It’s been eight days since Neil Walker first sat a game out with his back problems and one week since we learned that Andrew McCutchen’s back injury was serious enough for the Pirates to consider placing him on the disabled list. Neither player is on the disabled list yet. Walker played last Tuesday and he pinch-hit on Saturday and now it appears that the pinch-hitting stint caused a setback that has the club considering placing him on the disabled list now, which means that they wouldn’t even get the benefit of the retroactively placing him on the DL. There hasn’t been much word about McCutchen yet, but if he’s not on the field and playing well within a day or two, any benefit the team might have reaped from keeping him on the roster will be awfully minimal.
The Pirates, of course, have not played horribly over the course of this week that they haven’t had Walker or McCutchen. They split six games with the Marlins and Padres and while that would normally be a poor result, it’s not so bad given the circumstances. They’re still within 2 1/2 games of the Brewers and still holding on for dear life as the second wild card and if a team can say that after a week in which their two best offensive players were mostly unavailable and not placed on the disabled list, well, it’s probably time to at least stop and think about using words like “unacceptable” to describe the roster.
That being said, if Walker does go on the disabled list today and/or if McCutchen plays but doesn’t look right until sometime beyond 15 days after his injury (this seems like the most likely scenario with him to me, though I suppose we’ll have to wait and see), it’s going to make what’s happened in the last seven days incredibly frustrating and tough to digest. The Pirates only scored five runs all weekend against the Padres and they didn’t score once after the first inning; it’s obviously not a sure thing that having Jose Tabata or Andrew Lambo or an extra relief pitcher on the roster would’ve scored two more runs on Saturday or kept Sunday’s score close enough for a comeback (and then helped fuel that comeback) to put another win in the win column this weekend, but the knowledge that the Pirates didn’t even try, given what seems like the relatively small upside to keeping Walker and McCutchen active, is what’s frustrating. The club is already in a precarious place by having to start Jayson Nix and/or Michael Martinez regularly,* leaving the bench short while those guys are playing just seems like unnecessarily hamstringing yourself in a key time.
What really concerns me here is that by not putting Walker and McCutchen on the disabled list, the Pirates have set themselves up for it to be even more unlikely that they’ll have both players when their hugely important run of games against National League contenders starts this weekend in DC. If Walker had been disabled retroactive to last Sunday and rested properly, maybe he’d only miss that Nats series and be ready to play 15 days after the initial problem. Doing some quick back-of-the-envelope math on McCutchen, if he’s not put on the disabled list today it follows that he’ll probably play against the Tigers. If he aggravates his injury and ends up going on the disabled list after that, that’ll mean that the week the Pirates kept him active but didn’t play him was for absolutely nothing. If he starts playing this week, but is ineffective for longer than a few days after he returns to the lineup, the whole endeavor will be awfully questionable.
You can hit a whole cascade of emotions right now given that this is all happening in a playoff race. Losing the last two games to the Padres was frustrating, but splitting the week and staying in contention with no McCutchen or Walker was fine, but then given last Tuesday’s bullpen disaster, 3-3 is still kind of disappointing. What I’m more concerned about now is that the Pirates spent a week with a 23-man roster, split their six games, and are still haven’t completely dodged their injury problems, including ones that they’ve created themselves.
The clock is ticking. The outcome of this four-game Tigers series might not be hugely important (meaning that the Tigers are an AL team and the Pirates don’t need to maintain a lead over or make up ground on them; obviously if the Pirates go 0-4 and the Brewers win four in a row it’d be an unmitigated disaster for the Bucs), but the run of games that start with the Nationals on Friday is where the season is going to be made or broken. Given that that’s four days away and there’s still so much up in the air, it’s pretty hard not to be hugely concerned.
*I know that Nix and Martinez frustrate a lot of fans, but I’m inclined to be a little more lenient on that front. The reality is that Pedro Alvarez’s defensive problems were almost completely impossible to predict before the season started, and that Nix and Martinez are the exact sort of player that every franchise keeps stowed away in Triple-A in case of that kind of emergency; essentially, it seems to me that Pirate fans are mad that the Pirates don’t have a second Josh Harrison waiting in the wings, and we should all be pretty thankful that the Pirates had just one in the first place. When you consider Walker’s injury, Clint Barmes’s injury, and Alvarez’s yips, well, you’re digging way down into the depth chart and there aren’t many teams that are going to do better than Martinez and Nix. The problem, for me, comes when you have to play these guys, and then you don’t have any bench depth at all to pinch-hit for them in big situations because you’re rolling with a 23-man roster.