Starkey: 'Now' or never for Pirates
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.