PHOENIX -- Joel Hanrahan started seeing strange things at PNC Park about a month ago. "People were showing up to the ballpark, and they weren't wearing Steelers gear, or Penguins gear, or paper bags over their heads," the floppy-haired, goateed Pirates closer was saying Tuesday afternoon at Chase Field before the All-Star game. "They were actually wearing Pirates gear. It was kind of strange."
These are strange days in the Steel City, where for the last two decades the once iconic franchise has made its headlines with bad management, mascot abuse, Indian reality show contestants -- and a lot of losing. But, suddenly, everything has changed: attendance is up (the 10 sellouts so far are already the most in a season since 2001, PNC Park's inaugural year); TV ratings are on the rise (up 33 percent from last year); the ball club, after an unprecedented 18 straight seasons of losing, is winning; and the wait for the franchise's next superstar is, finally, over.
Andrew McCutchen is the son of a youth minister, he's a former choir boy and bank custodian, he's a poet and an artist. He's also the Pirates' most talented player since Barry Bonds, and already, at 24, one of the best players in all of baseball. A dazzling five-tool talent, "he's the Jose Reyes of the outfield," says Hanrahan. "He can do it all." McCutchen, who's batting .291/.390/.505 with 14 home runs, 54 RBIs and 15 stolen bases, has been one of the most valuable players in baseball, according to both the advanced metrics (he is ranked third in Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement behind Jose Bautista and Reyes) and the Lance Berkman Power Rankings. "There's no doubt that he's up there as one of the best, and one of the most exciting guys right now," Berkman said as he glanced over at McCutchen in the National League clubhouse on Tuesday. "He's one of the three fastest guys in the game. He hits for power. From what I've seen, he plays really good defense. What else do you want?"
Last Saturday night at PNC Park, a sellout crowd of 39,325 stood up and cheered when the stadium scoreboard announced McCutchen's 11th-hour selection to his first All-Star game. "When you think about the past, with the fans not showing up in the stands and not much winning," McCutchen said over during All-Star week, talking about Pittsburgh's recent sorry history, "and you have a moment where they make that announcement, and the fans all stand up and clap and go crazy -- it was quite a humbling experience, just because you know how it was here in the past. It's a moment I really cherish."
Will there be many more magical nights in Pittsburgh this summer? That will depend on whether McCutchen can continue his MVP-caliber season. (We'll find out soon enough if the Pirates are for real: they ended the first half with 16 of their last 19 games against losing teams; now, after a three-game series against the Astros this At 47-43, Pittsburgh enters the second half just one behind, and tied in the loss column with, the Cardinals and Brewers in the NL Central. With the Pirates on the verge of becoming The Big Story in baseball, the Steel City's new sensation will be one of the second half's most intriguing players. Here are four other players to watch.
Jose Reyes, Mets
One afternoon last week at Dodger Stadium, Mets GM Sandy Alderson was watching batting practice as he spoke about the challenge of measuring the worth of a player like Jose Reyes. "It's baseball, but it's entertainment," Alderson said. "Jose contributes to the quality of the game, but he also contributes to the level of entertainment. Of course he has a real following with the Mets fans, and that bond is important. Trying to monetize all that gets to be very difficult." Alderson paused, smiled, and said, "But that's a process for another day." It's a longshot now that the Mets deal Reyes before the July 31 trade deadline; whether the NL MVP of the first half ends up commanding Carl Crawford money and whether the cash-strapped Mets will be able to afford their face of the franchise, will depend on if he can match his otherworldly production in the first-half, which ended with him on the disabled list. "Everyone's waiting to see how that hamstring is," says an NL executive. "When he's healthy, he's one of the best in the game."
Mike Adams, Padres
Heath Bell gets all the love because of his gaudy saves total and because he does crazy things like slide up to the mound during the All-Star game, but Adams is the best reliever in San Diego, a closer-in-waiting with one of the most devastating pitches in baseball, a cutter that rivals Mariano Rivera's. Since he began throwing his cutter with regularity in 2008, Adams has been nearly unhittable. "I don't think it's a secret how I'm attacking people -- I think they pretty much know I'm going to go with the cutter and the fastball and go right after them," he said one recent afternoon in San Diego, in his slow Texas twang. "We get scouting reports on hitters before every series, and I'm not going to say I stay away from them, but I know what my strengths are. If you can hit my cutter, then good luck." If the Padres make him available --- and all indications are that San Diego will be one of the big sellers this summer --- then Adams will be the best reliever available at the deadline. His cutter could be a big difference-maker for a contender down the stretch.
Jason Kipnis, Indians
On Sunday, he was the star of the Futures Games, and very soon, Jason Kipnis could be starring at Jacobs Field and helping the Tribe reach the postseason. The second baseman is having a splendid year at Triple-A Columbus (.297/.380/.506, 11 home runs, 11-for-11 in stolen bases), and scouts are beginning to wonder if Kipnis isn't better than Seattle's Dustin Ackley, a fellow second baseman who made his big league debut last month. "I don't see Cleveland making any big trades," says a scout, "but this kid, Kipnis, could give them a good boost, especially with how bad [Orlando] Cabrera has been. [Kipnis] has good power for a second baseman, and his defense is improving. Is he better than Ackley? Maybe. He's ready -- I don't know what they're waiting for."
Mike Trout, Angels
Yes, he's still just a baby at 19, and yes, he may be sent back to the minors faster than you can say Peter Bourjos. But with the Angels in the hunt in the AL West, and with the offense sputtering (ranked 20th in the majors in runs scored), Trout, who was destroying the ball at Double-A Arkansas (.324/.415/.534) and was called up to Los Angeles a week before the All-Star break, could turn out to be an X-factor in what should be a thrilling division race with the Rangers. Trout is the best prospect in baseball not named Bryce Harper, and his time in the majors this season, even if it is brief, will be a preview of his greatness to come.