By John Perrotto
It could be said that Jim Leyland has enough problem worrying about his own team.
The Detroit Tigers are a disappointing 37-39 so far in a season in which they entered as the prohibitive favorites in the American League Central. Some in the Detroit media have advocated that the Tigers fire the veteran manager in an attempt to salvage the season.
Yet Leyland is an unabashed baseball fan and he still roots for the Pirates, even though his 11-year stint as their manager ended nearly 14 years ago. He also has a unique perspective on the Pirates and the National League Central race as the Tigers played the top three teams in the division this month — the Bucs, Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals.
Entering Friday’s action, the Cincinnati Reds (41-34) lead the division by 1 game over the Pirates (40-35) and 1.5 games over the St. Louis Cardinals (40-36).
So what does Leyland think of the Pirates’ chances of winning their first division title since 1992, which also happened to be the last time they had a winning season?
“I think they’ve got a shot, a legitimate shot,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re going to make the playoffs but I think they are going to contend right until the end. They have a good team and I don’t think they’re going away.
“The Reds have a really good team and the Cardinals are the world champs and they know how to win but the Pirates can hang with them. I firmly believe that. They’re a tough team to play.”
Leyland believes the Pirates can contend on the strength of their pitching staff. The Pirates held the Tigers to five runs last weekend at PNC Park while winning two games in a three-game series.
“I don’t know (pitching coach) Ray Searage but he’s doing a helluva job,” Leyland said. “They have a bunch of guys, and a lot of them are pretty young, who know how to pitch. Their pitching is really good and when you have good pitching then you always have a chance to win. Those guys can pitch. They can shut you down on a good day and at least keep you in the game on a bad day.”
Leyland, like many others, wonders if the Pirates can generate enough offense to ultimately win the division title, though he thinks center fielder Andrew McCutchen is capable of leading the way if he gets some help.
“People say McCutchen is an emerging superstar but to me he already is a superstar,” Leyland said. “There’s no emerging about it. He can do everything.”
While Leyland stops short of anointing the Pirates as a playoff team, he does think they will finish the season with a winning record, snapping their North American professional sports record of 19 consecutive sub-.500 finishes.
“I think they’re going to do it and if they do it’ll be good for the Pirates, the fans, the city, everyone,” Leyland said. “They really need to get rid of that hanging over their heads.”
John Perrotto has been covering the Pirates and Major League Baseball for 25 years.