It is a fair question.
One naysayers (yours truly included) are loathe to ask.
Are these Pirates for real?
Admit it – there are glimpses. Bouncing back immediately from the losing end of two four-game sweeps at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies and Washington Nationals respectively showed a resiliency good teams must have during a 162-game season.
There are other glimpses.
A surprisingly potent offense and better than expected starting rotation have the Pirates sitting six games above level and a half-game out of first place in the National League Central.
Not bad for a team that was expected to be a laughing stock.
Not to steal the honey from the swarm of bees, but it is only May, and the season is only a quarter gone. Any day now, the Pirates could wake up and realize that they have a roster filled with underachievers, has-beens and never-will-bes, and return to the depths of mediocrity or worse. It is plausible, though, that the young arms will continue to develop, the timely hitting will be a signature of this team, and the surprisingly good base running and defense will keep the Buccos in the hunt through the dog days and into a time when the Pirates will be more than a nice story to pass the time before the Steelers start the engine on training camp.
A few things have to happen for the nice story to turn into the best story of the 2018 baseball season. For one, Jameson Taillon needs to be an ace. Taillon and his cluster of finger blisters have held back the progress of the only pitcher on the roster who should be relied upon to deliver quality start after quality start.
Also, Ivan Nova – uhm – may need to go away. “Super Nova,” remember that ridiculous nickname, is maddeningly inconsistent and might be in the way of Nick Kingham’s permanent spot in the rotation. It’s as simple as this – if Nova is going to go 11-11, and Kingham is going to go 11-11, the Pirates would benefit more from allowing Kingham to experience an almost-full season in the bigs than watching Nova flounder.
Another factor is the crowded infield when Harrison and Kang (assuming quite a bit here) return to the lineup. Maybe David Freese, whose pre-season rant sounds more ridiculous every day, can find his way to the same train out of Pittsburgh Ivan Nova can hop.
A third issue, and I won’t stop saying it until it happens, Gregory Polanco needs to grow up at the plate. His prodigious power makes his horrible bat control and even more horrible pitch recognition hard to watch. Certainly Pirates’ hitting coach Jeff Branson works with Polanco on the art of hitting and a two-strike approach, but the outcomes are more bad than good.
George Kontos has been mediocre at best and bad at worst in his 8th-inning role, and that is disquieting for a team that depends on the back end of its bullpen to win games – especially if that team wants to contend.
What to do with Joe Musgrove when he is finally ready, what to do with Adam Frazier when Harrison returns, what to do if any of the starters or relievers tank, these are all good problems to have – all problems contending teams solve. The Pirates may not have earned back the trust and loyalty of a jaded and cynical fan base – some of whom feel the good start is more smoke and mirrors than actual good baseball – but they have earned the right to answer a valid question:
Are the Pirates for real?