PITTSBURGH -- Eighty-nine games into the season, the Pirates appear to have reached the other end of the "bridge" that general manager Neal Huntington mentioned over the offseason.
Huntington's "bridge year" comment was taken out of context during the first half -- more often, suspiciously, in the midst of the Pirates' 9-19 June than in their above-average months of April, May and early July. It was not a hint that the Pirates lowered their standards this season, looking past 2016 to '17. It was a reminder that Pittsburgh's next group of core players was knocking down the door.
The bridge wasn't designed to span the 2016 season. It simply needed to cover April, May and June. They've reached the other end, just above .500 but still part of the postseason picture.
There won't be a weak spot in the Pirates lineup if Andrew McCutchen returns to form and Francisco Cervelli to full health. Their bench is deep. The Pirates' rotation struggled in the first half, but their prospects -- and a healthy Gerrit Cole -- will help. Their bullpen was shaky, aside from closer Mark Melancon, but has stabilized over the last few weeks.
They'll face many questions in the second half. What will happen to Jung Ho Kang, under investigation by the Chicago police? Will they part ways with any pending free agents like Melancon and David Freese? They considered Freese to be a Trade Deadline-type acquisition, so how much financial flexibility do they have if they need to add a piece?
Above all: Can they overcome an inconsistent first half to reach the postseason for the fourth straight year?
It'd be inaccurate to classify the Pirates as purely "buyers" or "sellers," because they remain open to adding or subtracting from their current roster. They have a handful of pitching prospects ready to join the rotation, so it would make sense for them to consider shopping struggling left-hander Jonathon Niese.
The Pirates are interested in moving Niese, an affordable option for any team looking for a solid, back-end starter under team control for two seasons after this one. He went 7-6 with a 5.13 ERA in the first half, not the production they expected when they acquired him from the Mets in exchange for second baseman Neil Walker in December.
WHAT ARE THEY PLAYING FOR?
Simply put, they're trying to get back in the postseason hunt. The NL Central might be out of reach, although they will continue to keep a division title -- their preseason goal -- in their sights. Pittsburgh would prefer to avoid a fourth straight Wild Card Game, but given the way things went in June, just making the playoffs would be an accomplishment for the Pirates.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The Pirates' first-half schedule was tough, especially in June, but their second-half slate eases up considerably. They'll open on the road against the Nationals, but after that? They will play 37 of their final 70 games against the rebuilding Reds, Brewers, Phillies and Braves. Their toughest stretch comes at the end of the season: 10 games against the Nationals, Cubs and Cardinals.
McCutchen, but not for the usual reasons. The Pirates need their best player to play like their best player, and a sustained hot streak from McCutchen could carry their lineup through the second half. He took a step in that direction the last two weeks, batting .314/.375/.543 in July. Maybe the rare All-Star break spent relaxing at home, not at the Midsummer Classic, will provide the physical and mental break McCutchen needs.