When Mike McKenry pinch hits for Garrett Jones with a one run deficit, runners on first and third, and one out in the top of the ninth inning, it's probably safe to say that there are a number of things that need to be evaluated.no comments
The Pirates are one of the "national games" on FOX again today, which means that the number of people that can legally watch them play baseball is limited to people that live in the Pittsburgh and Cincinnati "markets." Good work, Bud Selig.
AJ Burnett's scheduled to start this afternoon against Mat Latos. This is the sort of game that I like having Burnett on the mound for; Francisco Liriano didn't have a great start last night and it ended up costing the Pirates. Havin Burnett go out and turn in a solid six or seven innings can set things back on the right track. Latos has been striking out people like crazy lately, but he also served up ten runs in ten innings over his last two starts before the break.
First pitch this afternoon is at 4:05.no comments
For four innings, I kept trying to refresh my phone or my slightly lagging MLB.tv feed, certain that Francisco Liriano's complete lack of control was about to come back and haunt him and that he'd start serving up runs like crazy to the Reds. Thanks to weird double plays and terrible base running by the Reds, the Pirates managed to stave that off for the first part of the game. It finally happened in the fifth inning, but only because two potential double play balls just barely deflected off of the glovees of Jordy Mercer and Pedro Alvarez, which loaded the bases up for Brandon Phillips. Phillips doubled in all three runs.
Immediately after that, the Pirates teed off on Mike Leake. After just one hit in the first five innings, Starling Marte opened up the sixth by taking Leake deep. Jose Tabata flew out, then Andrew McCutchen hit a line drive homer of his own. Pedro Alvarez just missed going back-to-back by hitting a fly ball just barely off of the handle of his bat, then Russell Martin hit the third Pirate homer of the inning.
And of course, just as soon as things seemed like they were getting interesting, everyone stopped scoring. The Pirates had a nice chance in the seventh, when Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez came up with runners on first and second and one out. McCutchen flew out.
That made for an awfully weird and frustrating game to watch. The only really bad aspect of it for the Pirates was that Liriano really struggled with the strike zone, walking four and throwing 54 of 98 pitches for strikes. Because of his history, it's hard not to notice something like that, even if it is only one start. Beyond that, well, it's hard to watch a team hit three solo homers in one inning, only threaten one other time, and have their best players come up totally empty in that one opportunity.
This is baseball, though, and these things happen.no comments
Look, let's not mince words: we Pirate fans have been waiting 20 years for a legitimate baseball team to take place in a legitimate pennant race. We almost got one last year, but instead we ended up with something much worse. This year looks different.
The Pirates have a huge stretch of games between today and the trade deadline. This is the biggest and most exciting stretch of baseball for me as a Pirate fan since I was in second grade. For the last decade or so, the pinnacle of being a Pirate fan has been saying, "When all this comes together for a pennant race in 20XX..."
Well, here we are.
The Pirates have a four-game lead on the Reds for the National League's top wild card spot. They are in Cincinnati tonight. Francisco Liriano is on the mound, facing off against Mike Leake. The first pitch is at 7:10.no comments
There are 69 games left for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2013 season. If they win 35 of them, they will have 91 wins when the season ends. In order for the Washington Nationals to win 92 games, they will have to go 44-23 in their final 67 games, which is a 106-win pace. That almost certainly is the math for the Pittsburgh Pirates to make the playoffs in 2013.
I have a lot of questions about this group of Pirate players if we're discussing them as the second-best team in the National League, but I have considerably fewer questions about their ability to win win half of their games from here on out or their ability to get to 90 wins and win a wild card spot. They can do it and they should do it and to be honest, they could probably do it with the exact group of players that they have in Pittsburgh right now. I have plenty of questions about how Jeff Locke will hold up over the course of a full season and what Gerrit Cole is capable at in this early stage of his career, but AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and yes, even Charlie Morton have all flashed great stuff this season and missed time with injuries that shouldn't be concerns going forward. That means that it's not unreasonable to expect them to finish strong. There are question marks on the field and on the bench, but I think that the position players have under-performed at the plate relative to an expected performance based on their rate stats. I'll allow that the pitchers have more room to regress back to the mean than the hitters have to progress towards it, but the Pirates have a .602 winning percentage and a .570 third-order winning percentage. They can regress a ways back as a team and still be a .500 club.
"Staving off regression enough to sneak into a wild card spot" is not an acceptable goal to have at the All-Star break when the season is 93 games old and you've won 60% of those games, though. The Pirates could have all of the right pieces fall into place over the next four or five years and contend every single year and still not have a record this good this late into the season. Sometimes, the universe provides you with an oppotunity and you have to take that opportunity, whether you thought it was in the cards or not.
With that, her are my three big second half concerns, listed in the order that I'm concerned about them:
1. Is the starting rotation deep enough without Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald?
I don't know the long-term status of Wandy Rodriguez or James McDonald for certain right now, but neither will be back before the trade deadline and I would honestly be surprised if either made another start for the Pirates this year. That means that the Pirates' starting pitching depth chart is, at the moment, 1.) Liriano 2.) Burnett 3.) Locke 4.) Morton 5.) Cole 6.) Gomez and 7.) Cumpton. Given Liriano's past struggles, Burnett's old age, Locke's young age and peripherals, Morton's general instability, and Cole's very uneven first month in the Majors, there isn't one starting pitcher that I don't have some kind of concern about. Gomez is mildly acceptable spot-start depth, and Cumpton is not a Major League pitcher right now.
It's silly and paranoid to think that all five guys are going to implode, but it's not to think that three of them could hit serious roadblocks in the second half. And seriously, you can pick any three you want: Burnett could get hurt again, Liriano could go back to Bad Liriano, Locke or Cole could hit a wall, and Morton could lose his head. Having this sort of multiplying pitching problem is exactly what caused last year's collapse, and the Pirates are pretty vulnerable to the same sort of problem this year.
Everyone's focused on the offense, because that's the most apparent problem at this point in time, so I'll just say this: The Pirates' main concern at the trade deadline should be finding another quality starting pitcher. There's no point in finding a right fielder if there's not going to be a pitching staff for that right fielder to support, and if the Pirates' don't add another starter, they're going to be in serious danger of that happening again.
2. How can the offense get deeper?
I'm of two minds on this. On one hand, I'd tell you that the Pirates' offense is much better off than you think. Travis Snider and Clint Barmes were the only two regulars with below-average OPS's for most of the season's first half, and they've mostly lost their jobs to Jose Tabata and Jordy Mercer. The Pirates' terrible-hitting pitching staff is a much larger part of the problem than people realize; with the pitchers removed, the Pirates' OPS+ is 104. That's (by my count) the third best non-pitcher OPS in the National League (the Giants and Braves are better). I don't really think the Pirates need a huge change here, because even with a huge change, the Pirates would be playing with an eight-man lineup in a sport where nine players are required to bat.
All of that being said, the right field/first base situation is unsatisfactory. Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones are nice enough part-time players, but even with their powers combined, they don't quite have the pop you'd want from a first baseman. Snider has been terrible and Tabata's been solid, but without much pop. The reason that I keep mentioning power is that Pedro Alvarez is the Pirates' only power source this year. As much of a pleasant surprise as Pedro's recent power surge has been, he's still striking out a ton (31.4% of PAs since June 1st, when he's hit .301/.376/.639) and I'm going to be bracing for a slump from him for as long as that's happening.
Outside of Alvarez and McCutchen, what the Pirates have are a bunch of average guys. What they need, in my opinion, is just one more middle-of-the-lineup bat that's capable of hitting some balls over the fence. If the Marlins want to hold a fire sale, I'd think the Pirates should be interested in a Giancarlo Stanton or a Logan Morrison, but I'm not sure there's an imperative need to sell the farm to find a bat for this particular Pirate team. Rather, they need to be smart about who's on the market and who's a good fit for their needs. I know that's annoyingly vague, but I'd rather evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
3. How much bullpen and bench depth do the Pirates need?
The bench is always the last concern, but the Pirates' bench right now is awful. Brandon Inge and Clint Barmes shouldn't both be on a Major League bench; Barmes's glove plays better and is helpful, so if it were up to me he'd stay and Inge would be sent packing for Josh Harrison, Ivan De Jesus Jr., or an outside acquisition. Honestly, Travis Snider isn't much of a help on the bench, either. A big problem with the bench is that it's very platoon oriented; when a lefty starts, the Pirates suddenly have a ton of lefties on the bench and vice versa. I think that the Pirates can probably take care of this problem by jettisoning Inge and shoring up their starting lineup, which will have a trickle-down effect on the bench.
Also, it's probably time to replace Mike McKenry with Tony Sanchez. The Fort seems like a great guy and he's got a good story and I understand that the pitching staff likes him, but he really hasn't helped on either side of the plate this year. This is marginally negotiable if the Pirates drop Inge for a useful substitute, I suppose, since backup catchers don't pinch-hit much, but I still think it's time to start considering this.
Finally, the bullpen. I'm pretty concerned about a Jason Grilli meltdown at this point given his workload and recent struggles. I hope I'm just being over-sensitive, that the All-Star Break will restore him to his early-season luster, and I will freely admit that I might be wrong, but it's worth worrying about. That's particularly true since the Pirates don't have reliable high-leverage relievers right now besides Grilli and Mark Melancon. Tony Watson and Justin Wilson and Vin Mazzaro have all been able enough, but I'm not sure the Pirates would (or should) trust them in a big situation with the game on the line.
A trade for starting pitching could help here; I think either Charlie Morton or Gerrit Cole would make a heck of a seventh inning reliever, given their relative stuff. Still, relievers trade teams at a pretty insane pace during the end of July; if the Pirates can find another Melancon-type diamond in the rough, I say they should probably jump on it.
Of course, none of these moves guarantee anything; Derrek Lee and Wandy Rodriguez were both great trade deadline acqusitions with a team that still cratered around them. I think this Pirate team is built of sterner stuff, though. Their big wild card lead also means that they don't have to do anything, which gives them a slightly different negotiating stance than they've had in the last two seasons.
In any case, Neal Huntington doesn't tend to sit on his hands. The Pirates are going to do something over these next few weeks, and after the deadline and the rough schedule patch that lasts from now until August 1st, we're suddenly going to know a whole lot more about this team's ability to shoot for more than just a wild card game.no comments
The All-Star Break is mostly over, and so is my mostly internetless vacation. Starting tomorrow, the Pirates will play the three games against the Reds (second place in the wild card, four games behind the Pirates), four games against the Nats (third place in the wild card, nine games behind the Pirates), three against the Marlins (crappy), and five against the Cardinals (first place in the NL Central, one game ahead of the Pirates). That stretch will end the day after the trade deadline passes.
It's hard to say "the season comes down to this" at any point in the baseball season because the baseball season is so very long, but I think that when August 1st ends we're going to know a whole lot more about the Pirates and where they're going to finish the season than we do today.
This is it, Pirate fans. This is the meaningful late season baseball that we've been waiting for.no comments
Let's spend one moment thinking back to April 1st. On April 1st, I was awfully concerned about the upcoming season. Simply put, I thought it was time for the Pirates to move to the proverbial "next level" of their long rebuilding process and I didn't think that the team, as assembled, was ready to make that jump. I was concerned that they were wasting years of Andrew McCutchen's prime and concerned that the minor league system wasn't good enough to support a sustained run of success in the immediate or near future.
I feel a little bit differently today. You probably know the vital statistics here, but let's run through them. The Pirates are 56-37 at the All-Star Break. That's slightly better than a 60% winning percentage. They have the second best record in the National League, just one game behind the Cardinals. That puts them in the first wild card spot, four games ahead of the the Cincinnati team that holds the second wild card spot. It also puts them nine games up on the Nationals, who are in third place in the wild card standings. Baseball Prospectus has translated that into a 92% chance of making the playoffs, at 58% chance of advancing into the division series, at 27% chance of winning the NL Central, and a non-trivial 5.3% chance of winning the World Series. The minor league system has come into focus, too, with Gerrit Cole looking promising in his big league debut, Jameson Taillon re-affirming his top prospect status in Double-A, Gregory Polanco joining the league's elite prospects, Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow forcing a re-evaluation of the Pirates' drafting methods, and so on. The Pirates don't have the best minor league system in baseball, I don't think, but if you're ranking the best farm systems they're moving awfully close to the top.
When the Pirates were on their fantastic run last summer, I said that I didn't think there was anything better in sports at the time than being a Pirate fan. I think that's true again this summer; Andrew McCutchen is one of the best and most likable players in baseball. Starling Marte is an incredible combination of raw physical tools, baseball talent, and fearlessness to become one of baseball's most exciting players to watch. Pedro Alvarez is obliterating baseballs at every opportunity. The pitching staff is a great combination of veterans re-discovering their stride and young pitchers learning how to use their talent. Somehow the words "Mark and Cheese" have become the most terrifying words an opposing baseball team can hear in the eighth inning. Seeing all this happen with the knowledge of Taillon and Polanco and Hanson on their way makes me, as a Pirate fan, just want to smile. Smiling is not a reaction that's been associated with the Pirates much in the past 20 years.
Recapping the wonders of the best pre-All Star Break Pirate team in recent memory is a double-edged sword, though. This is not a secret, but I've never been particularly interested in 82 wins. Teams that win 82 games almost always spend their Octobers the same way that teams with 79 or 67 wins or 55 wins spend their Octobers; they spend them at home, watching better teams keep playing. My biggest fear this April wasn't that the Pirates weren't going to have a winning season, it was that a winning season was the best that they could aspire to.
The Pirates are 56-37 at the All-Star Break now, and so that's obviously no longer true. We can spend hours debating what will happen from here on out. Can the bullpen keep holding on to leads and stranding runners at such a ridiculous rate? What will Jeff Locke's second half look like? Can Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole be consistent enough to really shore the rotation up? What will Neal Huntington do about right field? What will he do about Brandon Inge and Mike McKenry? Can Francisco Liriano keeping pitching like the Liriano of old? How long can Pedro Alvarez sustain success while he strikes out a third of the time that he bats? If some things regress back, will the offense doing better with runners in scoring position pick up enough of the slack? Can Andrew McCutchen stay healthy and productive for 162 games?
In some regards, though, the only thing that matters is that the Pirates have played like one of the three or four best teams in the National League through 93 games, but that seasons don't get judged on 93 games. My big concern before the season started was that the Pirates weren't quite talented enough to contend for a playoff spot this year or to be annual contenders going forward. I feel better about both of those concerns 4 1/2 months later. Now let's move on to this: contending for a playoff spot and actually earning one are not the same thing. When you're 56-37 at the All-Star Break with a nine game lead on the field, merely contending is not good enough. The 93 games that the Pirates played before the break were great, but they're in the past now. What matters going forward is turning a good 93 games into a good 94, then 94 into 95, all the way up until 162.no comments
I've been traveling for the last couple of days, which is why I haven't posted much of anything. Let's get caught up.
The Pirates have logged two narrow victories over the Mets in the last two days, which has them tied again with the Cardinals the day before the All-Star Break. I told you on Friday that everything would be fine if the Pirates swept the Mets.
In order to get that sweep, Gerrit Cole will be taking the mound this afternoon instead of Jeff Locke, because Locke's been dealing with lower back soreness will scratch him both from today's start and the All-Star Game. You can tell this is a game that the Pirates want to win, because of Cole's presence on the mound. The Pirates had previously discussed demoting him for a week and a half or so to stay on a regular schedule over the break; that probably won't happen now. He's on regular rest today because of Thursday's off-day.
After last night's 2-for-4 with a homer performance, Andrew McCutchen's hitting .301/.378/.471. I'll make a prediction right here: if he finishes 2013 with that OPS and the Pirates win the Central, he'll win the MVP award whether or not he ever truly gets "hot" the way he did last summer.
I'll have a longer recap of the first half posted for tomorrow. For now, enjoy the end of the first half. A Pirate win, and they'll go into the break either tied or alone with the best record in the NL. A Pirate loss and, well, it's still been a pretty solid first half. First pitch today is 1:35. Gerrit Cole and Dillon Gee are on the mound.no comments
If the Pirates sweep the Mets this weekend, they'll go into the break with a 6-6 record after their nine-game winning streak. 15-6 isn't a bad run. Matt Harvey is skipping his start this weekend, so hey, anything's possible.
Tonight, Charlie Morton pitches for the Pirates against Jeremy Hefner. Hefner was a Pirate for less than a month in November and December of 2011. He's not very good, so the Pirates should score some runs again tonight. First pitch tonight is at 7:05.no comments