It sounds blasphemous to call the 2011 season anything but a major improvement upon the franchise's last two decades of embarrassment. But I just do not see how this team has gotten better and shown that the future will reap benefits of October baseball in Pittsburgh. Has there been more excitement in this season than in the last two decades? Absolutely. Atop the division in late July was extremely fun to witness as the team was performing like a veteran, well-oiled machine. However, there was something ominous about how they were doing it.

The Pirates weren't winning the majority of their games because of their young, core players. They were winning because of their pitching which included starters Paul Maholm, Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton, James McDonald and relievers Joel Hanrahan, Jose Veras, Tony Watson and Daniel McCutchen. While Morton and McDonald project to be bottom of the rotation starters in the future, Karstens projects to be a long reliever who has pitched at an unsustainable, Cy Young caliber level this season. The pitching combined with timely hitting from career bench players Josh Harrison, Michael Mckenry, Xavier Paul, etc. put the Pirates in contention. The "core" players contributed in spurts but lacked any consistency to their approach at the plate.

When Andrew McCutchen was batting .219 in April, Neil Walker was hitting .301; when McCutchen was hitting .347 in June, Walker was batting .213. Meanwhile, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata have dealt with lingering injuries that have squashed all hopes of improving on last year's successes. Since Alvarez returned to Pittsburgh on July 25th, he has hit .185 with an OPS of .504, 24 k's and 4 walks. It is painfully obvious he has completely lost confidence in his hitting ability and, to his credit, he was promoted (because of injury to Alex Presley) when the Pirates were facing the toughest stretch of games in the season. Going from AAA pitching to facing Tim Hudson, Tommy Hanson, Jair Jurrjens, Derek Lowe, Craig Kimbrel, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee (in that order) is a huge disparity in talent. Nevertheless, Alvarez needs to fight through his inconsistencies and trust his natural talent.

The Pirates would have to win two more games to eclipse last year's win total and claim a "better season." As a team, yes the Pirates have improved. They are a lot more exciting to watch and they are competitive in nearly every game with the numbers, particularly in the pitching staff, to prove it. But the supposed "future" of this team: McCutchen, Tabata, Alvarez, Walker have all taken a step back from last season. Make no mistake, those four players are as key to the team's future as Gerrit Cole, Luis Heredia, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. The Brewers are winning on the strength of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and Yovani Gallardo with solid role players around them. The Rays didn't make the 2008 World Series on the strength of Gabe Gross or Andy Sonnanstine. They made it with their young core of BJ Upton, Evan Longoria, James Shields and Carl Crawford.

If the Pirates want to mirror their small market colleagues, they need their stars to carry the load.

As it stands, even if McCutchen goes on a tear and finishes with his familiar .286/.365 AVG/OBP at season's end, is that an improvement or is it consistently above average? McCutchen has the physical tools to be a star in baseball but, at times, lacks discipline at the plate. While he has already matched his home run total from last year with 16, he already is approaching career high strikeout numbers while needing 14 stolen bases to match last year's total. Meanwhile, if Neil Walker finishes strong he can match his OPS from last season. Unfortunately, after batting an astounding .366 AVG, .889 OPS in July, Walker has gone south in August, batting .191 with as many strikeouts (9) as hits. Alvarez and Tabata won't come close to last year's success, barring miracles.

Now, before I see you on my lawn with torches, please realize I am not saying McCutchen, Walker, Alvarez and Tabata cannot improve. But they need to step it up. I understand there will be struggles and this team is going to take baby steps towards success. But they have to show improvement along the way and they need to show leadership when things aren't going as smoothly as planned. Clint Hurdle was brought in to "change the culture of losing." But the players are just as responsible. After watching Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez flail at awful pitches in Milwaukee and essentially, under perform to the highest degree, it looked more of the past than the future. If this franchise wants to dig themselves out of an 18 year rut, they need the potential stars of this team to shine significantly brighter than the likes of Xavier Paul and Ronny Cedeno.

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