The Penguins’ Stanley Cup run couldn’t have come at better time for the Pirates. After climbing to within 4.5 games of the Cubs and looking like a serious World Series threat for a couple of weeks, the Pirates have lost 11 of 15 and in case you weren’t paying attention amidst the hockey excitement, they were swept badly over the weekend by the Cardinals. They started the week in the top wild card spot and finished 2.5 games out of either spot.
So what the heck is going on? Two things stand out. The first is injuries. The Pirates have been dinged up since the June 2nd loss to the Marlins when four players left with injury. Chris Stewart got hurt too, but couldn’t leave because Francisco Cervelli has already exited and there was no catcher to spare. Cervelli’s hamate bone injury (4-6 weeks) is the only long-term injury. The rest have been more nagging than anything, so the bench has been depleted with guys unavailable to play at times.
Ryan Vogelsong getting smacked in the face with a pitch has had a far greater impact than anticipated, as the Pirates middle relief depth has spent a lot of time on I-70 between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. The bullpen hasn’t been a strength, but pick a name out of a hat in the farm and that guy might be in the majors tomorrow. Add the uncertainty about Gerrit Cole’s triceps to the mix and a complete nightmare scenario is beginning. With all due respect to AJ Schugel, your chances of winning a game decrease when he’s on the hill relieving Cole in the 3rd inning.
The second issue is players under performing and while this has been an issue all year, the performances to pick those guys up haven’t come in the last couple of weeks. Andrew McCutchen hasn’t been bad, but the strikeouts have been high and the overall performance has been pedestrian. Tony Watson alternated between complete crapshoot and his normal self this season. We’re in one of those crapshoot phases now. Jon Niese was looking better before his last start, but his total package is somewhat lower than one should expect from him. Arquimedes Caminero went from a guy I thought could be one of the best 7th inning guys in the league coming into the season to one who may not be on a 40-man roster by the end of June. Finally, and probably the most damaging to the team’s overall performance, Francisco Liriano. His BB/9 has shot above 5 for the first time since joining the Pirates and the ERA would be there too, if four weekend runs weren’t unearned. While he’s striking guys out, he’s not the guy you want him to be and he’s left a glaring hole in the number two spot of the rotation.
The Pirates are two games over .500 and 1.5 games back of the New York Mets for the second wild card spot, heading into Wednesday night’s game with them. Not terribly daunting, but if you read message boards or the ten Buccos tweets I’ve seen since the Pens won the Stanley Cup, you would think the season was over. That’s kind of silly and it shows me just how short some fans memories are.
Last December, those Penguins that were serving as a nice distraction for Pirates fans this past week, were probably in worse shape than the Pirates are now. Their coach was ineffective and it led to a change. There were a number of players that weren’t gelling with the rest of the core or who weren’t pulling their weight, including some of the stars like Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang. The coach got canned, the team struggled initially with the change, but eventually they began to figure things out. Heads rolled and more effective players were found to replace some of those who could be jettisoned. The team went from god awful about a one-third of the way through the season to being the best during the final third and into the playoffs. They have even opened as the favorites to win it again next year.
Fans should realize that the season wasn’t over for the Pens and it certainly isn’t over for the Pirates. For me, a World Series is more conceivable for the Bucs, but they need to follow a similar path from here as their hockey counterparts did.
First and foremost, the Pens, like the Pirates, weren’t as bad as their worst performances. The Pens had a very bad stretch, and weren’t solidly in the playoffs like people were used to. That doesn’t mean that they were a bad team. They had a bad coach and some personnel issues that don’t translate too well to baseball, but they were far more talented than people insisted. In truth, even if nothing had changed, the Pens probably would have (or at least should have) eventually righted course and made the postseason. Their stars would have snapped out of it and at the very least carried them to above average status. Not sexy, but not the worst outside.
Like the Pens, the Pirates are sitting at hopefully their rock bottom with better talent than they’re being credited. While righting course and making the playoffs is a little harder for the Pirates based simply on the numbers game, they do have the baseline talent to contend, if they get healthy and get their top players better. They need the underachievers I mentioned above to find their form or they need to jettison those players for someone else. The season is far from over for the Pirates, even if doubt can easily creep in.
The Pens got better with external solutions that weren’t performing, like Trevor Daley and Carl Hagelin, in scrap for scrap trades. With top players having down seasons, holes were too plentiful for the organization to fill completely from outside and the bulk improvements came internally. In other words, the team would not be able to go out and supplement Sidney Crosby’s production via trade. Thankfully, stars began to play like stars under Mike Sullivan. On 3 of the 4 lines, players from the minors seamlessly slotted in next to veterans. It took some fiddling, but eventually the team got the right combination of players to move forward at another level.
The Pirates may have even fewer holes than the Pens did. The lineup, though it has slowed of late, is solid from top to bottom and their bench might be the best in the National League. There is no need to tinker with it with the exception of one change. I would make John Jaso the part time catcher despite his defensive woes at the position while Cervelli is out, although his concussion history most likely precludes this option. Pitching is where the real issue is on this team. If Cole’s injury turns out to be nagging or more significant than it is, the Pirates will have issues from #1-4 in the starting rotation. I don’t say #5 because Jeff Locke, for all his occassional meltdowns and regular vilification, has a proven track record as a good enough last man in the rotation. The Pirates starting pitching problems at the moment are much bigger than he is. The bullpen is even worse, where only Mark Melancon and Neftali Feliz seem to be getting the job done consistently.
Some of the improvements will eventually come from the outside of the organization, but even the talent-heavy Pirates farm system doesn’t have the trade chips to replace three spots in the rotation and 5 of 7 of their opening day bullpen options. Thankfully the Pirates, like the Pens, can utilize that near-ready talent waiting in the wings. Jameson Taillon will likely be up for good when the roster jockeying that caused him to be sent to the minors for bullpen help works itself out. He pushes Juan Nicasio to the pen and suddenly the Pirates have a little more stability in middle relief and likely have a guy to protect a lead in the sixth, if necessary. Nicasio hasn’t been bad in the rotation, per se, but his inability to get out of the fifth inning consistently has taxed the relievers. Taillon also bumps Niese from three to four in the rotation, a role he is much better suited for. Then there is Tyler Glasnow. Like Nicasio, however, he’s having issue with the length of his starts right now, even if his overall numbers are dominating. While he projects as an easy future #2, it’s a lot easier to imagine Liriano rebounding than it is Glasnow figuring things out before the deadline. If Liriano can’t figure it out, this might be where a trade needs to happen and if the Pirates are in contention, it might be time to go for broke with a top of the rotation type.
In the bullpen, the Pirates path forward could be more about fit than real talent. Rob Scahill, with his low walk rate and plentiful ground balls against, could be working his way into a higher leverage role and could conceivably bump Jared Hughes from the fireman role he’s filled for several years. While Watson has earned a spot in the bullpen, the Pirates could consider replacing him with a rental via trade. Chad Kuhl projects as a starter long term, but he could potentially provide a solution in the bullpen down the stretch this year. That likely won’t happen until September, however.
At the very least, the Pirates have proper guidance with Clint Hurdle and won’t need to make a managerial change like the Pens did. As a player’s coach, the challenge for Hurdle will be altering established veterans roles if the time comes and replacing them with younger guys or players simply performing better. This isn’t easy to do, because of the human element and all of these guys have served Hurdle well in the past. However, if he wants to see his team make a Pens style turnaround and have a chance at the post season, he will need to do some soul searching. Like the Pens, many of the solutions to their woes are already in-house. They just need more from their stars, to find the right fit for internal solutions, and to supplement what isn’t working out in trades. Hurdle and Neal Huntington can get them back on track, but they will need to make some tough decisions.