Trying to get a read on exactly what’s happening with the Pirates through the first five weeks of the 2014 MLB season is a pretty difficult task. At face value, they’re 14-20 and 7 1/2 games behind the Brewers in the NL Central with the knowledge that they’re not enormously different from last year’s 94-win team or 2012′s 79-win team that found itself, at one point late in the season, 16 games over .500. That is to say that it’s still early enough that being six games under .500 and pushed down into the periphery of the division race should not be insurmountable for a team that is theoretically capable of playing as well as the 2012 or 2013 Pirates were. It’s a deep hole, but it’s not quite a grave just yet.
It’s easy to be more pessimistic than that about these first 34 games. Of the Pirates’ 14 wins, 10 are by one run, which is ridiculous. The pitching staff is 12th in the NL in runs allowed, the bullpen looks more like pumice than it does like a group of firemen, and the rotation depth was shot before the season even began and now there’s plenty of concern with two of the three pitchers that were supposed to shoulder the heaviest loads this year. The Pirates only won five games of the 12 they played between April 18th and May 6th, but it’s a miracle they won even that many given that the bullpen only held one lead that it was handed over the entire stretch of time and the starters were almost uniformly terrible with just a couple of exceptions. Seriously: you could argue that all five of those wins were flukes or lucky wins. There was the blown lead against the Reds that the Pirates bounced back from, there was the Liriano Flu Game (the bullpen’s only solid performance, but one in which they played with a ton of fire), there were the two ridiculous comebacks against the Blue Jays, and there was a game that required a triple + error + replay review for the walkoff victory. The Pirates went 5-12 over a 17 game span and were lucky in all five of their wins. This is not necessarily a team poised for better things
The thing is, it’s also easy to be relatively optimistic (given the circumstances, I mean) about this start, too. If you flip the two big leads blown by the Pirates to the Orioles and Giants in the last week, now they’re 16-18. If you also go ahead and flip the two bad losses to the Brewers on Easter weekend, they’re 18-16, and with those four games flipped, they’re within 1 1/2 games of the Brewers. You obviously can’t go back in time and change the results of those games, and I’m not arguing in favor of doing that. I’m just pointing out that in the next 34 games if the Pirates have four games like that, odds are pretty good that they’ll win three or four of them. You can keep going down the list from here. The bullpen is too talented to keep pitching so terribly. Both Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton looked excellent in their last starts. Either Brandon Cumpton or Jeff Locke should be able to take Wandy Rodriguez’s rotation spot and improve the team. The offense has actually looked decent to this point (8th in the NL in runs scored) without much help from Pedro Alvarez, who seems poised for a breakout. Polanco is coming within four or five weeks, maybe less if he can sign an extension. If the Pirates go 20-14 in their next 34 and then Polanco arrives, well, things could get interesting.
The thing is, I’m not entirely sure which side of the fence to fall on here. I think that both arguments can be made with gusto, and I think the team could honestly break in either direction from where the are here. What I’ll say today is this: a lot of the Polanco discussion in these last couple of weeks always turns on the idea that Polanco isn’t enough to fix what ails this Pirate team. The bullpen has been bad and the rotation has been bad and the offense has been adequate, so why focus on Polanco? What the Pirates need to do is this: they need to get to a point where Polanco’s arrival will be legitimately difference-making. They need to do whatever they can to shore the rotation up (first step: don’t let Wandy start again) and get the bullpen back on track so that they’re at or around .500 when Polanco shows up*. Basically, between now and Polanco’s promotion, the team needs to find a way to get themselves to a place where their biggest need is for the offense to be lifted from medicore to dynamic.
That’s not going to be easy, but I don’t think it’s quite impossible.
*Unless he signs a contract tonight and shows up tomorrow; obviously this timeline is based on him being about a month away