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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Pirates looking like championship contender

Pirates looking like championship contender

Pirates looking like championship contender

The Pittsburgh Pirates are good enough to win the World Series, and how long has it been since we could say something like that?

They're a tribute to general manager Neal Huntington's relentless roster building, to Clint Hurdle's managerial genius and to center fielder Andrew McCutchen, whose six-year commitment to the organization last season started it all.

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Yet, the Pirates are also a cautionary tale. They were built brick by brick, two steps forward, one step back, again and again. If they end up playing October baseball -- and wouldn't it be wonderful to see PNC Park packed and loud? -- Huntington may feel as much relief as joy.

His has been a long, tough slog in the nearly six years since he began reconstructing the franchise. Huntington has done it by drafting smartly and finding contributors here, there and everywhere.

Because he has to shop in the bargain section of the free-agent marketplace, Huntington's going to have plenty of misses, too. At the moment, though, his batting average looks outstanding.

At 46-20, the Pirates own baseball's second-best record despite its fourth-lowest payroll. If there's a living, breathing definition of market efficiency, this may be it.

So let's emphasize the hits. Huntington took a shot on first baseman Gaby Sanchez, who was hitting .202 for the Marlins at the time the deal was made last season. He found a No. 1 starter in right-hander A.J. Burnett, thinking a change of scenery from the Yankees might be just the thing to get him going.

The Yankees sent him packing and picked up most of the tab as well. In two seasons, Burnett has become a mentor for the entire team while going 20-16 with a 3.39 ERA.

Huntington made under-the-radar deals for outfielder Travis Snider, reliever Mark Melancon and starter Jeff Locke. His signings of free-agent pitchers Francisco Liriano and Jason Grilli look better by the day.

These Pirates are also a tribute to the player development system Huntington constructed. He inherited McCutchen, but drafted third baseman Pedro Alvarez (19 home runs, tops among National League third basemen) and signed amateur free agent Starling Marte (12 doubles, six triples, six home runs) out of the Dominican Republic.

Second baseman Neil Walker and rookie right-hander Gerrit Cole, like McCutchen and Alvarez, are former first-round Draft picks.

Maybe Huntington's most important deal of all was hiring Hurdle two years ago. The skipper has made the various pieces fit together and has a gift of convincing players to believe in both themselves and their team.

To spend five minutes with Hurdle is to become convinced the Pirates are the absolute real deal. Looking back on it, Huntington simply couldn't have made a better choice, because a lot of things began to change the moment he walked in the door and announced that those other Pirates were not going to be these Pirates.

They've flirted with respectability. They were at .500 after 108 games two years ago before a poor finish. Walker and McCutchen were on that team. So were starters Charlie Morton and James McDonald. But most of the pieces have changed.

The Pirates got even closer last season. They were atop the NL Central at the All-Star break and over .500 well into September. Again, they could not finish the deal.

And Huntington stayed at it, upgrading at catcher (free agent Russell Martin) and allowing some of last season's acquisitions -- Sanchez and Snider -- to settle in.

So what makes these Pirates different from last season's Pirates? Is there any reason to think there won't be another collapse?

For one thing, they may better understand the grind of a pennant race. They also have better players. This team is built around a pitching staff that has the NL's third-best ERA. The Bucs' staff was eighth in 2012, 11th in 2011.

The Pirates still aren't a great offensive team, but there may not be one of those this season. With more depth in the rotation and with Melancon and Grilli anchoring the back of the bullpen, the Pirates aren't going to let many leads slip away.

There's also some magic. They've won 11 of their last 14 one-run games, including on Sunday in Anaheim when they rallied from three runs down in the ninth inning to tie it, scored four more in the 10th and then held on for a 10-9 victory.

Huntington has tweaked his roster so often the last two years that he's likely to be aggressive at the non-waiver Trade Deadline if there's a problem he can shore up. That is, if he even has a pressing need.

As Alvarez and McCutchen begin to heat up, the Pirates are beginning to look like a team without a serious weakness.

If they win on Tuesday in Seattle, the Bucs will be 17 games over .500 for the first time since September 1992. Baseball's six-month season eventually will expose every flaw. At the moment, the Pirates don't appear to have many.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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