Poorly paid Pirates are still finding ways to win
Published: Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, July 20, 2011 21:07
Don't look now.
Better yet, do not move so much as a muscle – the Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place and threatening to disrupt the cosmos as I write this piece.
After posting back-to-back shutouts against the defending National League Central champion Cincinnati Reds the last two nights, the Pirates, with a record of 51-45, have leapfrogged the Milwaukee Brewers and ascended into the national spotlight.
It's been 19 years since the Pirates stood alone atop their division at this point of the season, back when a significantly less-monstrous Barry Bonds led the team to the playoffs.
Better said, "Baby Got Back" was the No. 1 song in the United States the last time Pittsburgh was in first.
The fact that this team, who the New York Yankees could most likely purchase if they so desired, is even above .500 can be attributed to nothing short of a modern-day miracle.
The Pirates still rank in the bottom third of the majors in every offensive category, despite a breakout season from former top outfielder prospect Andrew McCutchen.
Three offensive starters – catcher Ryan Doumit, outfielder Jose Tabata and shortstop Ronny Cedeno – are all on the disabled list, while the 2008 No. 2 overall pick, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, struggles in the minor leagues.
Not only are these Pirates hitters generally not talented to begin with, they're not even healthy right now.
So, how on Earth is this team contending right now?
The pitching staff.
Pittsburgh's staff has improved as much as any team's in the entire league this season, bouncing back from posting the worst earned run average among the 30 MLB teams in 2010.
Starters Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, James McDonald and Charlie Morton all have ERAs of less than four runs per game this year. By contrast, the team gave up five runs per game last year.
They've also combined to win 39 games this season, more than all starters did a year ago.
Perhaps most importantly, the Pirates actually have a legitimate option as a closer. Joel Hanrahan, an All-Star, has picked up 28 saves and posted a paper-thin 1.24 ERA. Entering the season, the 29-year-old had saved 20 games.
The Pirates are the classic small-market Cinderella story, much like the Tampa Bay Rays were in 2008. Divisional cellar-dwellers for the better part of the millennium, the Pirates rank 28th in the majors in team payroll, according to USA Today.
Maholm, making $6.25 million this season, is the highest-paid player on the roster. To put his salary into perspective, four players on the last-place Houston Astros make more.
More than half of the team's players are making less than half a million dollars this season.
Alex Rodriguez's 2010 salary of $32 million equals approximately 70 percent of the Pirates' payroll.
The Pirates have gutted their roster multiple times to shed salary, as well. They have traded solid players like Aramis Ramirez and Jason Bay for less-than-average talent making very little money.
It's good to see baseball thriving again in one of America's better, more loyal sports markets, one that has endured 18 consecutive losing seasons.
Who knows? The Pirates may actually add a player or two before the July 31 trade deadline in an attempt to make a serious run for the postseason.