The most troubling thought that followed the Pittsburgh Pirates home from their 2-8 road trip wasn’t a pitching staff that seems to be in various stages of disarray and ineffectiveness.
Hard to believe, but there is worse news than a 5.12 team ERA (27th in MLB) and 1.45 WHIP (26th), with almost nowhere to turn.
After this week, the Pirates play 26 games against five of the best teams in Major League Baseball, clubs expected to be in the postseason or contending until the final days of September.
How bad can it get?
It’s difficult to predict, but here’s what lays ahead over the next month:
1. This week shouldn’t be so bad
If the Pirates want to build a safety net to fall into, they should show no mercy to the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday and Wednesday and the San Diego Padres for three games this weekend.
Winning the next five games is not an outrageous thought.
The Tigers are 25-43 and 21 games behind the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. If they were counting on expatriated Pirates Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer, the Tigers were seriously disappointed. Harrison, who is hitting .176, is on the 60-day injury list after hamstring surgery, and Mercer is out with a quad strain after playing in only 19 games and hitting .206.
The Padres (35-37) joined the Colorado Rockies last weekend to score 92 runs and break a 90-year-old MLB record for a four-game series.
Maybe the Pirates’ bats, which averaged more than five runs per game on an otherwise miserable road trip, can compensate for the team’s pitching deficiencies.
2. The going gets tough
The Pirates play 26 games against two division leaders — Houston Astros (AL West) and Milwaukee Brewers (NL Central) — and three contenders (Chicago Cubs, St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies) through July 25. All have winning records.
What happens if the losing continues and management decides to conduct a fire sale?
Trade Starling Marte?
OK, but who plays center field? Few center fielders chase down gap shots better than Marte at his best.
Who needs a closer such as Felipe Vazquez when the team gives up 10 or more runs nearly 20% of the time (14 times in 71 games)? Trading one of the game’s best closers who’s not yet 28 better net a good return (not impossible, but difficult).
3. Bell is worth price of admission
In the latest All-Star Game voting released Monday, Josh Bell was the National League leader at first base with 1,106,186 votes. The Braves’ Freddie Freeman was closing the gap with 1,022,535.
With 91 games remaining, Bell is slashing .321/.388/.653. He leads the majors with 65 RBIs, seven more than runners-up Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Eduardo Escobar of the Arizona Diamondbacks and three more than Bell had all last season.
He also leads MLB with 27 doubles, not far off the pace to tie the club record of 62 set by Paul Waner in 1932.
Perhaps the most impressive Bell stat is this: He’s a power hitter, but 53 batters have struck out more often than his 62.
4. For starters
The two-game Tigers series will be interesting from a pitching standpoint, with Mitch Keller getting his third major-league start Tuesday (and perhaps beginning to live up to the hype that surrounded him in the minors).
Trevor Williams makes his first start Wednesdau since May 16 before he went on the injury list with a side injury. At the time, he had a 3.33 ERA and 1.13 WHIP.
It’s useless to consider and a lazy way to explain a losing season, but what if Williams and Jameson Taillon stayed healthy?
5. An orderly lineup
Manager Clint Hurdle has found a comfort level with Kevin Newman batting lead-off and Adam Frazier dropping from first to eighth.
Newman is hitting .280 with three stolen bases at the top of the lineup, where Frazier was batting .242. Frazier, meanwhile, is batting eighth and hitting .316 as a setup for the pitcher.