Kevin Gorman: Best way for Pirates to honor team is to keep it intact
The Pittsburgh Pirates enter the All-Star break below .500 but in contention for the NL Central title and a wild-card berth, attempting to avoid no-man’s land before the trade deadline.
No wonder Neal Huntington took the middle ground.
The Pirates general manager walks a tightrope when talking about his team, praising its play while being careful to keep his balance and mindful not to look down.
If the Pirates focus on what lies directly ahead, they can see playoff potential. They are only 21⁄2 games behind in the wild card and 21⁄2 games out of first in the NL Central.
But if they look down?
They were only two games out of last place.
The Pirates have a weird way of providing hope when baseball looks bleak. After losing 10 of their first 12 games in June, including a seven-game losing streak, they have won 14 of 21.
“The club just continues to show amazing resiliency and fight,” Huntington said Sunday before the Pirates beat the Brewers, 6-5, at PNC Park. “As the general manager, you want to honor that. … We don’t take that for granted that you have a chance at the postseason. We absolutely want to honor this group.”
Just how will the Pirates honor that?
“You honor that by looking to see if there are opportunities to add to it,” Huntington said. “You honor that by respecting where we are and maybe not making a move that might have some future value but takes from your existing club. Just respect their resiliency, their hard work and their fire.”
By doing what exactly?
Huntington made it clear it’s up to the players. He doesn’t sound like a man with any intentions of making a major trade, at least not one willing to give up prospects for a veteran. And the Pirates are too close to contention to be giving up veterans for prospects.
Huntington admitted the Mark Melancon deal — what Huntington called a great move business-wise, given it returned a two-time All-Star closer in Felipe Vazquez — crushed the Pirates’ playoff hopes in 2016 and the Tony Watson trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers the following summer didn’t help, either.
“As you look back at the human element of it, it might’ve taken some of the wind out of the sails of that club,” Huntington said. “We were further out. We didn’t feel as good about that club as we feel about this club.”
We know how the Pirates felt about the club last summer, when their trade-deadline deals backfired. They took away future value in Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz but added Chris Archer and Keone Kela to the existing club. The Pirates responded by going 10-17 in August.
It’s hard to know how Pirates ownership and the front office feel about this club, considering how little they have done in support since the season started. They relied on internal options, for better or worse, and were willing to live with the results.
The Pirates were devastated by injuries, first to the outfield, then to the pitching staff. And Huntington got lucky that rookie sensations Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman offset the injuries to his biggest offseason acquisitions, outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall and shortstop Erik Gonzalez.
Huntington had no such luck with the pitching staff, as top prospect Mitch Keller wasn’t ready to replace ace Jameson Taillon, and the revolving door of minor leaguers provided no relief for the injury to Kela in the bullpen. Even so, the Pirates weren’t players for the top available free-agent pitchers, starter Dallas Keuchel and closer Craig Kimbrel.
More than anything, the Pirates survived the first half. They treaded water when they could have drowned.
Somehow, they didn’t go under.
The Pirates were 13-14 in March/April, 15-14 in May and 11-15 in June. Now that they are getting closer to a healthy roster — even without Taillon, Kela, catcher Francisco Cervelli and right fielder Gregory Polanco — the Pirates must show in the second half they are better than their record.
“We’re trying to prove that we’re not a mediocre team,” Vazquez said. “Most people say that, but we’re trying to show that we’re not. We’re a young team. We’ve got a lot of talent. And we’re just trying to prove it. We’re going to keep in the fight.”
The Pirates have trade chips in veterans with expiring contracts: Cervelli, outfielders Melky Cabrera and Corey Dickerson, third baseman Jung Ho Kang and pitchers Francisco Liriano and Jordan Lyles. However, they probably have more value to the Pirates than a trade partner and wouldn’t fetch much of a return.
Huntington hinted the best additions might be the healthy returns of Cervelli, Gonzalez, Kela, Polanco and, fingers crossed, Taillon. That would bolster the infield, outfield, starting rotation and bullpen without requiring the Pirates to give up a player, let alone a prized prospect.
The Pirates have proved they have fight and amazing resiliency. You have to respect it. But the best way for Huntington to honor this team might be to keep it intact.
Sink or swim.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .