Life After Littlefield: Pirates’ first half recap and second half preview

Life+After+Littlefield%3A+Pirates%27+first+half+recap+and+second+half+preview

Jarrod Blumer, Contributor

A lot has happened this summer in regards to Pirates’ baseball and unfortunately a busy summer has kept me from blogging about it.  However, I’ll do my best to bring you up to speed on the magic that has happened in Pittsburgh over the past several months.

Some of the headlines from the season include the dominance of the starting pitching staff, the surprisingly good bullpen, the evolution of Pedro Alvarez, and finally the much-anticipated debut of Gerrit Cole.  All of these components, as well as several others, have contributed to the success of the Pirates in the first half of the season, as they finished with a record of 56-37.

A winning team rides and dies with its’ starting pitching, and the Pirates are no different.  Many thought the team would die having seen Jonathan Sanchez and James McDonald have atrocious outings early on.  But the team has since replaced them and rode a lights-out pitching staff consisting of A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, Wandy Rodriguez, Charlie Morton, and rookie Gerrit Cole to another wining first half.  The most consistent starters have been Liriano (9-4, 2.44 ERA, 81.0 IP) and Locke (9-2, 2.11 ERA, 115.0 IP), who was named to his first All Star game this summer.  Burnett would have better numbers (4-7, 3.07 ERA, 105.0 IP) if he could get more run support, Rodriguez has missed significant time due to a forearm injury, Morton has done well since returning from Tommy John surgery, and Cole has dazzled Pirates fans in his short time he’s been here with his explosive stuff on the mound.

When the season started, just about every spot in the bullpen was a giant question mark.  The “Shark Tank” can laugh at that idea now as they are widely considered the best bullpen in baseball.  Jason Grilli was an All Star and rightfully so with 30 saves and a 1.94 ERA.  Mark Melancon came out of nowhere to become the best setup man in the game today (0.97 ERA, 26 HLD) and was an All Star as well.  Justin Wilson and Tony Watson continue to develop into two of the toughest lefty specialists in the league, and righties Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro have over-achieved this season and GM Neal Huntington couldn’t be happier.

Back in 2008, GM Neal Huntington drafted Pedro Alvarez 2nd overall with hopes of him becoming a legitimate homerun threat in the middle of the lineup for years to come.  After a few bumps in the road, Alvarez has become just that with 24 HR and 62 RBI in the first half.  Nobody is scrutinized on this Pirates team more than Pedro Alvarez, that is a given.  But after being named an All Star this season and selected to the Homerun Derby, Pedro has been able to silence some of his critics.

Although it’s not just Pedro who has produced this season, Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, and Russell Martin all have played a vital part in the Pirates’ offense thus far.  Marte’s .798 OPS and 28 stolen bases show his rare blend of power and speed that has been much appreciated at the top of Clint Hurdle’s lineup.  McCutchen has yet to get really hot yet this season, but is still hitting at a .306 clip with 51 RBI out of the 3 spot.  Perhaps the team’s MVP to this point, catcher Russell Martin has given the Pirates something they haven’t had since Jason Kendall, a catcher who can hit and isn’t awful behind the plate.  Martin has been excellent in regards to his throwing, blocking, and pitch-framing which go unnoticed by the casual baseball fan.  While his .239 average isn’t superb, his 35 RBI and .342 OBP are just fine by me and I’m sure Hurdle would agree as well.

After going 1-2 this weekend against the Reds, the Pirates are currently sitting at 57-39 and 2 GB of the Cardinals for the NL Central Division lead.  With several games left against both the Cardinals and Reds, it will be interesting to see what GM Neal Huntington decides to do at this year’s trade deadline as the Pirates look to end their infamous losing season streak.