Let's spend one moment thinking back to April 1st. On April 1st, I was awfully concerned about the upcoming season. Simply put, I thought it was time for the Pirates to move to the proverbial "next level" of their long rebuilding process and I didn't think that the team, as assembled, was ready to make that jump. I was concerned that they were wasting years of Andrew McCutchen's prime and concerned that the minor league system wasn't good enough to support a sustained run of success in the immediate or near future.
I feel a little bit differently today. You probably know the vital statistics here, but let's run through them. The Pirates are 56-37 at the All-Star Break. That's slightly better than a 60% winning percentage. They have the second best record in the National League, just one game behind the Cardinals. That puts them in the first wild card spot, four games ahead of the the Cincinnati team that holds the second wild card spot. It also puts them nine games up on the Nationals, who are in third place in the wild card standings. Baseball Prospectus has translated that into a 92% chance of making the playoffs, at 58% chance of advancing into the division series, at 27% chance of winning the NL Central, and a non-trivial 5.3% chance of winning the World Series. The minor league system has come into focus, too, with Gerrit Cole looking promising in his big league debut, Jameson Taillon re-affirming his top prospect status in Double-A, Gregory Polanco joining the league's elite prospects, Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow forcing a re-evaluation of the Pirates' drafting methods, and so on. The Pirates don't have the best minor league system in baseball, I don't think, but if you're ranking the best farm systems they're moving awfully close to the top.
When the Pirates were on their fantastic run last summer, I said that I didn't think there was anything better in sports at the time than being a Pirate fan. I think that's true again this summer; Andrew McCutchen is one of the best and most likable players in baseball. Starling Marte is an incredible combination of raw physical tools, baseball talent, and fearlessness to become one of baseball's most exciting players to watch. Pedro Alvarez is obliterating baseballs at every opportunity. The pitching staff is a great combination of veterans re-discovering their stride and young pitchers learning how to use their talent. Somehow the words "Mark and Cheese" have become the most terrifying words an opposing baseball team can hear in the eighth inning. Seeing all this happen with the knowledge of Taillon and Polanco and Hanson on their way makes me, as a Pirate fan, just want to smile. Smiling is not a reaction that's been associated with the Pirates much in the past 20 years.
Recapping the wonders of the best pre-All Star Break Pirate team in recent memory is a double-edged sword, though. This is not a secret, but I've never been particularly interested in 82 wins. Teams that win 82 games almost always spend their Octobers the same way that teams with 79 or 67 wins or 55 wins spend their Octobers; they spend them at home, watching better teams keep playing. My biggest fear this April wasn't that the Pirates weren't going to have a winning season, it was that a winning season was the best that they could aspire to.
The Pirates are 56-37 at the All-Star Break now, and so that's obviously no longer true. We can spend hours debating what will happen from here on out. Can the bullpen keep holding on to leads and stranding runners at such a ridiculous rate? What will Jeff Locke's second half look like? Can Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole be consistent enough to really shore the rotation up? What will Neal Huntington do about right field? What will he do about Brandon Inge and Mike McKenry? Can Francisco Liriano keeping pitching like the Liriano of old? How long can Pedro Alvarez sustain success while he strikes out a third of the time that he bats? If some things regress back, will the offense doing better with runners in scoring position pick up enough of the slack? Can Andrew McCutchen stay healthy and productive for 162 games?
In some regards, though, the only thing that matters is that the Pirates have played like one of the three or four best teams in the National League through 93 games, but that seasons don't get judged on 93 games. My big concern before the season started was that the Pirates weren't quite talented enough to contend for a playoff spot this year or to be annual contenders going forward. I feel better about both of those concerns 4 1/2 months later. Now let's move on to this: contending for a playoff spot and actually earning one are not the same thing. When you're 56-37 at the All-Star Break with a nine game lead on the field, merely contending is not good enough. The 93 games that the Pirates played before the break were great, but they're in the past now. What matters going forward is turning a good 93 games into a good 94, then 94 into 95, all the way up until 162.