We are halfway through the 2011 season, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are tied for 2nd place, with a record of 41-39 going into Friday. The last time they had fewer losses on this date was 1999 (when, on July 1st they were 40-37), and that year, they finished 3rd in the division…AHEAD of the 4th place Cardinals. (Strange: You can’t see it in this published version, but I got a green squiggly line under that sentence when I wrote it…I guess even software programs have to do a double-take when the Pirates are having a good season.) Granted, “tied for 2nd place” in the division is a little misleading when there’s also a two-way tie for 1st. One game from now, they could theoretically be the 4th place Pirates.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we all rush out and buy up tickets for that sure-to-be-epic September 12th, 13th, & 14th series when the Cards & Bucks square off. But, I’d be lying if I told you that I’d never said “they won’t be around come late August” about a team who would later prove me wrong by doing just that. (A Tampa Bay “Devil Rays” team or two come to mind) I don’t know how much longer they can hold on and stay in this NLC race, but I will say this: Andrew McCutchen barely makes more than the league minimum, and is arbitration eligible next year, and the largest salary the Pirates are currently committed to for 2012 is Kevin Correia’s $4MM (his 2nd yr of a 2-year, $8MM deal). There are two players who are each owed roughly $2MM in 2012, and that’s it. Everyone else is $750K or lower next year, in terms of salary. Basically I’m telling you that I don’t expect the Pirates to be making headlines at the trade deadline with huge, blockbuster deals.
With the recent releases of Batista & Franklin, and the activation of Freese & McClellan, the Cardinals seem to be taking steps in a positive direction. Add to that the sweep over Baltimore this week, and things just might be looking up. Granted, the Orioles are not an A++ team, but when you look at that lineup and see Markakis, Lee, Guerrero, Reynolds…these are guys can mash the ball. Consider that the Cardinals pitching kept their bats quiet enough to take all 3 games, that’s encouraging. But, while I am encouraged by what the redbirds have done recently, to sustain it will impress and encourage me further. The Cardinals are fortunate to miss a red hot James Shields on this visit to Tampa, and with Milwaukee playing on the road right now, the series that starts Monday could play an even bigger role in terms of momentum. [Insert overused anecdotal statement about “fireworks”, referencing the Cards & Reds, and Carpenter/Cueto here]
Up until now, this has looked an awful lot like some of the National League Central Divisions we’ve seen in the past. The teams at the top doing everything they can night-in, night-out to try and give the division to another team, and the other team(s) simply will not take it. It’s like playing hot potato or musical chairs–I only wonder who will be sitting atop the division when the music stops.