Rising stars: Bucs had nowhere to go but up

Rising stars: Bucs had nowhere to go but up

July 7, 2012

Are the Pirates that much better or is everybody else worse?

I happen to think it's a little bit of both. The Pirates are definitely better than they have been.

They had nowhere to go but up after the disastrous nosedive they took in the second half of last season.

Before the season, we knew that Albert Pujols leaving the St. Louis Cardinals and Prince Fielder leaving the Milwaukee Brewers had to help the Pirates. Neither team is as good as it was last year.

Some things to consider:n The Pirates, at this point in the 2011 season, had 30 games remaining against the Astros, Marlins, Dodgers and Padres. The best team of that group was the Marlins and they were 43-48.

This year's version of the Pirates has 10 games at the end of July against the Cubs and the Astros. Both Houston and Chicago went into this weekend playing under .400 ball. To give you an idea of just how bad that is, the Pirates have only been under that number three times in the last 19 years.

We all know what the Pirates did with that situation last year. They turned it into the worst collapse in Major League Baseball history for a first-place team in July.

Is this Pirates team capable of being that bad?

We should have learned never to count them out when it comes to reaching new levels of ineptitude and embarrassment, but it's hard to imagine them doing that two years in a row.

But, if you take off the black-and-gold glasses and the cheerleading outfits, you'll see that the Pirates' great turnaround is almost as much a result of the rest of the National League Central Division coming back to them as it is about their improvement.

Coming into this weekend, the Pirates were 20-11 against the National League Central and 26-25 against the rest of the major leagues. Playing one game over .500 is nothing for this franchise to laugh at, and that is a major improvement over most of the last 19 years.

They played the Tigers, Twins and Royals in interleague play. All three teams were under .500 when they played the Pirates. They also played the Indians, who have been a mediocre team since a hot start.

From May 12 through July 6, the Pirates were 29-19. They were 9-1 against the Cubs and Astros. That's two games above .500 against the rest of the world.

n Andrew McCutchen is hitting .356 and having the best first half ever by a Pirates hitter, and that's saying something.

That's the good news.The bad news is that he is very unlikely to keep up that pace. He's a lifetime .289 hitter who batted under .220 after the 2011 All-Star break.

For McCutchen to come down to Earth and settle at, say, .320, he will have to cool off quite a bit. Who's going to pick up the slack?

n The resurgence of the Pirates' offense in June had a lot to do with Pedro Alvarez, but it also had a lot to do with the Pirates playing against pitching staffs that can be found at the bottom of the team ERA listings, such as Minnesota (29th), Cleveland (28th), Houston (27th), Kansas City (22nd) and Philadelphia (21st). The turnaround started at the end of May with three games against the Cubs (25th).

n A. J. Burnett won eight straight starts. He was 9-2 with a 3.74 ERA. His lifetime ERA is 4.09, and the last time he finished under 4.00 was 2007. Are you counting on him to win eight starts in a row again or should we expect him to cool off, too?

Let's face it. There were plenty of Pirates teams in the past that would not have taken advantage of the rest of the National League coming back to them, so there's no denying there has been an improvement. The first month after the All-Star break looks easy and the Pirates should go into August several games over .500.

The landscape, however, could change quite a bit after the July 31 trading deadline. Right now .500 looks more than doable. Making the postseason? Let's talk in August.

n You can be sure that (especially with the Pirates' success) Baghdad Bud Selig is going to be overusing the “P” word during the upcoming All-Star festivities. He'll be singing the praises of parity in Major League Baseball.

A quick look at the standings shows the two highest-paid teams at the top of the NL West. In the NL East, the Phillies, with the highest payroll, are dead last, but they're missing about $50 million in payroll because of injuries. The Nationals and Mets are at the top of the division and the team with the highest payroll (Miami) is third. There is not a big difference in the payrolls of those three teams.

The Yankees are leading the American League East and the two highest-paid teams in the AL West are at the top of that division. In the AL Central, the second highest-paid team (Chicago) is leading and the highest-paid team (Detroit) is third. The low payroll Indians have been treading water and holding on to second.

All the big money teams are poised to grab the best rent-a-players at the tradie deadline.

Parity schmarity.John Steigerwald writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter. He can be reached through his website, www.justwatchthegame.com.

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