In this era of extreme parity in baseball – Friday morning 17 teams were within four games of a division lead — July has become a month of soul-searching for many borderline-contending teams, a month for trying to balance what the heart says (“Go for it!”) with what the heads says (“Wait a minute — is this real?”)

And no team faces a more complicated equation in that regard than the Pittsburgh Pirates. As they are seemingly reminded every day, the franchise hasn’t posted a winning record since 1992, a run of futility that ranks as the longest in professional sports. But today, as the Pirates prepare to open a three-game series at Nationals Park, they find themselves two games over .500, at 41-39, and two games in back of the division leaders in the National League Central.

It would be tempting — and understandable – for the Pirates, suddenly drunk on winning, to conclude they are ahead of the plotted course on their rebuilding project. They could mortgage a piece or two of their future for the present and make a run at the playoffs in 2011. And even if they fell short, they could at least keep themselves above .500 by season’s end, thus getting out from under their historical burden, those 18 straight losing seasons.

“The fans,” said Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington, “they want that 18-year monkey off everyone’s back.”

But in the Pirates’ executive offices, the head is winning by a comfortable margin over the heart. For Huntington, who took over as GM at the end of the 2007 season, there is no temptation. There is no allure of finishing above .500 just for the sake of it – not if it means veering off the course he set.

“I certainly understand from the fans’ perspective the desire to get rid of that tag,” Huntington said of the 18 years of losing. “But our goal for this organization is to be a playoff-caliber team consistently. Our goal is not 82 wins.”

When Huntington looks at his team, he sees a team that, on the surface, appears to be arriving ahead of schedule, but that is far from a finished product. Their pitching staff, featuring four starters with ERAs lower than 3.80, plus closer Joel Hanrahan, who is 23-for-23 in save opportunities this season, ranks fifth in the NL with a 3.48 ERA. But their offense ranks just 13th in the league in runs scored, and are woefully short on cornerstone-type position players.

“We knew that taking one of worst major league teams and one of worst farm systems in the game and turning that into one of the better organizations in the game was going to take a lot of time,” Huntington said. “More often than not, that takes five to seven, or even eight years. We still have a long way to go. There’s still a lot of development left to be the type of team we expect to be this year and in the future.”

If that sounds as if the Pirates could be sellers at the July 31 trade deadline, Huntington does not exactly deny such a notion. Speculation is certain to swirl around veteran lefty Paul Maholm (4-9, 3.17 ERA), for whom the Pirates hold a $9.75 million option for 2012, as well as Hanrahan, who has blossomed into an elite closer since being traded by the Nationals in June 2009.

“Like any year, we face tough decisions,” he said. “If there is a move this year that would weaken our team this year but help the team for a longer period of time, it’s a move we have to look at.”