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Rob Neyer is the National Baseball Editor for SB Nation. He's been a Royals fan since 1976, and regretting it since 1986.

I’m writing this at the conclusion of Major League Baseball’s July 21 schedule.

Improbably enough, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place.

I’m going to write that last bit again, just because.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place.

I’m overly fond of italics but didn’t use them there, because you don’t need them; when it comes to that sentence, the italics are implied.

Still, we don’t really believe in the Pittsburgh Pirates, do we?

Granted, the Pirates do play in a pitcher’s park that’s been particular tough on hitters this season. But they’re currently 13th in the National League in scoring, and it’s obviously difficult to win that way.

Not that it absolutely can’t be done. In 1985, the Kansas City Royals won the World Series after finishing 13th in the American League in scoring. But where the Royals had Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson and Charlie Leibrandt and Bud Black, the Pirates have Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton and Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia and James McDonald.

Does that seem like a championship rotation to you? Or even a rotation that’s likely to finish the season with a winning record, considering the Pirates’ problems scoring runs?

It doesn’t to me, anyway.

I don’t mention this because I enjoy being a wet blanket, draining my boils over every parade I come across. And like everyone else I know—well, except for the Cardinals fans in my life—I’m rooting for the Pirates to finish with a winning record for the first time in nearly 20 years. As sports fans, we root for the underdogs, and as a sports writer, I root for the story. And what a story this could be.

One thing has changed, though. If the Pirates were doing this exact thing two or three years ago, I think my advice would have been this:

Hey Pirates! Forget about 2011! Trade any veterans and relief pitchers you can trade for prospects and think about 2013!

Not this year. Not even after the case study of the 2011 Baltimore Orioles, who spent $15 million on Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero last winter in the vain hope of their first winning season in a long time. I didn’t like the contracts, and I really don’t like them now.  But those guys were signed with hopes for success; management was hoping a couple of (relatively) marquee players would bring the fans back to Oriole Park.

The Pirates are different. They’re already successful, and the fans have already started coming back. Now the trick is to keep winning, and to keep the fans. Unfortunately, the winning… Well, there’s not much that management can do about that. Even adding Hunter Pence and Jeremy Guthrie—which of course isn’t going to happen—probably wouldn’t make a real dent in the standings.

The fans, though? They’re looking for a sign. Of course, what they’re mostly looking for is winning, which is why they’ve begun to come back this summer. But they also want some tangible evidence that ownership is ready to back up those wins with more than just words.

But it’s not just the fans. What about the players and the coaching staff and everyone in the front office? Mightn’t they also be looking for a sign that the people running the organization are committed to winning?

Little (if any) of this can be quantified to the point of justifying an aggressive course of action. Which is why, until recently, I might have just shrugged my shoulders and said, “So what? This team isn’t going to contend—just look at Baseball Prospectus’s Playoff Odds Report: 4.4 percent!—so they obviously don’t have any business trading a prospect for a veteran or paying a veteran’s salary for two months.”

Well, I’m two or three years older, and I think I would have been wrong. Today I think a Grade-B prospect and a few million dollars might actually be a small price to pay for the goodwill the Pirates will gain if they actually try to win a division title this season, no matter the odds against them.

By the end of this season, most baseball fans are likely to have forgotten about the Pittsburgh Pirates. But most baseball fans are irrelevant. The only baseball fans that matter are the baseball fans in Pittsburgh, some thousands of whom are watching, very closely and with great interest, to see what management is going to do next.

If you’re management, treasure this chance to make a real impression. There aren’t many chances like this, and they shouldn’t be wasted.

Thank you for reading

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Great piece. I was so excited to see the Rob Neyer bylline on BP. Would love to see the guest part removed. I remember coming accross Ranny& Rob on the Royals back in the " dial up" days. Always liked your writing and thought you and BP would be a great fit.
With the way other contenders in the NL Central are playing; gaining another bat may not be necessary.
When they plexiglass their way back to 5th place next year, and also flounder around the following one, today's good will will disappear justlikethat.

Just find the trade-cheapest 'name' player you can get, announce that you've traded for him "to teach us how to compete in a pennant race", and blather about how sorry you are to lose the greatly promising (non)prospects you dump for his sorry dessicated carcass. That way you address the political issues while suffering the least amount of damage to your actual legitimate long-term prospects.
"Grade-B prospect and a few million dollars" sounds like Carlos Beltran to me - what would be needed to make a deal like Beltran work? Starling Marte sounds like too much, no? Would Gorkys Hernandez be enough?

(Oh, and count me as a Cards' fan rooting for the Pirates to put together a winning season (a close 2nd place finish ;-)))
That the Pirates find themselves in the midst of the most unprobable contending season is amazing. There is little doubt that the organization is headed in a positive direction, but help from the minors is still 1-2 years away.

Yes, the fans deserve this team doing something to keep itself in the race, but they can't forget that 3 other teams in their division will be doing the same thing. That's why they have a 4% chance of making the playoffs.

They'll get Doumit, Alvarez and Tabata back; all three providing a 2nd half upgrade over what's on the field at those positions currently. Add a 1b bat and give the over-worked pen some help. Otherwise, give this bunch of players the shot to finish what "they" started. Don't trade away the prospects that this organization has spent 4 years trying to build with. The cupboard was bare before this regime took the reigns. Don't mortgage the future in an attempt to increase your chances from 4% to 7%. Get back your injured guys, sprinkle some help to them via minor trades and let the chips fall where they may.

Meanwhile, if there's a shot to acquire someone that might help in 2012 and beyond, that's what your trade chips should be used for, both at the deadline and over the winter.
Man, I really would like to see the Pirates hang in there, but that smoke-and-mirrors pitching staff scares me to death. To throw out another KC analogy, they feel like the Royals circa 2003. I fear that the wilt begins this weekend.
To quote Max Kellerman, "Gotta read your Neyer."
Can't we go down the middle road? You can't snatch away your fans' fun by trading veterans who are helping the team while they are still in first place - or even close to it - unless you have a really good young back-up guy to take his place. In baseball, ya just never know. However, I agree they shouldn't trade anyone who will likely be important to their future just to aid their current flirtation with a title.
I'm an Oakland fan, but I'm still pretty sure that the pitcher on the Pirates is James McDonald, and not Jason.
Rob, thank you for being my "gateway drug" to the world of sabremetrics and BP.

You make a good point that we sometimes forget that teams shouldn't just be in the business of trying to win a world series- they also need to provide an entertaining, watchable product day in and day out. My guess is that the Mets decision to not trade Reyes this year comes fom the same motivation you describe for the Pirates.
"I don’t mention this because I enjoy being a wet blanket, draining my boils over every parade I come across."

I want to congratulate your imagery. I loved this sentence.
Great to see you again Rob. Think I've been reading you for a decade or so now.
I'm a Cardinals fan, and I must say, I'm happy to see this development. Pleasant and interesting surprises in baseball CANNOT be a bad thing, even if they threaten one's own rooting interests. The NL Central will be a more interesting place with Pittsburgh's return to viability.
Thank you. You can only trade for next year for so long before you completely alienate your fans and there aren't enough people to watch next year. A think the Pirates will make some moves, if only because GM Huntington's contract expires after this season. A winning record should enable him to bank another 3-year deal and continue the process. I don't think they would move Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Tony Sanchez, Stetson Allie or even Starling Marte, but maybe Colton Cain type, or a Zack Dodson could be sacrificed today, to help make sure people are still watching when those others are all up.
Thank you to the BP people for getting Rob to write a piece. It was a really fun read.
+1 on having Rob be a frequent contributor to BP, and being a Cardinals fan who wants the Bucs to finish over .500, but in second place.
I'm a lifelong Pirates fan (I'm 48). I don't know where this year is going to end, but it has already far exceeded my wildest expectations. We need a 1B. Lyle Overbay just isn't doing it. When I look at the other NL Central teams in the hunt, I really don't see any runaway leader. There's a lot of "high end mediocrity" here.

All I know is it's one week from August and the Pirates are still very much in the hunt. We have pitching in the pipeline, but it is still 2-3 years away. The days of the doormat Pirates are finally over.
On the question of Overbay and first base, the pennant race almost doesn't matter. It's madness (madness, I say) that Lyle has a starting job in the major leagues --- never mind on a contender.

In related news, Wily Mo got cut today.