These are unfamiliar times for the Pittsburgh Pirates, to say the least.
As the Major League Baseball all-star break commences, the Bucs have nosed one game in front of the Cincinnati Reds for first place in the six-team National League Central division. They’ve arrived at the unofficial midway point of the 2012 season with a 48-37 record, powered by a 16-6 sprint to the break that has them 11 games over .500 for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Everything appears to be trending upward, from the star power of Andrew McCutchen (which will be on display in
Kansas City at the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game) to the pitching of A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and a stout bullpen, to the supporting strength of Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones.
Something else on the rise is the pressure on general manager Neal Huntington to augment what appears to be Pittsburgh’s first pennant contender since 1997. Even the most optimistic of preseason projectors couldn’t have anticipated the Pirates’ rebuilding plan accelerated to this degree.
Certainly, a return to terra firma could be on the way in the second half, although probably not as severe as last summer’s complete nosedive. The axiom that a baseball team can never have too much starting pitching has often proven apt, and the offense’s recent impersonation of the 1970s’ Lumber Company Pirates isn’t likely to carry the club for three more months.
But whatever the Pirates’ baseball operations staff targets for improvement through the warming trade market, the next three weeks could be the most challenging of Huntington’s time in western Pennsylvania. Does he use some of his top prospects as chattel in acquiring high-end major league talent like Arizona’s Justin Upton, or does he emulate the Tampa Bay Rays, fellow middle-market brethren, by standing steadfast with a team that is jelling nicely as the summer gets hotter?
Surely the process is complicated by the fact that Huntington and his scouts have to be emotionally invested in the minor leaguers they drafted to boost the Bucs back into contention. Names like Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte aren’t just promising prospects, but also generators of hope for future iterations of the Pirates.
That sentiment has to be balanced by the reality that the NL Central appears prime for the taking, much like it was last year through the first four months of the season. A playoff berth would do wonders for excitement in Pittsburgh and, more importantly, could prime revenue streams that would underwrite payroll expenses for years to come.
There is clearly more than one method to building a consistently successful MLB team. For a lower-revenue franchise like the Pirates, those options are definitely limited, but each situation is unique. You don’t have to go the conservative route like the Rays or emulate the Brewers in their aggressive bartering of homegrown talent.
There is room in the middle, and the middle is where Huntington and the Pirates currently reside. But when you’re stuck between a promising present and an unknowable future, eventually one side has to take precedent over the other.
Judging from the 43-year-old Huntington’s willingness to deal in the past, I would bet on one of MLB’s youngest general managers pushing some chips to the middle of the table this month.