There are 69 games left for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2013 season. If they win 35 of them, they will have 91 wins when the season ends. In order for the Washington Nationals to win 92 games, they will have to go 44-23 in their final 67 games, which is a 106-win pace. That almost certainly is the math for the Pittsburgh Pirates to make the playoffs in 2013.
I have a lot of questions about this group of Pirate players if we're discussing them as the second-best team in the National League, but I have considerably fewer questions about their ability to win win half of their games from here on out or their ability to get to 90 wins and win a wild card spot. They can do it and they should do it and to be honest, they could probably do it with the exact group of players that they have in Pittsburgh right now. I have plenty of questions about how Jeff Locke will hold up over the course of a full season and what Gerrit Cole is capable at in this early stage of his career, but AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and yes, even Charlie Morton have all flashed great stuff this season and missed time with injuries that shouldn't be concerns going forward. That means that it's not unreasonable to expect them to finish strong. There are question marks on the field and on the bench, but I think that the position players have under-performed at the plate relative to an expected performance based on their rate stats. I'll allow that the pitchers have more room to regress back to the mean than the hitters have to progress towards it, but the Pirates have a .602 winning percentage and a .570 third-order winning percentage. They can regress a ways back as a team and still be a .500 club.
"Staving off regression enough to sneak into a wild card spot" is not an acceptable goal to have at the All-Star break when the season is 93 games old and you've won 60% of those games, though. The Pirates could have all of the right pieces fall into place over the next four or five years and contend every single year and still not have a record this good this late into the season. Sometimes, the universe provides you with an oppotunity and you have to take that opportunity, whether you thought it was in the cards or not.
With that, her are my three big second half concerns, listed in the order that I'm concerned about them:
1. Is the starting rotation deep enough without Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald?
I don't know the long-term status of Wandy Rodriguez or James McDonald for certain right now, but neither will be back before the trade deadline and I would honestly be surprised if either made another start for the Pirates this year. That means that the Pirates' starting pitching depth chart is, at the moment, 1.) Liriano 2.) Burnett 3.) Locke 4.) Morton 5.) Cole 6.) Gomez and 7.) Cumpton. Given Liriano's past struggles, Burnett's old age, Locke's young age and peripherals, Morton's general instability, and Cole's very uneven first month in the Majors, there isn't one starting pitcher that I don't have some kind of concern about. Gomez is mildly acceptable spot-start depth, and Cumpton is not a Major League pitcher right now.
It's silly and paranoid to think that all five guys are going to implode, but it's not to think that three of them could hit serious roadblocks in the second half. And seriously, you can pick any three you want: Burnett could get hurt again, Liriano could go back to Bad Liriano, Locke or Cole could hit a wall, and Morton could lose his head. Having this sort of multiplying pitching problem is exactly what caused last year's collapse, and the Pirates are pretty vulnerable to the same sort of problem this year.
Everyone's focused on the offense, because that's the most apparent problem at this point in time, so I'll just say this: The Pirates' main concern at the trade deadline should be finding another quality starting pitcher. There's no point in finding a right fielder if there's not going to be a pitching staff for that right fielder to support, and if the Pirates' don't add another starter, they're going to be in serious danger of that happening again.
2. How can the offense get deeper?
I'm of two minds on this. On one hand, I'd tell you that the Pirates' offense is much better off than you think. Travis Snider and Clint Barmes were the only two regulars with below-average OPS's for most of the season's first half, and they've mostly lost their jobs to Jose Tabata and Jordy Mercer. The Pirates' terrible-hitting pitching staff is a much larger part of the problem than people realize; with the pitchers removed, the Pirates' OPS+ is 104. That's (by my count) the third best non-pitcher OPS in the National League (the Giants and Braves are better). I don't really think the Pirates need a huge change here, because even with a huge change, the Pirates would be playing with an eight-man lineup in a sport where nine players are required to bat.
All of that being said, the right field/first base situation is unsatisfactory. Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones are nice enough part-time players, but even with their powers combined, they don't quite have the pop you'd want from a first baseman. Snider has been terrible and Tabata's been solid, but without much pop. The reason that I keep mentioning power is that Pedro Alvarez is the Pirates' only power source this year. As much of a pleasant surprise as Pedro's recent power surge has been, he's still striking out a ton (31.4% of PAs since June 1st, when he's hit .301/.376/.639) and I'm going to be bracing for a slump from him for as long as that's happening.
Outside of Alvarez and McCutchen, what the Pirates have are a bunch of average guys. What they need, in my opinion, is just one more middle-of-the-lineup bat that's capable of hitting some balls over the fence. If the Marlins want to hold a fire sale, I'd think the Pirates should be interested in a Giancarlo Stanton or a Logan Morrison, but I'm not sure there's an imperative need to sell the farm to find a bat for this particular Pirate team. Rather, they need to be smart about who's on the market and who's a good fit for their needs. I know that's annoyingly vague, but I'd rather evaluate on a case-by-case basis.
3. How much bullpen and bench depth do the Pirates need?
The bench is always the last concern, but the Pirates' bench right now is awful. Brandon Inge and Clint Barmes shouldn't both be on a Major League bench; Barmes's glove plays better and is helpful, so if it were up to me he'd stay and Inge would be sent packing for Josh Harrison, Ivan De Jesus Jr., or an outside acquisition. Honestly, Travis Snider isn't much of a help on the bench, either. A big problem with the bench is that it's very platoon oriented; when a lefty starts, the Pirates suddenly have a ton of lefties on the bench and vice versa. I think that the Pirates can probably take care of this problem by jettisoning Inge and shoring up their starting lineup, which will have a trickle-down effect on the bench.
Also, it's probably time to replace Mike McKenry with Tony Sanchez. The Fort seems like a great guy and he's got a good story and I understand that the pitching staff likes him, but he really hasn't helped on either side of the plate this year. This is marginally negotiable if the Pirates drop Inge for a useful substitute, I suppose, since backup catchers don't pinch-hit much, but I still think it's time to start considering this.
Finally, the bullpen. I'm pretty concerned about a Jason Grilli meltdown at this point given his workload and recent struggles. I hope I'm just being over-sensitive, that the All-Star Break will restore him to his early-season luster, and I will freely admit that I might be wrong, but it's worth worrying about. That's particularly true since the Pirates don't have reliable high-leverage relievers right now besides Grilli and Mark Melancon. Tony Watson and Justin Wilson and Vin Mazzaro have all been able enough, but I'm not sure the Pirates would (or should) trust them in a big situation with the game on the line.
A trade for starting pitching could help here; I think either Charlie Morton or Gerrit Cole would make a heck of a seventh inning reliever, given their relative stuff. Still, relievers trade teams at a pretty insane pace during the end of July; if the Pirates can find another Melancon-type diamond in the rough, I say they should probably jump on it.
Of course, none of these moves guarantee anything; Derrek Lee and Wandy Rodriguez were both great trade deadline acqusitions with a team that still cratered around them. I think this Pirate team is built of sterner stuff, though. Their big wild card lead also means that they don't have to do anything, which gives them a slightly different negotiating stance than they've had in the last two seasons.
In any case, Neal Huntington doesn't tend to sit on his hands. The Pirates are going to do something over these next few weeks, and after the deadline and the rough schedule patch that lasts from now until August 1st, we're suddenly going to know a whole lot more about this team's ability to shoot for more than just a wild card game.