Here we are on July 26. It's the second consecutive year that the Pirates are in playoff contention.
It was almost a year ago to this day that all Pirates fans became more familiar with umpire Jerry Meals than they wanted to. The Pirates lost a 4-3 19-inning marathon due to an obvious blown call by Meals, where he (Meals) was sure catcher Michael McKenry missed the tag on Julio Lugo at home plate, giving the Braves a win. While many believe that this loss then began the Pirates' second-half spiral last year, in reality, they weren't ready to contend.
This year, it's a different story.
The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates are a much different team. While much of last year's team is still intact, there are some additional pieces that general manager Neal Huntington brought in. These pieces are the main reason this club has a lot more staying power than the version we witnessed last year.
A.J. Burnett, Casey McGehee, Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes and Erik Bedard were all added during the offseason. While Burnett is the only one of those five who is having a career year, it's not all about stats. All five are veterans who have playoff experience and bring a different atmosphere to the clubhouse.
Barajas has been a a very good presence for the pitching staff. Burnett has taken James McDonald under his wing, and although Barmes and Bedard are far from having career years, they too brought leadership to the young Pirates players. That was lacking last year. McGehee has been a very good platoon and bench option as well.
All of the above reasons explain why this Pittsburgh Pirates team is in a much better position to make not only a wild-card run, but a solid challenge to the Reds for the National League Central title.
Let's not forget the defending World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals. You can be certain they will be heard from again before this season ends.
Management let it be known that they have every intention to make a run at the postseason. The acquisition of Wandy Rodriguez on Tuesday was their first statement. They have to make at least one more statement before Tuesday's 4 p.m. trade deadline. The Pirates need a corner outfield bat or at the very least, a first basemen with some power.
Calling up Starling Marte is a good move, and while Marte's early reviews look like he could be a very good major league player, he is still a rookie and he'll have periods where he needs to adjust to big league pitching.
The Padres' Chase Headley is a third baseman who can play the outfield. Headley is in demand, and many teams are in the mix for his services.
Barring a crazy offer that Neal Huntington can't turn down, it appears that top pitching prospects James Taillon and Gerrit Cole are untouchable. The question is, can Huntington put a package together with prospects (other than Taillon and Cole) and possibly a player or two from the current roster, in return for a Headley-type bat? I'd say yes.
When the Pirates acquired Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick before last year's deadline, nobody could name the prospects that were traded in return. By no means am I comparing the prospects that were traded for Lee and Ludwick to the prospects that would be needed to acquire a Headley.
The point I'm making is, we probably won't remember the names of the prospects dealt to San Diego if a trade with the Padres goes down. Huntington has proved he can find quality without giving up a lot in return.
I am not as high on Victorino. As much as I think he'd be a good addition to the Pirates, I think the Phillies may be asking for too much in return. With Marte being called up, the need for a leadoff bat is also not as great. Victorino also doesn't provide the power the Pirates would ultimately be looking for. Huntington is on record saying while he's open to trading for a rental, he would rather acquire a player who he has locked up for at least another season if he's going to give up prospects.
When it comes to Pence, I think he'd be exactly what the Pirates are looking for. A perfect bat to hit behind McCutchen. From the reports I have been hearing, it looks like the Phillies are asking too much in return. While I wouldn't rule out seeing Pence in a Pirates uniform, I think it will be unlikely.
Either way, it should be a very interesting and fun next five days.