Just when things look hopeless for this Pirates team, they find a way to keep a pulse. In the last 10 games, they dropped four straight against the Giants and Phillies before rattling off five wins out of six on the road, including taking the series against the defending champion Cubs. Those 10 games are the perfect microcosm of this season.
So whether they deserve it or not, this team still has a pulse going into the second half. A seven game deficit is not insurmountable, but they won’t sniff the postseason unless they improve or get lucky. These five things may be the difference between a losing season and a playoff berth.
Get more production from the corner outfielders
Gregory Polanco’s bat has finally caught fire in July. He’s slashing .406/.441/.656 this month, with two home runs and only two strikeouts in 32 plate appearances. Sunday’s 0-1 performance off the bench snapped an eight game hitting streak he had going this month.
It’s a welcome change of pace for him. Before that, he was slashing .237/.300/.368 with just six home runs. That simply won’t get the job done,especially since he was pegged as the club’s power hitter once Jung-Ho Kang failed to get a visa. It looks like his swing in a good place right now. His two run homer Saturday was the difference in a 4-2 win. The Bucs could use some big hits like that going forward.
In left, Adam Frazier, Jose Osuna and John Jaso have done serviceable meatball surgery, but they have not matched the All-Star contributions of Starling Marte. Marte was not even giving Marte-like contributions before getting suspension, posting a .659 OPS and -0.4 bWAR.
He seems to have dropped a noticeable amount of weight during his time off, so there is a chance he comes back a different player. There is not a case like his where a position player of his quality was suspended this long and then came back mid-season. There is a chance he will not be Marte-like this year. The Pirates need to cross their fingers that he will be back to his old self. Maybe cross some toes too, just for good measure.
It’s easy to say the Pirates need to get better pitching, but the starters need to get more help behind them. Guys like Ivan Nova and Trevor Williams pitch to contact, so they are going to need at least average defense to back them up. Other guys like Chad Kuhl or Gerrit Cole could just use the extra help this year.
Right now, the Pirates’ defense has combined for -11 defensive runs saved (DRS). That is currently tied for the ninth-worst in baseball. It’s been a steady climb down for years now, peaking at +60 in 2013.
For a more traditional metric, their 59 errors are the sixth most in baseball.
Putting Marte back in left field should help, but Frazier has done good work out there (+6 DRS). The biggest improvements would come from sitting Jaso (-7 DRS at all his positions combined) and hoping McCutchen does better (-12 in center). Josh Bell is getting better marks defensively, but he is still learning the position and occasionally will make a mistake he really shouldn’t.
Beat the Reds/Brewers
The Pirates are 1-6 against Cincinnati this year. There are four series remaining with the last place club: two in August and two in September. 50 of the Pirates’ 73 games in the second half are against teams that are currently sub-.500. They can’t squander many winnable games if they want to stay competitive.
12 of those 23 games verses winning teams are against the Brewers. They have held their own against them so far (4-3), but they can’t throw away games against the division frontrunners like they did with the Cardinals in 2014 and 2015.
The other four keys may be negotiable, but this one isn’t. The Pirates cost themselves the Central multiple times because of poor division play. They can’t afford to do it again.
September baseball is usually won by whichever team is healthier. The Pirates were on the cusp of a playoff spot going into September last year, but injuries to Marte, Cole and Harrison proved to be too much to overcome.
The Pirates are the only team in baseball that does not have a player on the disabled list right now. The rotation has stayed upright with the exception of Jameson Taillon, but his return from surgery had a lightning fast five week turnaround. The lineup has barely had any time together at full strength. Polanco, Francisco Cervelli, David Freese and Frazier have made a combined five trips to the disabled list this year. The most concerning is Cervelli, who has an injury history and has made a pair of trips to the concussion disabled list already. Keeping him and the other starters upright is vital.
Hit the Happ/Nova jackpot again
The Pirates are going to need another reliable pitcher to get back in the race, whether that be a starter or reliever. The only problem is just about every competitor will be looking for the same thing. The few top of the line pitchers available will command an outlandish haul of prospects.
Huntington is better off hanging onto his top prospects and instead go dumpster diving again. There’s another needle in the haystack, and the search party is on.
Some suggestions I have right now are the Braves’ Jaime Garcia and Marco Estrada of the Blue Jays. Both would probably get a boost from moving out of homer friendly parks, but their makeup fits well with the Bucs.
Estrada has a Bugs Bunny changeup, but he has thrown it more than ever in 2017, diminishing its value. A good changeup only works if the batter is not expecting it. So far, they have been expecting it, allowing seven home runs with the pitch this year. It would be a generic Pirates fix: “throw more fastballs.”
Garcia still boasts a solid ground ball rate (54.3 percent), and his home run rate has dropped back down close to league average. His cutter, curve and slider have all caused him problems (batters are slugging at least .500 against each pitch), so the “throw more fastballs” fix would probably apply here, too.