Middlebrooks Takes Over; Burnett Rolling

CineSport—Having traded Kevin Youkilis to Chicago, the Red Sox will start Will Middlebrooks at 3B. A.J. Burnett has won his last 7 starts. CineSport's Noah Coslov & Sporting News' Stan McNeal discuss.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a reputation of repeatedly playing the little brother, not only around Major League Baseball, but also in the city of Pittsburgh. The struggling franchise hasn't had a winning season since Barry Bonds won the MVP while leading the Pirates to the NLCS in 1992.

Two decades later the Pirates are still searching for that breakthrough year. Right now Pittsburgh finds itself in a similar position to where they were when approaching the midway point of 2011: the team has overachieved, competing at the top of the division, and will be forced to make crucial decisions before the trade deadline.

In recent years we've seen teams with low payrolls and young talent make regular season runs only to fall apart toward the end of the season. Take the 2011 Cleveland Indians for example: They started out 33-20 before waning in the summer heat to finish 80-82.

At the other end of the spectrum, we've also witnessed similar low expectation-laden teams who ride that regular season momentum right into the playoffs and beyond, such as the 2008 American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays.

The Buccos currently sit at 38-33, one game back of the NL Central-leading Cincinnati Reds, which begs the question, Can the Pirates continue their winning ways, or will the fire fizzle out once again?

If Andrew McCutchen has anything to say about it, you can bet they won't go down without a fight. The multifaceted center fielder has been the catalyst for the Pirates' success, producing MVP-type numbers (.340 BA, 13 HR, 45 RBI and 14 SB) in just his fourth season with the club.

But even with McCutchen maximizing his rare combination of speed and power, the Pirates lineup is still lacking offensive firepower. The Pirates rank 28th or lower in runs, batting average and RBI, which means Pittsburgh must add a quality bat to compete with NL Central lineups consisting of Ryan Braun and Joey Votto.

Meanwhile, its been the Pirates pitchers that have carried the load. A revitalized A.J. Burnett coupled with a dominant James McDonald have anchored the Bucs' rotation while Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton are sidelined with injuries. The bullpen, deeper and with more powerful arms, has helped catapult Pittsburgh to an impressive 3.35 team ERA.

With so many young, inexperienced players on the roster, it's difficult to predict if the Pirates can stay the course till season's end, but if they're able to upgrade offensively before the trade deadline, it will definitely help Pittsburgh steer clear of another late-season capsize.