Pirates midseason report: Not quite the same feel-good story
At the All-Star break, the Pirates were not quite the same feel-good story they were at this time a year ago. They're only 31⁄2 game behind first-place Milwaukee in the NL Central, but it almost feels as if they're further out of the race. The division is not as strong as it was in 2013, as each of the top four teams has endured injuries and sub-par performances from key players.
Here's a quick look at where the Pirates are at and where they may be going in the second half of the season:
THEN ... AND NOW
July 14, 2013 — Category — July 13, 2014
56-37 — Record — 49-46
2nd, 1 GB — NL Central — 4th, 3.5 GB
47-1 — Leading after 8 innings — 40-4
24 — Comeback wins — 22
10 — Wins in final AB — 13
6 — Walkoff wins — 8
7 — Losses in final AB — 11
7-5 — Extra innings — 6-4
18-9-4 — Series — 16-13-1
6 — Sweeps — 1
2 — Swept — 2
IT STARTS AT THE TOP
The Pirates have three talented, athletic guys at the top of their lineup.
Every Yinzer knows that, of course. It's not exactly breaking news around the National League, either. But interleague play gives the rest of baseball a chance to appreciate Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco.
“Those three are unique within their lineup — not everybody has all of that,” Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said during a late-June series at Tropicana Field. “We've been there before. We've had that kind of athleticism at the top of the batting order, where you're able to do things. If you're going to beat (the Pirates), you have to keep those guys off base.”
The best news for Pirates fans is that “The Dream Outfield” has just begun. “We're just peeling back the first layer,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “They're going to be here a while — working together, all of them finding the rhythm and the rhyme of their own individual play. What I'm looking forward to is when they start connecting on the bases. We're talking about a double-steal situation as good as anybody can throw at you.”
In the final game before the All-Star break last season, Gerrit Cole dropped a 4-2 decision against the New York Mets. It was Cole's seventh start in the majors, and it left him with a 4-3 record and a 3.89 ERA. In 12 starts after the break, Cole went 8-4 with a 2.85 ERA. In short, Cole became a difference-maker.
Whoever wins the NL Central likely will have a pitcher who follows a similar script. “I think, at the end of the day, it will come down to who pitches the best,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. The Cardinals are deep and talented, but their rotation has been beset by injuries. The Brewers have a decent rotation, but their bullpen is suspect. Reds righthander Johnny Cueto is putting up Cy Young-type numbers.
Who, if anyone, will be the guy who steps up this year for the Pirates? Cole will be on the disabled list when the second half of the season begins. Perhaps it could be Edinson Volquez, who was dazzling last Thursday, when he handcuffed the Cardinals.
“I think the guy has re-found his skill set,” Hurdle said. “He has a lot of confidence.”
July 14, 2013 — Category — July 13, 2014
93 — Games — 95
3.07 — ERA — 3.76
1 — Complete games — 1
13 — Shutouts — 2
847.1 — Innings pitched — 860.2
700 — Hits — 814
303 — Walks — 291
1.18 — WHIP — 1.28
719 — Strikeouts — 693
7.64 — Strikeouts per 9 IP — 7.25
34 — Saves — 28
32-15 — Starter throws more than 6IP — 33-24
•24-21— Starter throws fewer than 6IP — 16-21
Position player — Josh Harrison
He has been magical — clutch hits, a dash of power, speed on the bases and multi-position versatility. Who knew he could be that acrobatic in the outfield? Harrison evolved from Super U to All-Star over a wild, 15-week ride. Maybe those whiskers bring him luck. During the awkward phase before the arrival of phenom Gregory Polanco, Harrison stabilized right field (1.7 defensive runs saved, per FanGraphs). Harrison filled in ably at second base when Neil Walker went on the DL, and he continues to spell Pedro Alvarez at third.
Pitcher — Tony Watson
The left-hander has been the one sure thing amid a tumultuous half-season for the relief corps. Watson did not allow a hit in 25 of 45 outings and has not issued a walk in his past 12 appearances. Watson is the first lefty reliever the Pirates have sent to the All-Star Game.
Players who must pick up their games in the second half:
Pedro Alvarez: Last year, he had 24 HRs and an .827 OPS at the break. This season, he has 15 HRs and a .742 OPS. And then there's the matter of those throwing errors. Yikes!
Francisco Liriano: His problems began with a sore groin in spring training. He started final game of first half and said he finally felt healthy. Time to prove it on the mound.
Starling Marte: In danger of becoming “the other guy” in the outfield trio, Marte's been overshadowed by the MVP and the most highly touted rookie since the Louisville Colonels gave Honus Wagner a go in 1897. Health and consistency remain challenges.
One last look?
Keep a close eye on these guys over the second half of the season because they'll likely be wearing different uniforms in 2015. Some of it is about performance, some of it's about money.
C Russell Martin: He might command something like a three-year, $40 million deal this winter. Too rich for Pirates.
INF Clint Barmes: Groin injury will keep him out until September. Team will find younger, cheaper option for next season.
OF Travis Snider: He's a non-tender candidate this offseason after providing very little return on $1.2 million contract.
RP Ernesto Frieri: Two years of arbitration left, already making $3.8 million. A one-pitch reliever is not a keeper at those prices.
The Pirates' last three games this season at Miller Park, which often has been a house of horrors for them. Time to make a statement, especially since they haven't done that yet this year.
A stretch of 10 road games in 11 days usually isn't fun. But this one gives the Pirates a chance to pad their record against the Cubs (three games) and Phillies (four).
The Red Sox aren't the same team they were a year ago. But knocking around the defending World Series champs would be a great scene-setter for ...
What better way to close out the home schedule than with a showdown against the front-running Brewers? Last chance this year to boo Ryan Braun!
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