5 Key Players For Pittsburgh Pirates’ Playoff Hopes

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Pirates Contemplate Playoff Chances

Pirates Celebrate
Reid Compton - USA TODAY SPORTS

The very fact that an article like this can even be attempted to be written is proof something is amiss this summer. Something has changed ever-so-slightly in the fabric of the universe. Weirdness is in the air. The Pittsburgh Pirates are legit!

I know, I know. Like the boy who cried wolf too many times, my friends and family are rolling their eyes again this summer at my mad rantings about the Pirates and how “This is finally the year!” But I swear, this is finally the year. For real.

Look, I'm not saying this team is going to win the World Series, or even get there, but the Pirates finally do have a good team. No, it's not perfect. But what team is? These guys can play with anybody though. Detroit Tigers? Atlanta Braves? St. Louis Cardinals? Cincinnati Reds? Arizona Diamondbacks? San Francisco Giants? As of this writing, their record against these current “top teams” in their respective divisions? 17-10. So who's afraid of the big bad wolf? Bring on the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox! And throw in the Texas Rangers too while you're at it.

For once in the last 20 years, fans can wait until at least until September to change their sport-viewing habits. Not that rabid Pittsburgh Steeler fans won't lose interest in the Bucs anyway, but the Pirate faithful will have the whole enchilada to enjoy, and maybe even a pennant race that lasts till the final week of the season.

And if I'm wrong, well, you can blame one or more of these five guys in order of importance.

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Pedro Alvarez

Pedro Alvarez
Benny Sleu - USA TODAY SPORTS

I'm listing Pedro Alvarez first in order of importance because he still has such a huge upside. Not five years removed from his playing days in college with the Commodores of Vanderbilt, he's only 26 and poised to have a breakout season and begin the Willie Stargell-like career so many his ardent supporters have predicted. In fact, it's only because he's come into the league with such high expectations that we're not happy with a 28 home runs per year projected average. Yes, the batting average and on-base percentage have to pick up, but the guy has power — no PEDs needed. He can carry a team when he's right.

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Neil Walker

Neil Walker
Charles LeClaire - USA TODAY SPORTS

Neil Walker's task is a bit easier than Alvarez's, but no less important: just stay healthy. It's that simple. When Walker's not in the lineup, the Pirates lose more often than not. I don't know the exact numbers, but for the last two season when injuries have derailed him, the Pirates have gone downhill. It's more than just numbers though. Walker's a winner, and he competes to win, not for personal glory. You can tell stats are secondary to him. He is a team player and leads the rest by example. The Pirates need him to just stay healthy and in the lineup day in and day out and his numbers will take care of themselves.

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Starling Marte

Starling Marte
Jeff Curry - USA TODAY SPORTS

Starling Marte is an interesting factor in the playoff equation. Nobody expected him to tear through the league his very first month and a half of the season and hit .336 with a .400 OBP, but when he did, people got used to it. It's obvious this guy has Andrew McCutchen-like talent. He's the proverbial five-tool player. His youth and inexperience are the only thing holding him back right now. At just 24, if he ripens sooner rather than later, he'll add to solving the playoff puzzle. If he doesn't and plays like he has the last month and a half (.240 BA/.314 OBP), they'll need somebody else to step up — maybe an Alex Presley or Jose Tabata.

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Travis Snider

Travis Snider
Vincent Pullese - USA TODAY SPORTS

That brings us to Travis Snider. Snider has shown flashes of the player the Toronto Blue Jays drafted in the first round back in 2006, but nothing consistent yet. A much-underrated defensive outfielder, it looks like the Pirates' right fielder is finally getting settled into his part-time role with the team. He should get 300 plate appearances, but other Pirates like Tabata, Presley and Gaby Sanchez are competing for playing time with him. It's pretty simple though — the more he hits, the more he'll play, and the more he'll contribute to any playoff run the team makes.

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Brandon Inge

Brandon Inge
Kim Klement - USA TODAY SPORTS

And finally, Brandon Inge. At first glance, he might not seem like a huge factor in the team's playoff equation, but sooner or later, a key pinch hit here or there is going to be needed, and a veteran like Inge can make all the difference in the world down the stretch. He won't be sulking on the bench when it's his turn to stand and deliver.

It looks like it's going to be a tight race all the way, and with two wild card spots now, more teams will be vying for the opportunity to make the one-game playoff. One game here or there in the last month of the season, and a division title or wild card berth could be won or lost.

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