Tim Benz: Who are the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates? | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Who are the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates?

Tim Benz
Bryan Reynolds celebrates with Josh Bell after a three-run home run against the Detroit Tigers.

At the Major League Baseball All-Star break, the 2019 standings do a nice job telling the story of the National League Central.

I’m not sure that they do as good of a job telling the story of the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates.

Come to think of it, I don’t know how anyone could properly tell that story in one snapshot or one set of numbers.

It’s been pretty confusing.

If you had told me at the start of spring training that the Pirates would be a game under .500 and in fourth place with only Cincinnati behind them, I would’ve believed that.

After all, they were three games above .500 at the end of last year. And they finished in fourth place, with only Cincinnati behind them.

That’s where the similarities end. Because compared to the rest of the division, finishing 82-79 gave the Pirates a 15 1/2 game cushion on the Reds but still had them 13 games behind first-place Milwaukee.

Now, being 44-45 at the break, the Pirates are just 2 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cubs and just two games in front of the cellar-dwelling Reds.

That’s right. All five NL Central teams are squished into a 4 1/2 game window in mid-July. And the Pirates may be the most perplexing team of the bunch.

In terms of the Reds, it’s easy to assume that they are improved but still not good enough to contend. With the Cardinals, Brewers, and Cubs — all of whom won between 88 and 96 games a year ago — it’s easy to assume that they are good squads who haven’t put it all together yet and that their best baseball is yet to come.

But who are the Pirates? On the one hand, you could argue that this is a team whose young bats have coalesced much earlier than expected to support a pitching staff that hopes to improve after the tattered arms recuperate and get back into a regular rotation.

Or, is it a young team that is doomed to regress back to the norm and will cease to drag along that pitching staff, which has proved to be equal parts unhealthy and overrated in this first half?

In other words, what if this is as good as it gets?

Unfortunately, I think the answer to that question is: “It is.”

As was my belief at the start of the season, I still see the Pirates in the neighborhood of a 75-80-win team. Now Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington need to ponder that question for themselves as they decide what to do at the trade deadline: buy, sell or stay put.

That’s a quandary the Pirates seem to be in every year at this time — attempting to figure out if the club is worth maintaining or improving before the trade deadline.

“The 50,000-foot evaluation is ongoing on right now,” Hurdle said last week. “We’ve done an analytical review already. We’ve done a statistical review already. Our coaches are making notes independently on one thing they want to see improve in their area. We are already in tune with that.”

For his part, Huntington gave a predictably open-ended response to a question on this topic Sunday.

“The club just continues to show amazing resiliency and fight,” Huntington said. “We have to climb over some teams to get to the division top, have to climb over some teams to get into the wild card. We don’t take that for granted that you have a chance at the postseason. We absolutely want to honor this group.”

The most confusing part of evaluating this team is figuring out what to make of breakout seasons and extended hitting streaks from young players such as Josh Bell, Kevin Newman and Bryan Reynolds.

Each of them was drafted within the top two rounds. Newman looked overmatched last year. He’s hitting .327 at the All-Star break. In Reynolds’ rookie season, he’s batting .342 with an OPS of .950. But “the league has a tendency to punch back,” as Hurdle always says. Maybe opposing pitchers will find holes in his swing as the summer grinds on.

As for Bell, he’s already cooled off some from his astronomical May. But the power numbers are still prodigious. The Pirates hope this is evidence that these blue-chip prospects are living up to their pedigree, as opposed to just providing a quick jolt.

“When you take each guy individually, it’s starting to make sense,” Hurdle said. “The contributions from the two young players at the top of the lineup gave us a shot in the arm when we really needed it in Newman and Reynolds.”

Hurdle then went on to shower Melky Cabrera with praise for his contributions in various roles, Starling Marte’s “really good six weeks” since the start of June, the “steady” catching combination of Elias Diaz and Jacob Stallings as they replaced an injured Francisco Cervelli and Bell’s “fantastic” first half.

If I’m in Huntington’s shoes, I avoid an “everything must go” sale. Hold onto Marte and Felipe Vazquez. Something good could be brewing for 2020 at PNC Park.

But I avoid selling out to grab another big fish as he did with Chris Archer a season ago. I see a resurgence from the Brewers, Cubs, or Cardinals to be a more likely outcome than the Pirates bats keeping up their torrid pace while the pitching gets in line.

And if that’s an opinion you don’t like, Pirates fans, I’m sorry. But in the words of Jack Nicholson again, maybe …

You can’t handle the truth.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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