In case you missed it, the Pirates have been playing like crap lately. The hitting cooled considerably. The pitching, both starting and relieving, has gotten worse after briefly looking better. Injuries have piled up. On nights when one aspect of the game looks strong, the other half of the equation fails them. They’ve scored runs in bunches only to have their opponents score more. While this has happened far less often, they’ve limited the opponents’ bats only to have their offense struggle. They’ve gotten blown out of the water at times. When I look at the recent results, it’s difficult to imagine that the club looked the part of a likely wild card participant just a month before.
Still as I write this piece on June 25th, the Pirates are only 5 games out of the wild card and have two more games in a series against one of the teams they’re chasing. As quickly as this season turned south, it could get back on track again. If they stay within striking distance or 5-8 games out of the wild card, I would think they could add some pieces at the trade deadline.
In truth, the Pirates have a really solid lineup and positional depth to go with it. At their peak, they were outperforming the Cubs in terms of batting average and slugging. They have reserves OPSing 1.034, .827 and .792 while adding versatile utility player Adam Frazier to the mix. This isn’t even counting Jason Rogers, Josh Bell and Alen Hanson in AAA.
They also have some players under performing who could really bring the lineup to another level. Andrew McCutchen’s on pace for career lows in just about every offensive category. Some areas, the difference is dramatic. Josh Harrison’s in a fairly deep slump and his OPS is creeping very close to the .700 line. Both can and have been more productive. Despite the weak record, the Pirates have no holes to fill in their lineup from an external trade.
The main problem is with pitching and again, internal options are the most plausible means to improve. There are questions up and down the rotation and the back end of the bullpen, save for Mark Melancon (pun sort of intended), has been shaky at times and middle and situational relief has almost done very little to help the cause. The reality of the situation is that the Pirates will stay in the realm of competitive up to the trade deadline only if some of the guys already on staff or in the system improve considerably.
Though July 5th or 10th is the unofficial date, there isn’t a set date for Gerrit Cole’s return, but life gets better when he comes back. Staff ace is taken care of provided he’s truly healthy and ready to pitch his best. While Jameson Taillon had a rough outing against the Dodgers, he probably nicely fills the role of third starter once his feet get underneath him, bumping Jon Niese to the four. The biggest issue in the rotation and the greatest opportunity for this team to get better rests on the shoulders of Francisco Liriano. He’s a two pitching like a five. His control is completely out of whack and he’s allowing an alarming number of homeruns for a top of the rotation guy. Jeff Locke is a five and the least of the rotation’s current worries. He’s gotten bombed at times, but ultimately has put the team in a position where it could win in 80% of his starts even if his statistics are distorted by the other 20%. Don’t get me wrong, with Juan Nicasio to the pen already, Locke’s probably the next guy to get bumped. However, he is doing his job even if pitchers who aren’t won’t get removed.
Speaking of Juan Nicasio, the Pirates need to be hoping he provides some stability in middle relief. It would be nice if he could fill the Joe Blanton role, giving them multiple innings in close games when trailing or in extra innings. With more walks than strikeouts and a ground ball percentage under 51%, Jared Hughes could lose his fireman’s role if he does not improve. He’s certainly not been reliable in many high leverage situations as he has 4 holds for 2 blown saves. By comparison, Tony Watson and Neftali Feliz, a set up duo that could be supplemented, is a combined 30 holds for 4 blown saves with each claiming half each. After Watson, the left handed options are limited in the pen, though Locke could change that.
The Pirates likely don’t have anyone in the pipeline that screams bullpen help and certainly not before September call ups, save for maybe Justin Masterson. However, they may have a trio of internal options to fill in on the back end of their rotation this year. I’m talking of Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, and Tyler Glasnow. Kuhl will have made his prime time debut by the time this is posted and depending on how it goes could impact Jeff Locke. Brault has been overlooked due to injury, but his early season success appeared pretty legit. Then there is the elephant in the room, Tyler Glasnow, who is deadly with the strikeout and becoming increasingly difficult to hit in AAA. He’s struck out 14 in his last 13 hitless innings, which look more legit when one notes that he’s recorded only one lineout amongst his balls in play. The groundballs are finally coming for the top prospect, but so are the walks having yielded 11 in those same 13 innings. Currently, Glasnow sports a 5 plus AAA BB / 9. Only two qualified major league pitchers have posted a BB / 9 higher than 4 in the majors this season and performed like top of the rotation starters. It’s more likely that he’ll match the statistics Liriano is currently sporting than replace Frankie’s expected production. I wouldn’t expect the internal options to come through at the top of the rotation, but I would think at least one of those three can improve the status quo.
Just to clarify my points in the last two paragraphs, the Pirates will likely have the following items on their contention trading wish list if things don’t improve, other than one of the pitching prospects coming up and Cole and Francisco Cervelli getting healthy. If those hypothetical don’t happen, the Pirates are unlikely to make any kind of moves as they won’t be contenders and this list of needs is irrelevant:
A #2 pitcher
A 6th inning / situational reliever
A ground ball specialist.
For a team as down on the dumps as the Pirates seem right now, that’s not a particularly long list. A true #2 would be quite costly, especially when the pending free agent starting pitching class is looking rather shabby. There really aren’t top of the rotation types on the verge of free agency this year who aren’t pitching for contenders. More likely than not, they’re going to have to nab a player under team control for at least another year if they want a more elite type. Tyson Ross jumps off the page here, but he could be highly sought after despite missing almost all of the 2016 with a shoulder injury, as long as he’s deemed healthy. July could be an open audition to potential suitors for him. Also on both the injured reserve and intriguing list is Alex Cobb. He would cost a ton from the Rays with his apparent asking price including Jorge Soler or Javier Baez from the Cubs in the offseason, despite being a long way from returning from Tommy John surgery. He still won’t be ready for a while but betting on Tommy John in the short run has become relatively safe.
However, trading for one of those two would likely be out of this front offices realm of comfort. I would settle for a three / four type. Jeremy Hellickson could come relatively cheaply and if he begins pitching to his xFIP, he would be a solid upgrade. Hishashi Iwakuma hasn’t performed great, but he might be available if the Pirates right their course and Mariners continue on theirs. Neither of these two would make the Pirates a World Series contender, but they could help the Pirates stay in the wild card hunt, while giving Taillon time to grow into his role or Liriano time to snap out of his funk.
In terms of the bullpen, the free agent relief pitching class is great, but many are playing for contenders. You can forget Aroldis Chapman, although he’d be a huge boost. I’d also doubt the Yankees would be ready to talk trade at the deadline. The D-backs would have been an ideal trade partner, but they’ve slithered their way back into the mix. If they fade, I’d love to see the Bucs pursue Brad Ziegler, a man long overdue to pitch for a Neil Huntington constructed team with all those ground balls of his. Ziegler could fill either of the above bullpen roles as could former Pirate Jeanmar Gomez. He has magically turned into a closer since leaving the Pirates, though he has a long way to go before assuming that role in Pittsburgh. He would be around next year as well and with Feliz and Melancon entering free agency after this season and Hughes on the road that leads to non-tender country, it’s possible that the Pirates could be looking for control. Fernando Abad’s name gets kicked around a lot as he would improve the pen dramatically now and could slide into the closer’s role next season. He would cost a considerable amount of prospects for a relief pitcher, but he would be low impact on the budget as he enters Arb 3 with a $1.1 million salary. This isn’t going to drive folks crazy, but Chad Qualls could be an upgrade over Hughes. He’s also under control for 2017 which could be viewed as a good or bad in his case. Jim Johnson’s ERA doesn’t reflect it but his peripherals are solid enough to make me feel like he could outperform Hughes as a pure rental.
The Pirates are a good team with some players under performing in key roles. They were able to get past it the first couple of months of the season, but it’s hitting them in mouth right now as nagging injuries seem to be slowing some or stopping others. The Pirates don’t have a ton of holes when healthy and they have some players in the pipeline that could make them better. They have some options to trade for bullpen help, but the rotation likely won’t reach World Series caliber on trades. If they’re going to get a dramatically better starting pitching, they likely need Liriano to step up or Taillon to perform over his head.