Share This Page

Starkey: 'Now' or never for Pirates

| Tuesday, June 24, 2014, 10:36 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle celebrates with Josh Harrison after defeating the Nationals last month at PNC Park.

Clint Hurdle came into the season peddling the catchphrase “now.” The Pirates had to take care of the “now,” or there might not be a later.

So far, so average. But it could be so much worse. All things considered, the Pirates are in decent position as they wind toward the midway point of their season this weekend. And make no mistake: Now is the time to make their move.

The lineup finally is intact thanks to Neil Walker's return, which coincided with the sensible demotion of Jose Tabata and his air guitar. The rotation soon could be intact, as well, although I'm not sure Francisco Liriano would be an upgrade. The bullpen has been smartly (and finally) remodeled.

All this in time for 18 critical games before the All-Star break, 18 games in which the Pirates can reshape their season. After facing David Price in perhaps his final start for Tampa Bay, the Pirates play 10 against NL bottom feeders, then seven on the road against division rivals St. Louis and Cincinnati.

We will know much more about this team by the All-Star break.

Is it a playoff team?

I wouldn't bet what's left of my 401k on it. I wouldn't smirk at the notion, either. The Pirates are barely within shouting distance of the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers, but they are within easy whispering distance of the teams ahead of them in the wild-card race with 85 games left.

I'm guessing you would have signed up for this in March if I'd told you the Pirates would blow 14 saves by late June (they blew 15 all last season), send Russell Martin, Walker and Gerrit Cole to the disabled list, see Pedro Alvarez regress, Liriano lose his mind and Jason Grilli burst into flames.

How about if I'd told you Brandon Cumpton, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley would be active members of the rotation in June?

In a town obsessed with football, it's easy to forget that baseball season is a six-month marathon. Think about it. The Pirates still will have 16 games left as the Steelers are preparing for a Week 3 game against the Carolina Panthers.

That is a loooong ways off.

At the very least, the Pirates have a lineup that looks as if it could inflict serious damage the rest of the way.

But before we delve into that, let's state the obvious: They won't miss Jose Tabata, who'll still be available as an expensive Triple-A insurance policy (credit the Pirates for not letting finances dictate their decision).

If one stat could encapsulate the enigmatic Tabata, it's this: Over the past three years, he has stolen 12 bases and been caught 15 times.

Travis Snider, in roughly the same number of at-bats this season, has a higher slugging percentage and on-base plus slugging percentage than Tabata. I don't want to turn Snider into Mickey Mantle, but he also provides a minimum power threat — or a thousand times more than Tabata — as a pinch hitter. Clint Barmes, the other logical candidate to be jettisoned upon Walker's return, at least provides quality middle-infield defense.

But those all are sidebars to this: Not since 1992 have the Pirates featured an offense this scary. Potentially, it's their best lineup since Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla in 1991.

The Pirates led the National League in on-base percentage entering Tuesday's game. They were fifth in home runs and fourth in perhaps the most significant offensive measurement: on-base plus slugging percentage. The last time they finished in the top five in those three categories was '92.

So here we are, a long ways from spring training but still far from the big games of late September. The Pirates have a chance to participate in those. They have a chance to press the restart button. One significant winning streak — something like the nine-gamer that ended June last season — could change everything.

Now would be nice.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.