The Pirates did their job in the first half of the season, winning series against the bad teams and competing against the good teams. Now that they are four games over .500 at the break, fans, pundits and experts have deemed them contenders for the NL Central division.

And they are.

Now the Pirates will have an opportunity to show the baseball world whether they are contenders or pretenders in the upcoming months. After visiting the Astros on the road, the Pirates play the Reds and Cardinals at home and the Braves and Phillies on the road. The Reds and Cardinals are a combined 46-48 on the road, although injuries, particularly to the Cardinals, have been prominent throughout the season. With Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman healthy, this will be a much better team from what the Pirates saw in early April.

The series against the Braves and Phillies will make or break the season entirely. The Pirates have a four game set in Atlanta before traveling to Philadelphia for a weekend series. Both teams combine for a home record of 62-23 this season. As a Pirates fan, myself, I would be happy with a split in Atlanta and at least one win against the Phillies. With all of the trade speculation circumventing the team as of late, you would have to think the Pirates are going to do a wait-and-see approach to the last week of July before making a big move. If the Pirates manage to go 4-3 or better in that seven game stretch on the road, you would be hard pressed to not see GM Neal Huntington pull the trigger on a trade.

Then again, the schedule doesn't get any easier in August.
After seven games against terrible teams in the Cubs and Padres, the Pirates play the defending World Series Champions on the road, followed by the Brewers on the road where they are 3-36 since 2007. Then it is off to face the Cardinals and Reds before facing the Brewers and the Cardinals four times each. When I saw the schedule back in March, I certainly thought August would be their undoing, if nothing else. My opinion has not changed over the last few months, however, this is the same team that beat the Red Sox and Phillies in earlier series. If they can get through this part of the schedule with their head above water, they'll have a crack at the NL Central.

Down on the Farm
Ross Ohlendorf, in a rehab stint with the Bradenton Marauders, tossed four scoreless innings, surrendering just two hits and striking out three. Ohlendorf is rehabbing from a shoulder injury which has kept him out since mid-April

Pedro Alvarez continues to struggle since his demotion to AAA Indianapolis. The former first round pick went 0-4 last night with three strikeouts. He is now batting .222 with no home runs and two doubles.

Matt Hague, on the other hand, is crushing the ball for Indianapolis. This season, Hague is batting .324 with eight home runs and an OPS of .862. The time has been ticking on Lyle Overbay and if he struggles to start the second half of the season, it may be Hague who replaces him.

Starling Marte is on a bit of a cold streak in AA Altoona. In his last ten games, Marte is hitting .122 with one home run and an OPS of .420. No matter how well he hits, however, he will not be promoted to AAA until he gets a better grasp of the strike zone. Marte's K/BB is 4.85 which is terrible.

Pirates Sign Third Round Pick Alex Dickerson
It was announced, yesterday, the Pirates signed former Indiana outfielder, Alex Dickerson. The 2010 Big Ten Triple Crown winner played outfield for Indiana but projects to be a first baseman. He has pretty good power with the ability to hit for average as well. The only knock on Dickerson is his health. He had back surgery to remove bulging disks when he was still in high school. In 2011, he appeared to suffer similar problems. If he remains healthy, he could be the Pirates' answer to first base. For now, it is too early to project.

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