Improved depth could drive Pirates' fortunes deep into season
Just beyond the season's quarter pole, the Pirates are on pace to win 96 games. The club is off to its best start since 1992, which marked the last time the Pirates won more games than they lost.
The club has teased before — it faded down the stretch in each of the past two seasons — but might this year different? Is this season's start sustainable?
There is reason to believe this year could be different. The principal reason to believe another late-summer collapse can be avoided is rooted in depth.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said this team has the deepest lineup of his tenure. Starling Marte has developed into a dynamic presence atop the lineup. Russell Martin has given the team rare punch at catcher. The club also added Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez before last season's trade deadline, allowing Hurdle to strengthen lineups via platoons.
“Our lineup is extended better than it's ever been before,” Hurdle said. “We have a guy up top that is doing some fantastic things in setting innings up and a couple in the middle driving in runs. So you have to have that in play.”
Unlike a year ago when center fielder Andrew McCutchen carried the lineup for weeks at a time, offensive production has been distributed evenly. And if McCutchen recaptures his form of last season when he was an MVP candidate — he has three straight multi-hit games, raising his average to .281 — the offense has the potential to become more dynamic.
“We have more pieces to the puzzle; it's something we didn't have on a consistent basis last year,” McCutchen said. “We have a catcher who can hit for power and average, a leadoff guy who can lead off, get on base and score runs. They are two things we didn't have last year.”
Perhaps more important than the lineup depth are the starting pitching options the Pirates have gathered to weather a 162-game season.
The Pirates begin their series versus the Cubs on Tuesday tied with Arizona for second in the NL in ERA (3.35), trailing only St. Louis (3.14). A.J. Burnett is pitching like an ace, leading the league in strikeouts. Wandy Rodriguez has been a stabilizing force. Jeff Locke has made tremendous improvement, producing a 2.73 ERA, though his subpar strikeout rate brings into question whether he can sustain such an ERA.
And there are more options going forward.
Francisco Liriano's first two starts have been encouraging; he's shown better command than in past several years while maintaining swing-and-miss stuff (16 strikeouts and five walks in 11 1⁄3 innings). Charlie Morton touched 96 mph in a rehab outing last week. Jeff Karstens and James McDonald also are rehabbing. And No. 1 prospect Gerrit Cole could be ready in mid-June.
“That's the big machine that's going to push this thing forward: How do we pitch off the mound?” Hurdle said. “We have a couple guys in house that haven't produced the way they are capable of. We have some guys down in the minor leagues that are going to fill roles throughout the season.”
Hurdle believes the organization has another critical reserve: its Triple-A roster. Indianapolis leads the International League with a 31-14 record.
“We've got a lot of good things going on in Triple-A,” Hurdle said. “You've seen the record. You see the personnel. There's still pitching options there, bullpen options there.”
There are areas of concern.
The Pirates are last in the NL in innings per start (5.3). While the bullpen has been outstanding, it also has been taxed. Division rivals St. Louis and Cincinnati are deep, talented and figure to be difficult to dislodge from the top of the standings. Still, the Pirates are in position to do something they haven't done in more than 20 years, and depth might make the early success sustainable.
“It's 40 games in,” Hurdle said, “(but) we are in a good place.”