Are Pirates’ pennant hopes gone? Here’s why they are, and why there’s hope
There is an argument to be made that the Pittsburgh Pirates’ playoff hopes disappeared during the three-game sweep by the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
The Pirates never have been more than five games over .500 this season, and that was April 20. Even after winning eight of 12 leading into the All-Star break, they still were a game under .500.
Now, after squandering an opportunity to stay within a short reach of the first-place Cubs, they are back to merely trying to regain relevance.
Can the Pirates (44-48) become part of the playoff chase over the next two months?
Here are two reasons why that might not happen:
1. Miserable starting pitching
You can take this all the way back to Chad Kuhl’s Tommy John surgery 10 months ago that will keep him off the mound until spring training 2020. Kuhl started 61 games over the previous three seasons.
Then, Jameson Taillon’s elbow issues have made him nothing more than an anxious spectator since May 1. Taillon was supposed to be the ace of this staff.
Jordan Lyles, Trevor Williams, Chris Archer and Steven Brault have spent time on the injured list (Brault is still there), and Archer’s struggles when healthy have been well-documented.
Most distressing has been the downward spiral of Williams and Lyles.
Williams was a 14-game winner with a 3.11 ERA last season. In his past four starts since coming off the injured list, he has allowed 24 runs and 37 hits in 22 2/3 innings. The Pirates actually won two of those games, but such good fortune never lasts long.
Lyles had a 1.97 ERA on May 17. It’s now 5.16, and opponents have scored 33 times with 42 hits in his past 29 1/3 innings.
Is there help on the way?
Taillon’s season might be over, especially if the Pirates continue to fall out of the race. What would be the point of risking a valuable future commodity?
Brault could return before the end of the month, and, perhaps, Williams and Lyles will find their past success.
A trade might help, but Neal Huntington will become a buyer at the trade deadline only if the Pirates look like contenders.
Archer’s strong outing in Chicago and rookie Dario Agrazal’s 2-0 record and 2.81 ERA over his first three starts offer hope.
But pennant contenders need four or five good starters. At the moment, the Pirates are woefully short in that department.
2. Too much competition
Before Monday’s game in St. Louis, the Pirates were only 3 ½ games short of the second wild-card team (the Phillies). But they must hurdle five other teams to get there.
The Cardinals are one of them, which make the next nine games against St. Louis and Philadelphia critical. If the Pirates can’t win six, the season might be all but over.
Catching the Cubs in the National League Central won’t be easy, either. The Pirates were in fourth place, 5 ½ games behind, and the Brewers are due to start winning.
There are just too many teams with too much talent standing between the Pirates and the playoffs.
But here are two reasons to be optimistic:
1. The emergence of Starling Marte
Can we stop with the calls to trade Marte?
With a base salary that goes from $10 million this season to only $11.5 million in 2020, Marte is a bargain.
Yes, he could bring a good return, but who would chase down those line drives in the left-center and right-center gaps? Who would provide the home run stroke to complement Josh Bell with Gregory Polanco nursing a shoulder injury?
Marte is only the second Pirates player in history with 100 homers and 200 stolen bases (100/227), joining Barry Bonds. The team would miss his athletic gifts in many ways.
If Bell slumps — and he was hitless in six of nine games with a five-game streak without an RBI before Monday — Marte can be a safety net. He has 15 home runs, 51 RBIs and a slugging percentage of .484 that trails only Bell and Bryan Reynolds on the team.
If Marte’s bat stays hot, perhaps the Pirates can start winning games 10-9.
2. The closer
Felipe Vazquez should be well-rested for the rest of the season after throwing only 4 1/3 innings in July.
For all of their troubles, the Pirates play a lot of close games — 13 of past 23 have been decided by one or two runs.
They are only 7-6 in those games, but what if the starters and middle relievers pick up their game a bit?
Vazquez could be the Pirates’ second-most valuable player behind Bell.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .