Originally posted on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 6/19/12

My preseason prediction to snag one of the two NL Wild Card spots, the Pittsburgh Pirates, are off to a pretty impressive start.

After giving their fans something to get excited about for the first time in a while in 2011, it seems that the Bucs may have figured out how to sustain that success more this year than last year.

Off to a 34-31 start, the Pirates are in 2nd place in the NL Central, 3.5 GB of the Reds and 1 ahead of the Cardinals.

With the Pirates, it’s really the tale of two different teams: the offense and the defense.

Surprisingly Strong Staff

The Pirates’ pitching staff has amassed an impressive 3.51 ERA and has been one of the better pitching staffs in the National League.

A.J. Burnett, my preseason prediction for NL Comeback Player of the Year, has won six straight starts and would be near the top of the NL Cy Young discussion had he not let up 12 runs in one of his starts a while back.

Additionally, John McDonald is finally panning out, holding a 5-3 record with a 2.32 ERA thus far.

But despite the solid overall team stats, the Pirates are still a starting pitcher away.

Sure, the likes of Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, and even Brad Lincoln are all solid back-end of the rotation guys, but they need someone else in that staff that gives them a good chance of winning every time they go out besides McDonald and Burnett.

Burnett allowed 2 runs or fewer in all but 2 starts – one of which he allowed 3, the other, 12. Photo courtesy SBNation.com

Staying with the pitching staff, we move on to the Pirates most complete unit, the bullpen. They have five guys in their ‘pen that have an ERA below 3.00, and if Brad Lincoln ends up returning there, they’ll have six very reliable guys to go to – a luxury that most teams don’t have.

So while their pitching staff has been very good, it doesn’t mean it’s not flawed. Pitching discussions always start with the starters, which is unfortunate for the Pirates because of their lack of depth.

But pitching issues are from the biggest issues Pittsburgh faces in its quest to reverse two decades of non-playoff ineptitude.

Punchless Offense

But now, we move to the chunk of the team that is very flawed: the offense.

Ranking 29th with a .228 batting average and 30th in runs, the Pirates are down there with the league’s worst. Besides Andrew McCutchen, the best average on the team is Neil Walker, who stands at .271 as of Tuesday. Their next run producer after McCutchen is Pedro Alvarez, who’s hitting a lowly .207.

Simply put, they really don’t have much.

I mean, it’s somewhat amazing that one of my two preseason NL MVP predictions, McCutchen, has a stat line as good as he does (.325 BA, 11 HR, 37 RBI, and 13 SB) considering he has no protection in the order.

Pittsburgh doesn’t just need help on offense, they need a lot of it. I’m talking one major player and one or two more solid guys. Considering that the Pirates want to follow through with their plan of building from within to have sustained success for years to come, I don’t see them making those multiple acquisitions before the July 31 trade deadline.

He’s definitely one of my favorite players to watch. Photo courtesy Andrew Lyons via Getty Images

So…Contender or Pretender?

The fact that their management will most likely keep the team as is, paired with the fact that their roster is far from elite playoff-team level, I don’t see the Pirates being able to make the playoffs as I did prior to the start of the year. I saw Pedro Alvarez and Jeff Karstens really emerging as stars this year, and that obviously has not yet happened.

I’m hesitant to say that they’re “pretenders,” though. While I don’t think that they’ll be all too close to a Wild Card spot, considering I think about seven or eight teams in the NL will finish better than them, I think they’ll give teams a fair share of problems down the stretch, as this young bunch will want to cement their name in the head of the league’s elite teams any chance they get.

They’ll be pesky, they’ll fight, and they could be awfully good next year. But as far as the rest of the 2012 season goes, I see a team finishing with 84 or 85 wins at best, which probably won’t be quite enough to qualify for the post season.

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