At the beginning of this month, I talked about how the Pirates weren’t winning against good teams, and were just beating up on bad teams. I mentioned that with a June schedule which included the Philadelphia Phillies (34-22 at the time), Arizona Diamondbacks (31-25), Cleveland Indians (33-20), Boston Red Sox (30-26), and Toronto Blue Jays (28-28), the Pirates were unlikely to escape the month of June with a winning record. That was mostly due to the lack of success by the Pirates against winning teams prior to the month of June.
So what did the Pirates do? They took two of three against Philadelphia, Arizona, and most recently, Boston. They now sit at 39-38, with a three game series against the Toronto Blue Jays, who are sitting at 39-39. If the Pirates win just one of those games, they will finish the month of June with a record of at least .500. To take in just how impressive this is, let’s go back to that article I wrote at the start of the month:
The Pirates could take two games from the Astros and Orioles, along with three of five games against the Mets (counting today’s contest). However, in order to enter July with a winning record, they’d have to play .500 ball against the first place Phillies, the first place Diamondbacks, the first place Indians, the second place Red Sox, and the .500 Blue Jays. Considering their lack of success to date against winning teams, the odds of them entering July with a record around .500 are slim. If they do manage to pull it off, that might be something to get excited about.
So far, the Pirates have played .500 ball against the Phillies, Diamondbacks, Indians, and Red Sox, and that includes being swept in three games by Cleveland. There’s no question that the Pirates have been impressive this season, highlighted by a 14-10 run in June. The question now becomes: do they make a move to try and contend this year?
My gut feeling tells me that the Pirates aren’t really contenders. But how much of that feeling is just waiting for the other shoe to drop, all because that’s what we’re used to. Nothing is lazier than comments like “X will happen because it’s the Pirates”. How many times do we hear the “Pitcher A will have Tommy John surgery because he’s a Pirate”? Is this the same thing? We’re waiting for this team to lose and fall apart because every other team over the last 18 years that had a good run ended up losing. We waited for interleague play. That didn’t stop the winning. We waited for big matchups like Philadelphia and Boston. That didn’t stop the winning. At what point do we say that this is a winning team?
Part of the problem I have is the make-up of the team. There are holes all over the field. The catching position is made up of two guys who have combined for less than 50 at-bats in their major league careers. Eric Fryer is a good prospect, and looks to eventually be a strong backup in the majors. Michael McKenry has shown some good defense, and looks to be a good #2/3 catcher going forward.
At first base, the Pirates have Lyle Overbay, a guy who is hitting for a .228/.306/.358 line in 254 at-bats. They could move Garrett Jones and his .777 OPS to first for a bit of an upgrade, although that leaves right field to Matt Diaz, who is hitting for a .254/.287/.308 line in 130 at-bats this year.
The expected leaders of this team coming in to the year were center fielder Andrew McCutchen, left fielder Jose Tabata, second baseman Neil Walker, and third baseman Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez is currently injured, and keeps suffering set backs. Tabata and Walker haven’t had a strong follow up to their rookie campaigns. Tabata is hitting for a .265/.351/.354 line, and went down with a leg injury tonight, which might not be serious enough to land him on the disabled list. Walker is hitting for a .252/.323/.388 line. The only one from that group that is performing is McCutchen, who is hitting for a .285/.388/.463 line, which includes a .324/.423/.521 line in 188 at-bats since April 29th.
The last position, shortstop, is being held down by Ronny Cedeno, who has a .240/.298/.335 line, and decent defense this year. However, Cedeno is struggling with consistency issues again, and his defense hasn’t been good enough to make up for his total lack of offense.
The strength of the team has been the pitching staff, specifically the starting rotation. Four of the five starters this year have ERAs under 3.80. The one exception is James McDonald, who has a 4.52 ERA, mostly due to a bad start to the season. After his first four starts of the year, McDonald has put up a 2.96 ERA in 67 innings, including tonight’s start. Some of his starts haven’t been pretty, and he’s been struggling with his control this month (18 walks in 26.1 innings). But the fact that he’s seen as the weak spot in the rotation really says a lot about how well the rotation has been performing this year.
During that same stretch, the Pirates have two other pitchers with an ERA under .300. Paul Maholm has a 2.92 ERA in 71 innings since the end of April, while Jeff Karstens has a 2.36 ERA in 68.2 innings in that time frame. Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton are both having good seasons as well, although they’ve struggled in June. Correia has a 4.15 ERA in 30.1 innings this month, while Morton has been bombed in two starts, leading to an 8.50 ERA in 18 innings.
There’s good reason to believe that the Pirates pitching staff isn’t this good. For example, right now Jeff Karstens looks like a Cy Young candidate, ranking 11th in the majors among qualified pitchers in the ERA category. Common sense tells you that Karstens isn’t a Cy Young candidate. In fact, his xFIP this year is 3.76. Charlie Morton has the same number. Maholm is at 4.02, and Correia is at 4.12. McDonald is at 4.62, which is higher than his ERA. Basically, the numbers suggest that four of the starters have been playing over their heads, and a regression is coming.
So what do the Pirates have? They have a pitching staff that is exceeding expectations. They have an offense that is pretty much made up of one star player, and only three other players with decent numbers. Half of the regular starters for the Pirates have an OPS under .700. McCutchen is the only one over .800, and Jones is the only other one over .720.
With the pitching expected to regress, the simple solution is to add offense and make up for the regression. Many will be quick to suggest that the Pirates go out and make a trade. However, you typically don’t see major trades take place this early. For one, not many teams are really out of it. Two, some teams are still trying to figure out whether they’re really in it. Three, the trade deadline is a month away, which gives sellers a month to try and find the best deal possible.
Take Baltimore and J.J. Hardy as an example. Baltimore is nine games out of the Wild Card race in the AL. They’ve got J.J. Hardy under control for the remainder of the season, and he’s currently hitting for a .311/.373/.550 line in 180 at-bats. Hardy would be a great fit for the Pirates, considering how Ronny Cedeno has played. However, Baltimore wants to extend him, which is no easy task, since Hardy will be a free agent at 29, and will command a lot as a strong defensive shortstop coming off a great season at the plate. Therefore, Hardy probably really won’t be available until the negotiations fall through, if that does happen. Even if that happens, there could be other teams that emerge with shortstop issues.
The current situation almost reminds me of what happens every off-season. People want to see a big move made, because they’re conditioned to think that a big move is the only way to improve the team. The fact is that the team can be improved from within, and the team can be improved through smaller moves.
Right now the Pirates have holes at catcher, first base, shortstop, third base (due to Alvarez being out), and right field. They can’t possibly upgrade each position via trade, and honestly, any team that adds five positions at the deadline shouldn’t be buying at the deadline. Meanwhile, they’ve got Eric Fryer and Chase d’Arnaud in the majors, and Alex Presley, Matt Hague, and Josh Harrison in the minors. Rather than trading from this group for a two month rental, why not see what this group can do?
The Pirates are already doing this by giving Fryer and d’Arnaud their shots. Fryer made his first start tonight, while Chase has started three games in a row at third base. Alex Presley is expected to join the team on Tuesday, and could see a lot of playing time, thanks to Jose Tabata’s injury and the presence of the DH spot in Toronto. But why stop there?
Matt Hague is hitting for a .370/.416/.609 line in the month of June, after a .308/.361/.421 line in May. He can’t be any worse than what we’ve seen out of Lyle Overbay this year. Josh Harrison didn’t have much time in the majors, and was mostly a singles hitter when he was up. However, Pedro Ciriaco isn’t even being used, so clearly Harrison would be an upgrade (although he could only return this soon if Tabata goes on the disabled list).
The Pirates look like contenders as far as their record goes. They look like contenders when they take a series from Boston and Philadelphia in the same month. But when you look at the over-performing pitching staff, and the swiss cheese offense, you see that it’s questionable to call them contenders. My belief is that adding at the deadline should be more for luxury than need. It should be done if you’re in first place, or if you’re a game or two back. If you need to add players to contend, then you’re probably not a contender.
Despite being four games back, and sitting at 39-38, I wouldn’t call the Pirates contenders just yet. However, I’m not going to say they’ve got no shot. They’re kind of in no-man’s land right now. They could make a trade to jump up in to the contenders category, but then what do they do to keep up once the other contenders make their deadline deals? The Pirates will just have to make another move.
There should be no desperation for a move at this point though, especially with so many question marks on the field, and so many options in the minors. With a month remaining before the trade deadline, I’d rather take time to see if Chase d’Arnaud, Alex Presley, Matt Hague, Josh Harrison, and Eric Fryer can be solid contributors. No one from that group profiles as more than an average-to-above average player at their position, although with the performances the Pirates have gotten this year from some of their starters, even an average performer would be an upgrade. If a few of these players step up and fill some of the open spots on the offense, and the Pirates keep winning, that’s when the team should be looking to make their big move.