For as maddening as the first 95 games of the Pirates’ 2014 season has been, there’s one thought that keeps cropping up in my head:
This Pirate team is really close to being really, really good.
With no disrespect meant to the 2013 Pirates, almost everything that happened last year felt a little bit like catching lightning in a bottle. Make no mistake: that was a good Pirate team. They won 94 games, the wild card, and had the series winning run at the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4 of the NLDS against the eventual National League champions. But they always felt like a sum that was greater than its individual parts and it always seemed like a bit of a pipe-dream that that exact set of circumstances was going to repeat itself again at any point in the future. That’s precisely why this off-season was so frustrating: the decision that was made was essentially to leave well-enough alone and hope that they could catch lightning in a bottle again. It was apparent before the season started that that was a long-shot and thus far, the team hasn’t done it.
Strangely enough, the long-term ceiling is more apparent to me with this year’s team than it was watching last year’s team. If last year’s team was lightning in a bottle, this year’s team is a building off in the distance slowly being revealed through a heavy fog. Since the awful slump that didn’t really lift until the team hit 18-26 on May 20th, they’ve sort of been revealing themselves as a competent baseball team piece by piece. Hey! Charlie Morton might actually be as good as he seemed in the second half this year. And, uh, yep, Andrew McCutchen is just unbelievable. Geez, the top of the lineup is fun with Polanco, Marte, and ‘Cutch strung together. And now Neil Walker’s back, probably fair to say he’s hitting with more power than he ever has in his career. And Jordy Mercer’s out of his slump, holy cow this is a lineup from one all the way down to eight! Wait a second, is Jeff Locke suddenly much better than he ever was last year? Does Edinson Volquez almost seem … reliable? Hold on, did Pedro Alvarez just hit .296 over the course of an entire month? I had no idea that was possible!
When writing about the first half yesterday, I had one major concern with how it shook out. Despite only being 3 1/2 games behind the best team in the National League in the standings, the Pirates are in eighth place in the NL and that might mean that they have to finish with the league’s best record in the second half just to make the playoffs. The other side of that equation is this: they could definitely do that.
The Pirates sort of stalked their way through June alternating between being a wolf in sheep’s clothing and then suddenly being revealed as the sheep in the pack of wolves. For much of they month, they had a mediocre record, but they beat up on teams that were below .500. Every time it felt like they’d turned a corner and were about to really make a run at things, they ran into a divisional opponent with a good record and were devoured. If we’re talking about just how the team has performed since the beginning of June, I’d tell you that they’re an average-ish team with a really good lineup that probably only lacks for power, but with a thin rotation and an even thinner bullpen that do each other no favors.
Take that framework, though, and add three things to it:
- The Pedro Alvarez that we’ve seen since he broke his long homerless streak in Tampa Bay on June 23rd. That’s .276/.382/.517 with four homers in 19 games (~35 home run pace in 162 games) and strikeouts in 25% of his plate appearances. That seems like a lot of strikeouts, but it’s positively miniscule for Alvarez. That hitter is the middle of the lineup power threat the team is missing. (Side note: out of everything on this list, this is the one thing that I think is most likely to happen. Pedro Alvarez’s second half is going to make us all feel foolish for doubting his power in the first half. Write it down, I’m taking credit for this prediction when it happens.)
- Find two reliable starters from this pool of three: (1) A rejuvenated Francisco Liriano, (2) a healthy Gerrit Cole, or (3) a trade.
- Add a solid reliever. It doesn’t have to be a great reliever or a shutdown reliever and it could, in theory, be Stolmy Pimentel or Ernesto Frieri, though I’m not counting on either of those guys to be useful in the immediate future. Just one more guy helps bridge the gap to Watson and Melancon and he would help lighten the load on Hughes, Gomez, and Wilson.
Now, this scenario obviously presupposes that everything else stays more or less the same as it has for the last six weeks. That is, Andrew McCutchen stays superhuman, Neil Walker keeps hitting home runs, Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte are both reliably productive (Polanco has slumped a bit lately, but that’s not unexpected and I still think his approach looks good enough to break out of it), the rotation more or less holds course (that means, in order of likelihood to fall apart: Volquez, Locke, and Morton), and Josh Harrison remains a useful jack-of-all-trades (though if all of these other things happen, Harrison’s continued production is less important, which is good, because he’s only hitting .258/.290/.371 since June 18th).
Honestly, as bad as the bullpen has been, I think strengthening the rotation is still the biggest issue. The emergence of Locke and Volquez (I’m listing them in that order for a reason: Locke’s hugely improved command makes me a believer in him while I’m still a bit uncertain about the sustainability of what Volquez is going — this article nicely lays out why) means that the Pirates don’t need to trade for a starter, but I’m still really concerned about Liriano and Cole (in the short term, at least, for Cole).
Liriano’s stuff looked OK last week, which makes me mildly optimistic, but his control was awful. He’s probably got a handful starts or so to get himself in line before Cole returns in August. I have no idea what to make of Cole’s 2014 thus far; even when he was healthy he wasn’t quite as good as it seems like he should’ve been, but he also felt like he was constantly on the cusp of breaking out (similar to the arc that Charlie Morton has followed this year). The key question here is whether the injuries affected him more in the early season than he let on. I have a hunch that they may have, because the Pirates made a huge deal about him reporting the lat injury right away and letting them treat it rather than pitching through it. The simple truth right now is this: we don’t know how long the lat injury is going to affect him, and we don’t know what he’s going to look like when he comes back from it.
I’m focusing on the rotation over the bullpen, not because the bullpen isn’t a problem, but because I think that the bullpen is a quicker fix than the rotation is. When Jason Grilli came off of the disabled list, he was excellent for a short span (~ten days) before everything blew up in his face again, and in that span, the Pirates’ bullpen was every bit as unimpeachable as it was last year. The Pirates don’t need to get 2013 Grilli back, nor do they need to empty the cupboard for Huston Street or any other big name closer. They need one solid, reliable reliever to pitch in the seventh inning to disperse everybody else’s workload just a bit. The Pirates have had plenty of luck finding these sorts of guys over the past three or four years, and I don’t expect them to have a ton of trouble finding one this year. I don’t think they can get by for long with the bullpen as currently constructed unless Ray Searage has spent the entire All-Star Breaking turning water into wine with Frieri.
Of course, saying, “If the Pirates do X, Y, and Z, they’ll be the best team in the National League” is awfully dangerous. That makes a lot of assumptions that first-half performances can be carried over. While I’m not sure that anyone other than Harrison played way over his head in the first half, there’s obviously lots of places things can go wrong. There’s plenty of room for variation with Polanco and Marte, there’s a chance that Neil Walker slumps, Volquez and Locke are far from loc–sure things to keep performing at a high level, Alvarez is the king of extended slump, the bullpen could go from “problem spot” to “unmitigated disaster” if the looming Jared Hughes meltdown (seriously, check out the difference in his ERA and FIP) hits, and on and on. Pile that up with the fact that there are only 67 games left, that sometimes you can play the best baseball in 67 games and not have the best record in 67 games, and that the Pirates are in eighth place in the National League (I’m going to repeat this like a broken record for every time someone points out they’re only 3 1/2 back for as long as it’s true), and yeah, there’s absolutely nothing that’s guaranteed for this Pirate team whether those three things I laid out above happen or not.
The thing is, though, that it still feels like anything is possible for the Pirates. Imagine for a second that Alvarez goes on a second half tear, that Liriano straightens himself out, Cole returns with a vengeance on August 5th, and the bullpen situation is appropriately handled, one way or another. Who wants to see that team on schedule?
In each of the last three years, the Pirates played their best baseball in the first half and held on for dear life in the second half, with varying degrees of success. I think it’s possible that this Pirate team has their best baseball ahead of them.