Winning season within Pirates’ reach

Pitcher Jason Grilli — known as "The Grill" and "Grilled Cheese" — has been out recently due to a strain in his right arm. (credit: Courtesy of Sports Crazy via Flickr) Pitcher Jason Grilli — known as "The Grill" and "Grilled Cheese" — has been out recently due to a strain in his right arm. (credit: Courtesy of Sports Crazy via Flickr)

The last time the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning season — not to mention the last time they made the playoffs — the majority of Carnegie Mellon’s current senior class had not yet been born. Now, 21 years later, the Pirates are on the precipice of not only their first season over .500 in over two decades, but a division crown to match.

For the past two seasons, the Pirates have been toying with the city of Pittsburgh, leading the National League Central Division into July before crashing back to Earth and, ultimately, into more losing seasons. The main difference between those seasons and this one is the success of the whole team, not just the success of a few all-stars.

This season has seen the growth of the Bucs lineup surpass last year’s crew, which revolved solely around all-star center fielder Andrew McCutchen and featured a largely inconsistent batting order. As a result, the Pirates’ success in the past closely relied on that of McCutchen at the plate. This season saw the maturation of several young Bucs, namely third baseman Pedro Álvarez and left fielder Starling Marte, with the addition of veteran catcher Russell Martin. These changes have allowed the Pirates offense to become more consistent and successful without McCutchen hitting unworldly numbers.

Álvarez and Marte are part of the new wave of talent that Pittsburgh has been developing through two decades of high-draft picks. In the past, a few of these top picks grew into their potential. However, when the time came for them to get paid, they were traded for more prospects, of which only one or two would hit the major leagues. These types of trades were typical of past Pirates management, which prioritized saving money over winning games. In 2008, with the introduction of an entirely new managing team from majority owner to general manager, the Pirates began yet another rebuilding project.

After a few years of repeating the same veteran-for-prospect trading system, Clint Hurdle was hired as manager, and the Bucs felt they had finally amassed the right talent to begin pushing for wins. Starting with Hurdle’s inaugural season in 2011, the Pirates were at least discussed by competitors, until the Pittsburgh Steelers began training camp in the beginning of August. The Pirates even reversed their previous trade trends and acquired a pair of veteran bats at the trade deadline, but to no avail.

The 2012 off-season witnessed the beginning of the Pirates’ competitive strategy, with the free-agent acquisition of proven, undervalued veterans providing leadership and relieving some pressure for the developing youth. The addition of starting pitchers A.J. Burnett during the 2012 off-season, Wandy Rodríguez at the trade deadline, and Francisco Liriano before the 2013 season gave the Bucs the veteran start-of-the-rotation presence needed to truly compete for a division title, and possibly a World Series. All of these pitchers were picked up coming off bad seasons and have experienced career resurgences since their move.

These veterans, combined with the emergence of all-star Jeff Locke and former first-round pick Gerrit Cole, have given the Pirates one of the better starting rotations in the National League, even with Rodríguez spending a large chunk of the season on the disabled list. The Pirates bullpen has been cobbled together in the same fashion as the rotation, with grizzled journeyman veterans Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon leading up the bullpen, also known as the “Shark Tank.” Grilli, who served as the closer, recently went down with a strain in his right arm and will return just in time for the Pirates’ hopeful playoff run. In the meantime, Melancon has made the seamless transition from setup man to closer, and he has yet to give up an earned run since taking over the role in late July.

The Pirates are still looking to add another veteran bat before the Aug. 31 wavier trade deadline, after failing to do so by the nonwavier trade deadline of July 31. But even as they are — 11 wins shy of their first winning season in most of our lifetimes and three games up on the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL Central division lead — the Pirates appear to be making a new kind of history.