After 18 straight losing seasons in Pittsburgh, not to mention last year's 105-loss campaign, you might well have wondered at what point the long rebuilding effort on general manager Neal Huntington's watch was going to bear fruit. However, Pirates fans hoping for an end to 18 straight losing seasons might have to wait no longer -- after Monday's victory over the Astros, the Pirates are now three games over .500.
In all of this, there's one consistent element -- the talent on the field isn't simply the product of a player-development program spruced up by the changeover from the overtly cheap days before Frank Coonelly moved into the executive suite as team president; it also has some of the products from the pile of deals Huntington had to make to tear down a losing team and try to bring in some talent closer to major league-ready.
What has come together for the Pirates this season to put this in the realm of possibility? A major consideration is that they're no longer dealing with a league-worst offense or a league-worst rotation. Where the 2010 Pirates were giving up 5.4 runs per game, this year's team has gotten that down to 3.9 (12th in the league); last year's team scored a league-worst 3.6 runs per game, but these Pirates have improved to 3.9 (11th in the National League), that while scoring has gone down.
Shaving a run and a half off your runs allowed every night is an automatic formula for success. Having a sound staff, top to bottom, has made a huge difference in terms of keeping games within reach. Last year's Pirates gave up 10 or more runs in 15 games, losing all of them, while surrendering six or more in 70 games (almost half their schedule) with an 8-62 record. That isn't all that surprising, given that they managed to score six runs or more in just 30 games. This year, the one-sided routs aren't happening weekly, giving a slightly better offense that critical chance to produce enough runs to win.
The key element was getting the pitching staff turned around. This year, like last (as represented by last year's token Pirate All-Star, Evan Meek), an underrated bullpen has been an everyday standby. Closer Joel Hanrahan has been excellent this year, going a perfect 25-for-25 in his save opportunities, but manager Clint Hurdle is getting good mileage out of supporting players such as veterans Jose Veras and Chris Resop.
However, a bullpen doesn't do you much good without being handed a game within reach, and this year's more stable rotation has been the team's major difference-maker, managing 49 quality starts in 85 games. The source of this year's five rotation regulars reflects the full spread of potential talent sources for the Pirates' rebuilding effort. Monday's winner, Paul Maholm, is the rotation's lone home-grown talent, a first-round pick selected in 2003 by Dave Littlefield, Huntington's predecessor as general manager. The only free agent in the mix is veteran journeyman Kevin Correia, added this winter.
Rounding out the front five are three middling prospects picked up by Huntington in his various modest-yield deals necessarily tearing down Littlefield's weak, going-nowhere rosters: Jeff Karstens came over from the Yankees in the deal sending Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady to the Bronx in 2008; Charlie Morton from the Braves as part of the package received for Nate McLouth in 2009; and James McDonald from the Dodgers in last year's Octavio Dotel dump. Nobody expects any of these three to become world-beaters by themselves, but getting top prospects in deals would have required better talent to work from than Huntington inherited.
There also have been a number of worthwhile defensive risks the Pirates were willing to run. Whether moving Neil Walker to second base or Ryan Doumit to catcher or Chase d'Arnaud to shortstop, the Pirates have taken chances on hitters whose bats might profile as only OK at easier defensive positions and challenged them to instead handle up-the-middle positions. That might not win a pennant now or next year, but it will give them an absolute sense of what they can do with the talent on hand and where they can play it to best advantage.
There's no longer any reason to ask whether modest, ambitious goals such as 70 wins -- something the Pirates haven't achieved since 2004 -- are achievable. Instead, the Pirates are looking at their best shot at an over-.500 season in more than a decade. The especially good news is that with a young star like Andrew McCutchen to build around, the Pirates haven't simply recovered respectability; they have enough talent on hand to soon build for something more than just a .500 record. Pittsburgh, you've come a long way.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.