The Pittsburgh Pirates are, despite themselves, not in an awful position at the season’s approximate half-way point. The awful slide that occupied most of their June happened because they purposefully built a bad rotation and thought they could sneak by on the strength of their bullpen, but had tragically misjudged both of those calculated risks. The rotation was awful (not just “bad”) and the foundation of the bullpen on a team with a bad rotation is built on the middle guys and not the back-end guys. In this case, the middle guys were Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero; Hughes has been a relatively good reliever for the Pirates but has always been a bit too smoke and mirrors for my liking, and Caminero had a roller coaster of a season last year before finally settling in as a reliable reliever down the stretch.
The problems were all deepened when Gerrit Cole’s injury stacked on Ryan Vogelsong’s; Juan Nicasio had to remain in the rotation instead of moving to the bullpen, and Jameson Taillon was suddenly replacing an ace instead of a fifth starter. Cole’s injury wasn’t just an injury to one person, it was the wrong Jenga block to be pulled at the wrong time.
The Pirates have won seven of nine now, because the bullpen has turned a corner. AJ Schugel has emerged out of the Luebke/Lobstein/Scahill/Boscan/Rodon/Partch mess, Caminero used his convenient trip to the disabled list after nearly killing an Arizona Diamondback to emerge as a useful reliever, and Juan Nicasio has joined the group to round things out. Now they can cover two or three innings every night with the Feliz/Watson/Melancon trio, and they have Schugel, Caminero, and Nicasio to help them cover two more. The bullpen hasn’t allowed a run since June 24th, and it’s covered up a number of middling starts by Chad Kuhl, Jeff Locke, and Francisco Liriano in this latest run. The Pirates didn’t get a great start from anyone in Oakland and fell behind in every game, but the offense was able to work their way back every time because the bullpen held the line.
This is why the Pirates are in a pretty good place; they’re winning games, their bullpen finally looks like an asset, and they’re close to being able to add both Gerrit Cole and Francisco Cervelli back into the mix. Jameson Taillon has flashed a ton of potential, Chad Kuhl has looked capable enough that Liriano could make his own mystery disabled list trip once Cole comes back, and Tyler Glasnow is knocking at the door. Oh, and Andrew McCutchen is yet to hit. The problem, of course, is that they’re still in fifth place for a two-spot Wild Card race, chasing the Marlins, Dodgers, and Cardinals for the final spot.
That means that there’s still the lingering idea that the Pirates could sell at this coming trade deadline; Fernando Rodney’s trade last week kicked off a bunch of speculation about what relievers were going to move, and some writers and fans were already trying to line up where Neftali Feliz and Mark Melancon were going to land.
This strikes me both as premature, not only because the Pirates aren’t out of the Wild Card race, but because the Pirates have very little to gain from selling. As we talked about when the Pirates extended Francisco Cervelli, every one of their starting position players is in place through 2017 and John Jaso (who has Josh Bell waiting in the wings behind him) is the only one not signed beyond that. They have two excellent position player prospects in Bell and Austin Meadows, and they’ve focused pretty heavily on college players in the last couple of drafts that have put some infielders into the system that could move quickly (for example: last year’s first rounder, Kevin Newman, is already in Altoona and comporting himself relatively well there). The one place they have a ton of Major League need is the rotation, and they’re completely overloaded with talented pitchers at the AAA/MLB border with Taillon, Kuhl, and Glasnow, with Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, and maybe even Frank Duncan right behind them at Indianapolis.
That’s not to say that there’s no value to be had from trading players, just that when you’re still in the Wild Card race, the value in “selling” has to be higher than the value that could be gained from trying to make the playoffs, and it’s hard to make an argument right now that the Pirates would be better off playing for the future. For the Pirates, the future is either already here or it’s coming tomorrow. Most of their trade pieces are bit players on the cusp of free agency (Freese, Joyce, Feliz), and it’s hard to figure out trade value for pending free agent closers (Melancon), or a player like Jaso who’s signed for another year, but has a pretty specific utility that might not fit a ton of teams. All of these players make this Pirate team better right now, and they don’t necessarily need the players they’d get in return for them in a trade to be better next year.
Remember that the Wild Card cuts both ways; just because a good Pirate team has lost a home game to a team with an inferior regular season record two years in a row doesn’t preclude them from going into CitiField or Dodger Stadium or Busch Stadium or Monstrosity Park in Miami and beating a a good team that had a better regular season than they did, and if that happens, then all bets are off against a team with a good offense that could throw Cole, Taillon, and Glasnow in a playoff series. That outcome isn’t guaranteed, of course, but it won’t happen without Melancon and it won’t happen without Feliz and it probably won’t happen without Freese or Joyce. I think it’s probably more valuable for the Pirates to try and make it happen, though, than it is to try and roll the dice on uncertain trades to shore up a future that’s already very bright.
The Pirates can put all this talk to rest if they finish this first half with the same panache that they’ve opened July with. They’re 2 1/2 games behind the Cardinals, and they play them four times this week. They’re 10 1/2 behind the Cubs and they probably won’t catch them, but they close with them at PNC Park this weekend and it’d be nice to know they can actually beat them a little more regularly. Four wins this week puts them into the All-Star Break in more or less the position they’re in today; about .500, with work to do, but still firmly in the mix and playing better baseball. Five wins this week would make me downright giddy.
Jon Niese takes the mound against Carlos Martinez at 2:15 in St. Louis, weather pending. If they can find a way to win the Niese Game, they’re in pretty good shape to at least split with the Cards.
Happy Fourth of July, everyone.
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