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Five reasons Pirates suddenly matter: Much going right during fast start

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, May 14, 2018, 6:06 p.m.
Pirates left fielder Corey Dickerson bats against the Cardinals on April 28, 2018, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Corey Dickerson bats against the Cardinals on April 28, 2018, at PNC Park.
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli takes a first pitch strike while leading off during the first inning against the Giants Sunday, May 13, 2018, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli takes a first pitch strike while leading off during the first inning against the Giants Sunday, May 13, 2018, at PNC Park.

No matter what Jameson Taillon might be thinking, the surprising first quarter of the Pirates' season calls for some close analysis, not just a urinalysis.

Although, if the latter choice helps heal the middle finger of Taillon's right hand, go for it (just don't show me how it's done). The Pirates will need a healthy Taillon — and at least five other starting pitchers to be at or near their best — to win the NL Central.

Even a wild-card berth might require more than 90 victories, with seven teams that aren't leading one of the three divisions playing above .500. For the Pirates to win 91 games, they must play 14 games over .500 (68-54) the rest of the season, starting Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox.

Pirates fans are separated into two camps:

• Those who are enjoying how well their favorite team is playing, aren't predicting success or failure the rest of the season and are just looking forward, hopefully, to an interesting summer.

• Those who are cynically critical of management, have no trust in anything it does and are convinced the .575 winning percentage won't last.

Here are five reasons baseball matters again in this region and what it might take to sustain the current level of winning:

1. Brains, brawn and batting

After Friday's game, manager Clint Hurdle used this word in the midst of an answer about the Pirates' surprising power surge:

"Selectivity."

He means his players are choosing carefully what pitches to attack and what pitches to ignore. Such thinking improves the ability to put a good barrel on the baseball and drive it further. Before Monday, the Pirates were second in the National League in total bases (591), fourth in on-base percentage (.331) and fifth in home runs (48). No wonder they're second in victories (23) after 40 games.

2. Fab Five

You can point to five hitters who have made the most difference from last season:

• Two were here in 2017 but fighting injuries (Francisco Cervelli and Gregory Polanco).

• One who played half a season (Starling Marte, who was suspended for 80 games).

• Two who were with other teams (Colin Moran, Triple-A Fresno) and Corey Dickerson (Tampa Bay Rays).

Healthy again after working with a new trainer in the offseason, Cervelli, 32, has turned into a team leader and a reliable hitter. His .985 OPS (on-base, plus slugging percentages) is 12th in the majors. His 16 walks indicate "selectivity," and he has six home runs (one more than last year in twice as many games).

After expressing a desire to play in every game this season (almost an impossibility for most outfielders), Polanco has played in 36 of 40.

The Pirates need Polanco to hit better than .226, but he's on pace for 32 home runs. Only four Pirates this century have hit that many: Brian Giles, Aramis Ramirez, Jason Bay and Pedro Alvarez.

The key point involving Cervelli and Polanco is their continued good health negates the need to use players such as Chris Stewart and John Jaso in the starting lineup.

Having Marte for a full season matters. He already has a double-double (19 RBIs, 10 stolen bases) and is one of only two players (Josh Bell is the other) who have played in all 40 games.

3. One-sided 'trade'

Consider this hypothetical trade: Dickerson and Moran for Andrew McCutchen and David Freese (but you can keep Freese for spot duty and pinch-hitting).

One-sided? Gee, do you think?

That's the biggest difference between the 2017 and '18 lineups. Dickerson replaced McCutchen, who left town Sunday with a 12-game hitting streak that has lifted his average only to .254. Dickerson has two more home runs, 13 more RBIs and 65 more points on his batting average.

Moran, 25, is a rookie. Yeah, really. The full beard and the ability to remain calm had you fooled, right?

Earning the best $550,000 Bob Nutting ever spent, Moran is hitting .333 with runners in scoring position.

4. Better bench

This is no intent to pile on Jaso, who was a pleasant presence in the clubhouse, often coming to work in flip-flops and shorts and with thoughtful answers to reporters' questions. But the man was 3 for 29 with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Hurdle likes the reliability of Freese (no errors at third base in 852⁄3 innings), the power of Jose Osuna (two home runs and a double in 16 at-bats since his callup) and the improvement of catcher Elias Diaz (.223 last year to .372).

Look for the bench to get even better when Josh Harrison (broken hand) returns to second base and Adam Frazier (hitting .231) doesn't need to play every day.

5. Deeper pitching staff

The bullpen probably needs another reliable arm, which general manager Neal Huntington might consider acquiring around the trade deadline (assuming the team is still in contention).

Starters Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams have been good enough to help pull the Pirates to within a half-game of first place (before Monday). But all four are averaging less than six innings per outing. The Pirates need more starters working into the seventh.

Plus, they need another arm in the rotation. Starting May 22, the Pirates play 22 games in 23 days against the Reds, Cardinals, Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers, Cubs and Diamondbacks.

Nick Kingham and Joe Musgrove could help. Kingham is 2-0 with a .649 WHIP in two major-league starts, and Musgrove is hoping to put his shoulder woes behind him.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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