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Pittsburgh Pirates Will Need Four AL East Castoffs to Continue Hot Start to Win NL Central Crown

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COMMENTARY | After an anemic start to the season that made the hope of a mere 81 wins seem beyond reach, the Pittsburgh Pirates got hot, winning eight of 10 before dropping two straight games to the Milwaukee Brewers (owners of a 46-7 record against the Bucs when playing at Miller Park since 2007).

Still, this will be the first April since 1992 that the Pirates have won 15 games in the opening month, somehow managing this with a scuffling superstar in Andrew McCutchen, who's batting a meager .247/.308/.423. Even without the usually steady and dominant McCutchen firing on all cylinders, the Pirates have pushed themselves near the top of the NL Central standings thanks to the castoffs and retreads from baseball's richest division.

For those wondering if there is still a gulf between the National League and the powerhouses of the AL East, that bastion of talent coming from the new-money West Egg-ers in Baltimore, Toronto, and Tampa Bay, and the East Egg-ers of Boston and New York, look no further than the statistical leaders of the Pirates this season. Were it not for players no longer desired by their former AL East clubs, it's doubtful Pittsburgh would be vying for the top of the standings.

These are the four difference-makers:

SP A.J. Burnett

The 36-year-old Burnett, whom Yankee fans couldn't wait to unload after he went 21-26 with a 5.20 ERA in his last two years in New York, was traded to the Pirates last offseason for two prospects who have yet to play above AA. Since switching leagues, Burnett has become the Pirates' ace, posting a 3.41 ERA since the deal and leading the team in nearly every relevant pitching category.

Last year, Burnett was the first Pirates starter to eclipse the 200-inning mark since Zach Duke in 2009, and, this year, Burnett leads the majors with a 12.3 K/9, even getting his own awkwardly hilarious T-shirt.

C Russell Martin

Martin, coming off an uneven season with the Yankees where his power (18 HR) and pitch-framing abilities (Martin and backup catcher Chris Stewart teamed to be worth roughly 3.5 extra wins for the Yankees due to this skill) made up for his low average and on-base percentage, has been doing everything well in 2013. Though the Yankees were willing to bring him back for a reported figure of somewhere between $12-$14 million, the Pirates made the 30-year-old Martin their largest signing since GM Neal Huntington took over the club, inking the catcher to a two-year, $17.5 million contract.

Currently, Martin leads the Pirates in home runs with six and OPS with a .904 mark. Though it's unlikely that Martin will be able to continue this kind of production as he's on pace to shatter the previous bests from his seven-year career, his above-average game-calling abilities will ensure that he's a positive contributor to the Pirates this season, even as his average starts sliding back down.

RF Travis Snider

The former 6th-best prospect in the game as selected by Baseball America, the Blue Jays thought they had their right fielder of the future after Snider hit 14 home runs and slugged .463 as a 22-year-old in half a season in 2010. But after watching Snider struggle to hit the ball outside of Las Vegas' thin air, the Jays gave up on their leading nacho-eater, sending Snider to Pittsburgh in exchange for the Pirates' own former top prospect, Brad Lincoln.

In camp this spring, the Pirates set up a positional battle between Snider and another tarnished prospect, the explosively talented but questionably dedicated Jose Tabata, himself a former Yankee farmhand. One month into the year and that contest seems to be over. Though Snider has yet to hit a home run and has been protected from lefties, he's crushed right-handers to the tune of .309/.387/.436. With Tabata struggling, his OPS below .600, Snider may soon get to prove whether he can hit same-sided pitching. Even if he proves unable, as long as he continues to crush righties, the Pirates will be happy with how last year's deadline deal turned out.

RP Mark Melancon

Melancon is no newcomer to the NL Central. In 2010, after being traded from the Yankees to the Astros for Lance Berkman, Melancon arguably became the ace of the Houston bullpen, posting a 2.78 ERA for the club in 2011. Last year, though, in a return to the AL East, Melancon's ERA jumped to 6.20, finding himself in Pawtucket by April 18. This spring has featured a completely different pitcher than the one the Red Sox had, with Melancon being the strongest reliever in an already over-performing bullpen.

Through 14 innings, Melancon's allowed 8 hits, walked 0, and struck out 12 for an astounding WHIP of 0.571 and a strikeout per walk rate of "Cannot Divide By Zero". Melancon's been so good this season a mere calculator can't even fathom it.

While most of these players will see their performance fall back in line with their career norms, some of the gains should be realized as they play against weaker opponents. While increased production from McCutchen can cover some of these expected losses, if the Pirates want to remain contenders for the NL Central crown, they'll need these players to continue performing.

Michael Clair writes about baseball for the news and humor blog Old Time Family Baseball and contributes to The Platoon Advantage.

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