A year ago today, the Pittsburgh Pirates entered their game against the Washington Nationals with a middling record of 41-39, but lingered just three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Central Division lead. During the next month, the Buccos crawled up the standings, peaking at a division-leading record of 51-44 and leading many to declare that they were legitimate. But on August 3 a loss dropped them below .500, and they would never again have a winning record.
Now, a year later, Pittsburgh enters Sunday's game against the Cardinals with a 42-35 record and only a game behind the Cincinnati Reds for the division lead. There's still more than half the season to go, but the Pirates nevertheless have a much improved chance at finishing with what would be their first winning record in 20 years.
The primary reason for this newfound, for-real-this-time legitimacy? Their starting rotation.
Last year, Pittsburgh trotted out a staff of Paul Maholm, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, James McDonald and Jeff Karstens. This was not exactly a rotation that struck fear in the heart of opposing lineups, as the supposed ace of their staff, Maholm, would be no more than a No. 3 starter on most other teams. They finished the year ranked 11th in the National League with a 4.21 ERA.
With a lineup that ranked 14th in the league in runs scored, the Pirates could not afford to have a rotation that was similarly near the bottom of the league. Yet they did, and that was why they eventually took a tumble to fourth in the divison and finished 18 games below .500.
This year, however, the Pirates have upgraded their arms. The rotation now consists of Erik Bedard, a much-improved McDonald, A.J. Burnett, Correia and either Karstens or Morton — whoever happens to not be on the disabled list (Karstens currently occupies the fifth slot). The additions of Bedard and Burnett, as well as the improvement of McDonald, are directly responsible for the Pirates' seventh-ranked staff ERA of 3.90.
The move from the spotlight of New York to the relative obscurity of Pittsburgh has done wonders for Burnett, who has rediscovered the form that caused the Yankees to throw $82.5 million his way in 2008. If you toss out the 12 earned runs he gave up in a horrific 2 2/3-inning start in early May, he hasn't given up more than three runs in a start all year long and carries a miniscule ERA of 2.05.
McDonald has begun using a newly-devastating slider much more this year, and it's paid major dividends for him. After posting an ERA of 4.21 and WHIP of 1.49 last season, McDonald has improved those numbers to 2.44 and 0.98, respectively. Both rank in the top 10 in the league.
Bedard, meanwhile, will likely never regain the near-Cy Young form he showed in Baltimore — but with Burnett and McDonald dominating, he doesn't have to. Despite his mediocre 4.27 ERA, he still is striking out nearly a batter per inning. So long as he stays healthy, he'll continue to be a valuable asset.
While the Pirates may actually be legitimate this time around, they have a bit of work to do if they want to take the next step and solidly assure themselves a playoff spot. Their offense, despite having a potential MVP candidate in Andrew McCutchen, is putrid once again and ranks 13th in the league.
In order to take full advantage of their improved pitching staff, the organization can't be afraid to be buyers at the trading deadline, as opposed to their usual role as sellers. And as buyers, they'll need to go after an impact bat to help McCutchen out.
Carlos Quentin of the San Diego Padres is an intriguing option, as the Pirates could stand an upgrade in left field over the platoon of Drew Sutton and Alex Presley. Quentin, hitting .311 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs since coming off the disabled list at the end of May, certainly fits the bill.
While it remains to be seen what will happen during the remainder of the season — some remain skeptical of the Pirates' chances — keep an eye out for Pittsburgh. The 20th time may just be the charm.