of names and ideas being thrown around. Some are sensible, while others are idiotic. (I’m looking at you, people who are advocating that we should give up a starting pitcher and prospects for a 1/3 of a season of Carlos Beltran. Just stop it.)

Some of the hitters that have been floating around that the Pirates could realistically acquire are the A’s outfielder Josh Willingham, the Cubs’ 1st basemen Carlos Pena, and the Twins’ outfielder Michael Cuddyer.

Willingham would be a modest addition, but given his 6 million dollar annual salary and the small ransom that the Pirates would have to give up to get him, he would be a low risk addition as well. The biggest turnoff with acquiring Willingham though, is that is only plays one defensive position, left field, and he isn’t particularly good at that.

The Pirates considered signing Pena in the off-season, but instead let him sign with the wealthier Cubs and signed Lyle Overbay for half the money, and not surprisingly, got what they paid for. Although Pena’s batting average is an eye sore (.217), he ranks among the NL’s best in homeruns with 19, and has the power that the Pirates desperately need. Perhaps the biggest lure with trading for Pena is that his 10 million/1 year contract will run out by the end of this season meaning a) his trade value isn’t as high because the Pirates would only obtain him for the rest of the year. b) the Pirates would not be financially invested for the long term and could cut ties with him at the end of the season and c) the Cubs, who are not in contention and are not likely to resign Pena, are more likely to trade him because he is of no use to them.

At the right price, the Pirates would love to acquie Carlos Pena.

Cuddyer, if the Twins are willing to trade him, would generate offense for the Buccos by hitting homeruns (16 in first half) and getting on base (.371 OBP). Cuddyer, having been in many pennant races with the Twins, would also provide experience and leadership inside a young Pirate locker room.

The big question that the Pirates have to ask themselves when looking to acquire a hitter is: are we willing to bench (or platoon) Lyle Overaby. If so, then they would be able to move Garret Jones to first base and which would leave right field open, and also left field if we were to move Presley over to right field. This would give us flexibility if we were to trade for a outfielder.

Help for the bullpen, unlike a hitter, will be harder to come by for the Pirates simply because it is in higher demand at this time of year, meaning the Buccos will have to compete with a lot of teams with better trade chips and bigger payrolls in order to obtain it. If they do happen to strike a deal for a reliever some of the guys that they could get are the Padres’ Chad Qualls and the Royals’ Joakim Soria.

Both Soria and Qualls are experienced relief pitchers and could be used as either a 7thinning middle reliever, or an 8th inning set-up man.  They would provide depth and a potential upgrade from Jose Veras and Daniel McCutchen.

Now that we have recognized some of the potential acquisitions, let’s answer the second part to the question at hand- should the Pirates make these trades?

Look, I want the Pirates to make the playoffs this season as much as anyone. But, we have waited 17 years for this season to come, let’s not screw it up. The Pirates, right now are the 4th team in a 4 team race to win the division (Sorry, but they don’t have the experienced big names, or as much cash to spend as the other teams). The Pirates need to make sure that they hold on to the good pieces that they have so they will be a become mainstay atop division in the future.

They have a young, talented starting staff and closer that almost every other general manager in the league envies. We have a prospective perennial All Star in Andrew McCutchen, promising position players like Pedro Alverez and Neil Walker, and even talented minor league players like Brad Lincoln and first overall pick, Cole Gerrit. Take all of that, and then insert a manager in Clint Hurdle, who has a proven track record with winning in small markets and keeping younger teams on an even keel, and we have ourselves a perennial contender for years to come. They have all the fire power to win in the future; it is just going to require some patience on the part of the front office and fan base.

Hypothetically speaking, if Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder both do not re-sign with their respective teams, and leave the NL Central, and the Houston Astros move to the AL, the Pirates will more than likely be the favorite of future pennant races.

Pirates fans can only hope that Pujols leaves the division.

To quote Oprah Winfrey (albeit, out of context), “When I look into the future, it’s so bright it burns my eyes.”

Let’s not screw ourselves in pennant races to come by irresponsibly going “all-in” at the 2011 deadline, and give up one of our most talented prospects, or a starting pitcher, just to get a rent-a-player who may or may not help us make the playoffs.

With that said, if the Pirates can strike a deal to get a power bat or bullpen support that doesn’t requiring giving up a big ransom, then by all means, they should do it. Would I like for the Pirates to acquire Carlos Pena or Chad Qualls, heck yeah! But the trade has to be at the right price. That has been the single most glaring deficiency in the Pirate front office before the current regime took over in late 2007: talent valuation.

Speaking of acquisitions, the Pirates will soon be getting Pedro Alverez back after he has missed over a month with a right quad strain. Before the injury, Alverez was hitting .208 and only has 2 homeruns and 10 RBI in 36 games. However, if (unlikely, but still) he can (return to his 2010 September form (when he hit .306, 6 HR, and 27 RBI), then the Pirates may not need to trade for a slugger after all.

Another health-related issue with the Pirates in the second half will be the efficancy with which Clint Hurdle and his staff uses the starters. In the first half, the Pirates did a great job of using the starting rotation efficiently and not wearing them down and putting them at risk for injury. They did this so well that the Pirates only had 3 games in which they went out of the order of the rotation due to injury. That is almost unheard of.  Part of the solution is having a trust-worthy bullpen, part of it is good fortune with health, and the rest will be up to the Pirates’ to manage.

Lastly, we have to recognize the road ahead. As many of the Pirates’ skeptics have been quick to recognize, one of the biggest reasons for the Pirates 48-43 record has been their feasting off bottom feeders like Houston and Chicago. Well, after their weekend series with the Astros, the Pirates will play four series against the Reds, Cardinals, Braves, and Phillies, which means that we, and the rest of the NL, will find out exactly how “for real” this Pirate team is by August 1st. Do they need to go 12-1 in those 13 games to prove their legitimacy? No. At least they shouldn’t have to. All they just have to stand their ground and keep the division within reach by winning six or seven games. That’s all.  If they can do that, then they will be roughly 56-50 headed into August and will have set themselves up for a run at the division.

One thing we know is for sure, this Pirates team is different. Not only by measure of record, but also in their resolve, belief, and realization of what could be. Regardless of how stormy the sea ahead may be for these Pirates, Clint Hurdle will not let the team accept mediocrity, nor will he let them lose sight of the ultimate objective, the pennant.

Like it or not, there is a strong case of Pirates fever (not the scurvy kind) that has stemmed in Pittsburgh and is spreading throughout the country. Those who are not prepared will suffer the consequences. And we all know that the only prescription for Pirates fever is…. a Buccos playoff berth!!!!

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