Of the three contending teams chosen by yours truly to dedicate this space, one has ran away with my heart. Oakland is just too lacking in stars or stories and the Red Sox, well, they're from Boston. The Pirates are the team that has piqued my interest and inspired a fandom that nearly rivals my allegiance to my hometown Twins.
Pittsburgh feels like a 'team of destiny' to the extent that that's possible. They're a group of big name vets and journeymen, top prospect studs and barely on the radar rookies; all surrounding a superstar having an MVP season. Everyone is contributing at what seems like their max potential too, it's not like the Tigers who have been dragged to first place by a handful of all-stars.
They're pretty obviously typecast as David to St. Louis' and Cincinnati's Goliath in NL Central race; any conversation about them begins with their 20 year streak of losing seasons. Despite this being a manufactured storyline to some degree - hard to feel bad for Steelers/ Penguins fans and they are legitimately good - it certainly is easy to buy into.
My lone reservation about the organization is Clint Hurdle. Not many managers are more old-school than he is. At his direction the Pirates have 49 sacrifice hits already, good for the 5th most in baseball, and have issued 32 intentional walks, fourth in baseball. (Interestingly, the Reds blow everyone else away in this category giving free bases to 52 opponents).
One thing I will commend Hurdle on is his readiness to use extreme defensive shifts. The strategy, preached by former Baseball Prospectus writer and current Pirates front office member Dan Fox, is described in great detail here in a very informative article. The shift is a big reason the Pirates are the top defensive team in the National league and it's fruits can be observed in just about every game as a single up the middle is robbed by a perfectly position Clint Barmes or Neil Walker seemingly floating between the first baseman and right fielder.
There will be questionable moves made by Hurdle this year, but it's going to take more than that to take this team that seems to do everything else right out of contention. And I'll be rooting for them with the same gusto as I did with the 2002 Twins.