Gerrit Cole (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Rookie pitcher Gerrit Cole has helped make Pittsburgh one of the best teams in baseball.  (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Less than a fortnight before the All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Pirates are leading the National League’s Central Division. ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian knew they would be. He also was well aware that last year’s last-place team in the American League East would be in first place today. He joined Bill Littlefield to confirm his brilliant prognostications.

TK: Bill, I picked the Pirates to finish third in the division so just leave me alone. Yes, I have been this wrong before – let’s put it that way.

BL: Well how are they doing it, the Pirates in first place?

TK: Bill, their starting pitching is really good. They brought up a kid named Gerrit Cole from the minor leagues. He was the No. 1 pick in the country a couple years ago. He throws 100 MPH. Francisco Liriano, who they picked up as a free agent, looks like the Liriano, at least certain nights, of five years ago when he was the best pitcher in the league the second half of the season. A.J. Burnett’s been hurt, but he’s been pretty good. They have a kid named Jeff Locke who’s got an ERA just over 2.0. And then on top of that they have a fantastic bullpen led by Jason Grilli who they just said, “Alright, you’re the closer now.” And he’s been as good as anybody. And Mark Melancon, who couldn’t make it with the Red Sox, couldn’t make it with the Yankees, couldn’t even make it with Houston, has been absolutely sensational for the Pirates. So their bullpen and their starting rotation is the reason they’re in first place in a very difficult division.

BL: On Wednesday Detroit starter Max Scherzer became the first pitcher to start a season 13-0 since 1986. Any chance he catches Denny McLain with 31 wins in 1968?

TK: No Bill, that’s not going to happen. You know, back then, as you know, guys were in four-man rotations, and they would start 38, 39 times a year. Today’s starters are lucky to get 31 starts, so Max Scherzer is not going to win them all, that’s for sure. But what he has done is he’s become the best pitcher on a pitching staff that includes Justin Verlander, and that’s pretty hard to do. He has a wipeout slider, he has a 97 MPH fastball, and now he has a swing-and-miss changeup — three pitches that nobody has been able to hit yet. And get this, Bill: he still has never completed a game in his Major League career.

BL: Tim, one of baseball’s burning questions as we approach the All-Star break is whether the man Dodgers fans call “M-V-Puig” should be on the National League squad. The fans say he should be. Outspoken Phillies reliever Jonathan Papelbon says no. What do you think?

TK: Well Bill, I have come around on this completely, and I think he should be on the All Star team. I said initially, “Well, let’s wait until he gets to 100 at bats before we really analyze this.” Well, he had 44 hits in his first 100 at bats. Then I said, “Let’s wait until he has a month in the big leagues.” Well now he’s had a month in the big leagues. The All-Star Game is not about , like Jonathan Papelbon said, what you’ve done for the last eight or nine years. It’s about what you’ve done the first half of the season. And I’m not sure there’s been a more impactful player than this guy. Yasiel Puig has taken a team that was without energy and without emotion, and he has pumped that team up completely. And now they’re not only back in the race in the West, they have a chance to make the playoffs, and he is the biggest reason for that.

BL: One team that has surprised nobody this season is the Houston Astros. Everybody said they would be bad. So OK, here comes the obligatory set-up line, Tim: how bad are they?

TK: Well they’re not as bad as I thought they were going to be. They’re really bad. They’re the worst team in the American League, clearly. But they banged the Angels around a bunch of times this year and are the biggest reason that the Angels are in the biggest trouble they’re in.  But the Astros still have a long, long way. They have a long-term plan that I don’t think has gotten off to a very good start. But they’ve actually won a few more games than I thought they would. They’re still going to lose 100 games this year, I’m certain of that, but at least they’re starting to go forward with a young manager and some young players to build with. They’ve saved a bunch of money so they can bring up their kids eventually. The big question is how far away are their kids from being good Major League players? It may still be several years for that.

BL: Alright Tim, I want to mention just one other team and that’s St. Louis, just because we are sometimes accused of paying insufficient attention to the Cardinals. They’re good year after year. They’re good again this season, shadowing the Pirates. Do you like them as perhaps division winners?

TK: Yes, I think they’re the best team in the Central, and I think they’re going to be the best team in the National League by the time the playoffs roll around. They’ve hit a little rut here. They’ve been passed by the Pirates. But I think the Pirates, the Reds, and the Cardinals will all make the playoffs out of the Central, which is rare, and certainly rare given the new playoff format. And I think the Cardinals have played poorly in the last couple weeks – they’re due for a hot stretch. They have young pitching everywhere. They have a wonderful lineup that just produces one through eight, and I think we’ll definitely see them back in October as the division champs.