About a week ago, I was thinking up an article that would focus on every single thing that was going wrong for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season, leading to their struggles. They were coming off a few wins, so it didn’t seem like the right time to post the article. One week later, they’re wrapping up a successful road trip, and a better article would be something discussing how the team is climbing back into the playoff race.
After beating the Padres tonight, for the third night in a row, the Pirates find themselves 6-3 on this ten game road trip. They currently sit two games below .500, and two games back from the second Wild Card spot. A big reason for the latter is that no one has really stepped up yet to run away from the rest of the pack. There are currently six teams within two games of the second Wild Card spot, not counting Miami and Los Angeles, who currently occupy the two spots.
At some point, a few of these teams will start running away from the rest of the pack. I think the Pirates have the talent to be one of those teams.
A lot has been going right for the Pirates lately. The first base platoon is working as expected. Neil Walker is having a career year at the plate. Andrew McCutchen is just being one of the best players in the league, as usual. Josh Harrison has been unreal, raising questions about where he will play when Gregory Polanco arrives. The starting pitchers are beginning to pitch as expected, with great outings lately from Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton. The bullpen seems stronger with Jason Grilli healthy, Mark Melancon in the setup role, and Justin Wilson and Tony Watson pitching great in meaningful innings.
Even with all of these things going right, there’s still room for improvement in the following areas:
**Pedro Alvarez is having a poor season, with a .715 OPS. He’s been a streaky player in his career, going on massive hot streaks, and big cold streaks. It looks like he might be heating up. Alvarez is 10-for-32 with two homers on this road trip, playing in a lot of pitcher friendly parks. Imagine the boost the Pirates can get if Alvarez goes on one of his hot streaks, where he crushes everything in sight. Those tend to happen in June, where he has a career .888 OPS. July is his second best month, with a .782 OPS in his career. If Josh Harrison platoons with him against lefties, that could improve the overall numbers at third base.
**Starling Marte had a horrible April, which featured an increased walk rate, and a horrible strikeout rate. In the month of May, he quietly reverted back to the hitter he’s been in the past, which is a productive hitter who strikes out and doesn’t draw walks. Marte had a .265/.321/.459 line. His walk rate dropped to 4.7%, but his strikeout rate also dropped to 23.6%. His power was excellent, leading to a .780 OPS. I’m fine with Marte putting up a walk rate below 5% and a strikeout rate around 23-25%, as long as the power is there. It has worked for him the last two years, and it worked for him in May. The Pirates will get much better production out of Marte if they just let him be who he is at the plate.
**Gregory Polanco is about a week away, by my best guess. It’s not like the Pirates are hurting in right field with the way Harrison has been playing lately. If Harrison’s bat stays hot, then the Pirates could move him to other positions. He could platoon at third base against lefties, take some starts at shortstop if Jordy Mercer continues to struggle, and start a few games in the outfield when Marte or Polanco need a break. The Pirates could manage to get Harrison 3-4 starts per week as a super utility player, while also getting the benefit of Polanco’s bat in right field.
**Francisco Liriano is going to be much better than what we’ve seen this year. Keep in mind that Liriano didn’t really play an impact last year by this point. He only had four starts through the month of May. From June to the end of the season, Liriano had a 3.13 ERA in 138 innings, with a 135:55 K/BB ratio. He has a 3.47 xFIP compared to a 4.62 ERA. Expect his future starts to be closer to his last outing.
The Pirates could get a huge boost with Polanco leading off, Alvarez and Marte hitting well in the middle of the order, and Liriano getting back to the 2013 version that looked like a top of the rotation guy at times. They might not get all of that going forward. However, they haven’t gotten any of that this season. So even if one or two of these guys doesn’t turn things around (or in Polanco’s case, doesn’t take MLB by storm), the Pirates will still benefit, and will be a stronger overall team.
Coming into the season, I said the Pirates were contenders. I still think they’re contenders. They got off to a horrible start this year, which put them in a hole that was hard to dig out of. They’re not out of that hole yet, but the fact that no one has pulled away in the Wild Card race yet has made it easier for them to get back in the picture. I wouldn’t be surprised if they finish the month of June on the right side of .500, and sitting in one of the Wild Card spots. This looks like a team that is waking up just at the right time.
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