3 issues Pirates must resolve before heading west
There was plenty of happy, hopeful talk after the Pittsburgh Pirates rallied to defeat the Oakland A’s on Sunday.
Starling Marte, the hero with the winning three-run homer, talked about the “positive mindset” and “energy” players pass among themselves.
Cole Tucker, who mixes contagious enthusiasm with impressive athleticism, gushed how he can’t wait to experience his first walk-off.
Those sentiments shouldn’t be minimized as reasons for the Pirates (16-15) remaining above .500. But they’ve played only 20 percent of the season, and there are issues that must be resolved before the team can be considered a legitimate playoff contender.
Here are three:
1. Injuries to starters could impact bullpen
There’s a good chance Jameson Taillon won’t be available for a while.
He is shut down from all serious throwing activities for four weeks because of an elbow injury. That period will be followed by a buildup of his arm strength before he can regain his place in the rotation. Expecting Taillon to return by the middle of June might be overly optimistic.
Meanwhile, Chris Archer’s absence with a thumb injury continues, and no one is saying how long that will last.
A new chapter for the pitching staff begins Tuesday at PNC Park when Steven Brault starts against the Texas Rangers. Nick Kingham gets the ball Wednesday.
Brault, who started 100 games in the minors, has been mainly a relief pitcher with the big club (54 of 68 appearances). He has been called upon only four times this season, allowing a walk every other inning, two home runs, an ERA of 8.31 and WHIP of 1.62.
Kingham knows almost nothing but starting (157 games at both levels since 2011) and has been inconsistent as a reliever (6.39 ERA, 1.50 WHIP this season).
The concern is the ability of Brault and Kingham to last longer than a handful of innings in their first starts of the season.
Manager Clint Hurdle appeared confident new faces in the bullpen can eat up multiple innings if necessary.
“That’s absolutely why we brought the guys in that we did,” he said, referencing Tyler Lyons, Michael Feliz and Dovydas Neverauskas, along with veteran Francisco Liriano, whose 35-year-old arm has been one of the more reliable in the bullpen (17 strikeouts and a 1.09 WHIP in 142⁄3 innings.
“All of them have pitched multiple innings,” Hurdle said.
Lyons was the winning pitcher by default Sunday, walking three and surrendering two hits in the 13th inning before the Pirates’ winning rally.
2. Can Kang impact struggling lineup?
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington had what appears to be unrealistic expectations for Jung Ho Kang, who hadn’t faced major league pitching on a daily basis since 2016. He’s slashing .146/.213/.329 with four home runs, eight RBIs and 30 strikeouts.
If the Pirates run out of patience with Kang soon, no one will be surprised.
“This is a wild card,” Huntington said. “Unfortunately, so far the wild card has been on the wrong end and not the guy that we thought had a chance to come up and hit 30 home runs with us.
“We’re working through with him. I know (hitting coaches) Rick (Eckstein) and Jacob (Cruz) continue to work with him on his mechanics and his timing and his approach. You still see the power. But it’s been a challenge.”
Sending Kang to Triple-A is an option, but Huntington isn’t eager to sacrifice at-bats that normally would belong to Indianapolis infield prospects Ke’Bryan Hayes and Pablo Reyes.
“Right now the focus is getting Kang on track (in Pittsburgh),” Huntington said.
3. The inability to beat good teams
The Pirates have built their (barely) winning record on the backs of weak opponents. The team is 15-4 against opponents that are .500 or worse. It has won only one of 12 against the others.
That trend needs to be corrected. They play only six of 36 games through June 13 against teams with losing records: the Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds. It’s a stretch of games that could determine the team’s fate and its direction at the trade deadline.
The Pirates’ postseason hopes could all but disappear before the Fourth of July, especially if management can’t successfully work through the injuries to the pitching staff.
The next road trip starts Thursday with four games in St. Louis followed by three in Arizona and four in San Diego.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .