Just when you figured the Pirates’ offense was starting to establish consistency at the plate after a weekend series sweep of the Chicago Cubs, the week from hell happens. Not only was the team swept by the St. Louis Cardinals by the exact score of 2-1 in all three, All-Star centerfielder Starling Marte was hit with an 80 game suspension after testing positive for Nandrolone, a performance enhancing drug. Nandrolone is not one of those fluffy substances that doctors sometimes prescribed players; it is about as old school as an anabolic steroid can get with its use in sports dating back to the 1960’s.
Now the Pirates are down arguably their best all-around player in the lineup until July with one of the toughest first half schedules in baseball in front of them. They will play 23 games against National League Central teams including 9 games with the World Champion Cubs, who will look to avenge that sweep next week at PNC after the New York Yankees come to town starting tonight. On top of that, they will face every National League team except the San Diego Padres.
So how will the Pirates possibly maintain relevance in the NL Central with all of these obstacles in their path? It is not going to be easy that’s for sure. And to be honest, I will not be surprised if they are 10 games out of first place in the division when the All-Star break hits in mid-July. There is still hope though. The starting pitching has started off strong and could be returning to their form of years prior. Though they probably need reshuffling at some point, the bullpen has been thoroughly consistent in the first two and half weeks of the season. This group won’t ever get to close to the level of the Shark Tank, but they have a good nucleus of young and veteran arms looking to rebound off a poor 2016.
Even with these positives going for the Pirates, there is still the obvious question: how will the lineup shake out moving forward? The offense wasn’t producing great numbers with Marte in it, ranking in the bottom half in all offensive categories, especially power numbers. It is ironic Marte was busted for steroids when he’s only managed 11 home runs in his last 143 games dating back to the start of last season. The two-time Gold Glove winner was one of four Pirates tied for the team led in home runs (2) so far this season, along with Andrew McCutchen, David Freese and Francisco Cervelli. Like Marte, Cervelli was busted for a banned substance as part of the Biogenesis scandal while he was with the Yankees in 2013. Of the guys you who think would get busted for steroids on this team, the Venezuelan catcher would probably be close if not at the top of the list, especially in an offseason where he set out to improve on his power numbers after hitting only 1 home run in 101 games last season.
Two guys who definitely need to get going with the long ball are Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell, who went yard for the first time this year in their latest loss to the Cardinals on Wednesday afternoon. Coming into this season, I personally predicted that both of these guys would step up to help replace the home runs lost from 2016. Bell has been less patient at the plate to start the season than he was when he came up with the Pirates last year. He seems to be finally settling in, which will be great with some favorable matchups this weekend against the Yankees. And with the absence of Marte, putting Bell in the two spot in the order would not only help the offense in the short term but give the rookie more at-bats to help in his development. Polanco on the other hands needs to just get healthy. When the season began in Boston he was forced to DH the opener due to a shoulder injury. A groin injury held the Dominican outfielder out for the final two games of the Cubs series and the opener of the Cardinals series, allowing Adam Frazier to get in the lineup. But to be a true cleanup hitter in the major leagues, you need to hit for power and if Polanco wants to retain that position in the lineup, there needs to be production at the plate. The only other guy on the roster that could be a successful cleanup hitter for this team isn’t even in this country right now.
Speaking of Jung-ho Kang, if his appeal hearing goes better than the one back in March, the earliest you could see the Korean infielder is probably mid-June since he will need a few weeks in the minors to get himself up to speed. One guy who’s already going full speed is the previously mentioned Frazier, who is off to a hot start in his second season in the majors. The energy he brings to the lineup remains me so much of Josh Harrison’s impact on this lineup when he was in his super utility days. If the Pirates want to keep their head above water through the first half, a lot of it will have to do with the impact Frazier has on the offense. And with his ability to seemingly get on base in every game he plays in, there is no doubt he will give the Pirates plenty of juice. This is what the lineup should be: Frazier should lead off, followed by Bell then McCutchen. Polanco is still the de facto cleanup hitter while Freese will hit fifth especially if he continues to hit .326. The bottom of the order should go Cervelli, J-Hay then Jordy Mercer. And no, I don’t want to see Mercer leading off when a left hander is starting on the mound. The Pirates are 0-3 so far this season when Hurdle puts he shortstop at the top of the lineup. If they do face a lefty, which they do tonight against C.C. Sabathia, Harrison should be the leadoff hitter.
It is no guarantee whether the Pirates offense will figure it out or not, but if they do and compensate for the loss of Marte, this team can hang around in contention while they wait for the All-Star outfielder to return. However, as I said before, don’t be surprised if this team is way out of it by mid-July and selling off some assets at the trade deadline. (Cough Andrew McCutchen Cough). That seems like the true fate of this team.