It's the big question, and MLB's All-Star break is the perfect time to ask it: Are the Pittsburgh Pirates for real?
Here's the wishy-washy but totally honest answer: It's still too early to tell.
Jim Leyland always used to say the pennant races start on Aug. 15. He's right.
The Pirates were in first place on July 25 last season. On Aug. 25, they were 15 games behind. The 1988 Pirates were a half game out of first on July 21 and finished 15 games behind.
It's a long season. Last year was a cruel reminder of that.
The Pirates have three things going for them this year:
n The top of their rotation has been significantly better than it was in 2011.
n St. Louis and Milwaukee, which kicked in gear and took over last year, aren't as strong this season.
n It would be almost impossible to duplicate last year's 19-43 season-ending free-fall.
Real championship teams need at least two legitimate bats in the middle of the order. Can Pedro Alvarez develop enough consistency to complement Andrew McCutchen? Can McCutchen avoid the second-half nosedive he had last year?
Are A.J. Burnett and James McDonald capable of providing consistently good work for a whole season? Can the very busy bullpen maintain its efficiency?
The bandwagon has been filling up. The Pirates have a better record than the teams ESPN shows every 12 hours. It's a fun team that hustles and is genuinely enjoying itself.
But keep in mind that the rotation is unproven, the bullpen is working a lot, the corner outfield positions don't have power, it will be difficult to upgrade through trades, and any sort of McCutchen absence would be devastating.
Might not be a bad idea to learn to do that Zoltan "Z" thing with your fingers crossed.
Losing out on free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter doesn't doom the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It just makes GM Ray Shero's offseason work that much tougher.
Maybe the double strikeout on the NHL's two prime free agents will convince some Penguins fans that Pittsburgh isn't the only place where a player has a chance to win the Stanley Cup, and that playing alongside Sidney Crosby isn't a can't-miss selling point.
Over the past two seasons, 13 teams have gone further in the playoffs than the Penguins have.
They're still a legitimate contender, but they're not the only one. Parise is a friend of Crosby's. Playing here was no more an option for him than it was for Marian Hossa.
John Mehno can be reached at email@example.com