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Are the Pirates a Mirage?

Somewhat lost among the hot starts of the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles, as well as the Red Sox's and Rays' early-season trip to the morgue, has been the surprising start of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Buccos will play their home opener tomorrow at 4-2, good for second in the NL Central...and they've done it all on the road, where they mustered a historically bad 17 wins last year. So what to make of it?

I'll get most of the bad stuff out of the way at the beginning: the Pirates will probably not play .500 baseball over the course of 162 games. They've been lucky. Through the first six games, Pirates pitchers have only given up one homerun, and some of those warning track shots are going to go out. Pirates hitters lead the league in strikeouts and Pirates pitchers have issued the second-most walks. It's not, in short, a recipe for success. Furthermore, the defense is shaky, as evidence in an almost comically poor performance in the opener against the Cubs. The Bucs won anyway, and the weather was particularly awful, which played a role in a dropped pop-up or two, but still. 

All that said, there are reasons to hope, and the first reason is the record. 4-2. Six games is six games is six games. But four wins, and two series wins on the opening road trip just one year removed from an absolutely dismal year away from PNC in 2010 is cause for joy. After six games, the Bucs are more than a quarter of the way to last season's road victory total.

It speaks to, if nothing else, the growth and maturation of many of the Pirates young guns, who, by the way, have started off hot. Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen, and Neil Walker (the top third of the order) have OPSes over .870. McCutchen and Walker are over 1.000, and cleanup hitter Lyle Overbay is at .900. The Pirates' young core certainly appears to have more confidence at the plate. Pedro Alvarez alone among the "core" has started off slow, but he's a notoriously slow starter.

The starting pitching has had solid results, with less than stellar peripherals. 32 strikeouts to 24 walks isn't going to cut it over the course of the season. But veteran new-comer Kevin Correia has turned in two solid starts, Paul Maholm allowed no runs in an eventual no decision, Ross Ohlendorf and James McDonald were decent, and much-maligned Charlie Morton showcased his patented "electric stuff" against the Cardinals, allowing only 4 batted balls off the ground, and recording 14 ground-outs.

"Luck" will be the watchword with this staff until they increase their strikeouts and reduce their walks. And they will certainly give up more homeruns. However, there has been a marked difference from last year in one area (granted only six games have been played): the Pirates starters have worked through adversity and gotten out of jams. Last year, and in years past, the Pirates often crumbled when a couple of guys got on base, or when a run scored. The big inning certainly was a scourge. In this admittedly young season, they have shown that they can overcome some sticky situations. This won't always be the case of course, but it's encouraging to see that they are not the wilting flowers of 2010.

Put simply, the Pirates have started 2011 playing good baseball, but they are outplaying their peripherals. Still, there is room for optimism. They have some exciting and intriguing young hitters in McCutchen, Walker, Tabata, and Alvarez who will be fun to watch. The pitching, however, will most likely hold the Bucs back. As the Pirates young hitters mature, they will get better. The same probably can't be said for the (most-likely) overachieving pitching staff. 

Still, as one of the, by nature, cautiously semi-optimistic commenters on Bucs Dugout put it (paraphrase): "I'm happy that the Bucs are at least competitive. They're playing hard and staying in games. Giving themselves a chance to win."

When it comes down to it, the Pirates will not, barring some sort of Angels in the Outfield situation, compete for a playoff spot, and their chances of even finishing .500 are still slim.  But watching them actually compete while not consistently looking hopelessly overmatched would be a great step towards the Pirates larger goal, and, as pathetic as this may sound, a lot to look forward to for long-suffering Pirates fans.

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