First Pitch: Five Big Questions That Will Determine if the Pirates Will Remain Contenders

The Pittsburgh Pirates will kick off the second half of the season today. They enter the second half with a 49-46 record, sitting 3.5 games out of first place in the NL Central, and 3 games back in the Wild Card race. They’ve got the lowest chances of any of the playoff contenders, but they’re still considered contenders.

You can go through any team — contender or not — and you’ll find questions surrounding that team. The Pirates are no exception. They’ve got question marks at mid-season, and the answers to those questions could determine if they’re contenders this year, or a team that will mostly hover around .500, losing to teams in their own division, while destroying weaker competition. Here is a look at five of the key questions in the second half, all of which could determine whether the Pirates will remain contenders.

1. What Will the Pirates Get From Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole?

Most people had questions surrounding the back of the rotation heading into the season. So far, that has been the only thing that has worked for the Pirates. Edinson Volquez hasn’t been an ace, but he looks like the most recent success story when it comes to Ray Searage reclamation projects. Jeff Locke looks the best he has ever looked, and is statistically the best starter on the team. Charlie Morton is just continuing what he was doing last year, looking like a strong number three starter. Brandon Cumpton and Vance Worley have been great depth, and should continue in that role in the second half.

The problem is that Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole haven’t lived up to their expectations. Liriano has struggled this year, posting a 4.72 ERA, but a 3.76 xFIP. The advanced metrics suggest he will bounce back and pitch better, although not to the level of a top of the rotation guy. However, there are no guarantees as to when, or if, he will start to bounce back. Cole has pitched well this year, with a 3.78 ERA. That’s not as good as his 2013 numbers, especially at the end of the year. He’s now injured, and won’t be ready to return immediately after the All-Star break.

The Pirates have had great starting pitching since the start of June, and that has largely been without Liriano and Cole. If one, or both of these guys returns to pitch like an ace, then that would be a big boost for the Pirates in the second half.

2. Which Version of the First Base Platoon Will Show Up?

Ike Davis came to the Pirates and looked great right away. He had an .862 OPS in the month of May, but started to fade after that. His OPS in June was .597, and in July it is .488. Gaby Sanchez has been crushing lefties for the last year, and continued that in May, with an .898 OPS. He also faded in June, with a .539 OPS. In July he has a .304 OPS. His OPS against lefties this year is now .825, which is still good, but mostly fueled by an amazing first two months.

It’s not like the Pirates can’t contend without production from first base. They didn’t get any right-handed production last year from Garrett Jones or Justin Morneau. They’ve got a stronger offense this year than they had last year, which makes it more likely that they could overcome the first base struggles. However, what we’ve seen lately is bad, and the trend continues to go in the wrong direction.

In May, it looked like the Pirates finally found a first base platoon after a month and a half. Now it looks like the Pirates might want to look at other options for each spot in the platoon after a different month and a half stretch. That just shows that anything can happen. So which first base platoon will show up going forward?

3. How Much Power Will the Pirates Get From Pedro Alvarez?

Pedro Alvarez isn’t having a bad season, but he isn’t having a good season either. His average is still at the usual low point, although he’s taking more walks this year. His power is way down, but still good, with a .175 ISO. He’s on pace for 26 homers this year, which would be ten fewer than his 2013 total, and four less than his 2012 total.

Alvarez had a good month of June, with an .879 OPS. He’s faded in July, with a .711 OPS so far. He did the same thing last year, with a monster month of June, posting a 1.060 OPS. He had a .700 OPS in the second half. That hasn’t always been the trend. In 2012 he had a .926 OPS in June, and did well in July and August, before struggling in September.

Offense isn’t the only focus here, as Alvarez has had some serious problems with his throwing. That’s usually a strong point to his game, and now you cringe every time he makes a throw, even if it’s a routine throw. The offense is the key for Alvarez, as the entire Pirates offense goes to a new level when he’s hitting well. If his defensive struggles continue, he’s going to need to hit like the June version, just to make up for the defensive mistakes.

4. How Will the Bullpen Look in the Second Half?

15 blown saves. That’s the number thrown around all the time, and it’s bad no matter how you look at it. If a few of those games go the Pirates’ way, then we could be talking about a first place team right now.

The blown saves represent a problem. But is that problem confined to the first half, or is it something the Pirates have to be concerned about in the second half?

Seven of those blown saves came from guys who are no longer on the team. Jason Grilli (4) and Bryan Morris (3) led to almost half of the blown saves for the Pirates this year. The frustrating thing is that both pitchers are performing well since being traded away.

Then you’ve got the middle inning blown saves. Tony Watson has been an amazing reliever this year, but has four blown saves because he gave up four leads in the seventh or eighth innings. I don’t think anyone should be worried about Watson, and his four blown saves have no impact on the closer’s role.

Justin Wilson has one blown save. He’s also partially responsible for one of Watson’s blown saves, since he put the runners on, and Watson couldn’t get out of the jam. Once again, these blown saves don’t show the need for a closer. In Wilson’s case, he has struggled this year, and this could represent a need for an upgrade in the middle relief area. He did finish the first half strong, and has shown good abilities in his time in the majors. If that’s the Wilson that continues to show up, then the Pirates will be fine.

The final three blown saves came off Mark Melancon. He’s entered a game with a lead 35 times this year, and he’s only blown the lead three times. He’s 16-for-19 in save opportunities. As I wrote last night, he has been an elite reliever this year. I’m not worried about Melancon going forward, even in the closer’s role.

I don’t think the blown saves represent a problem for this bullpen going forward. Half of them came from relievers who are no longer around. Five of the rest came during the middle innings, which might be a problem the Pirates should address, but not in a way where they’re giving up a lot of money or prospects. Seven of the blown saves (including four from the middle innings group) came from two of the best relievers in baseball.

The thing about blown saves is that they’re treated so much differently than any other stat. If a position player has three bad games, no one even notices. If a good starting pitcher has three bad innings, it’s probably going to get lost in the mix. But if a reliever has one bad inning, or one bad game, it sticks with them. And it shouldn’t. It’s a problem that the Pirates had 15 blown saves in the first half, and it’s a problem that seven of those came from two of the best relievers in the league this year. But I think these problems are limited to the first half. The Pirates will still see some blown saves and bad games from their bullpen — that’s unavoidable for any team. They won’t see it at the frequency they saw it in the first half.

5. What Kind of Internal/External Help Will the Pirates Add?

This has been a slow month of July for rumors. Last year at this time there were 36 posts to our news and rumors section. This year? One. I’m sure we’ll hear about all of the discussions that went on behind the scenes when the Astros have their next data leak. Until then, the lack of rumors seems to indicate that the Pirates won’t be doing anything before the deadline.

Then again, a lot of the moves the Pirates have made are moves that came out of nowhere. There was some talk last year on Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau before they were acquired. But deals like Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider, and others came out of nowhere. And as we saw with the Astros situation, sometimes when we hear a rumor, it’s well after the talks have broken off.

I’ll be doing a trade deadline preview tomorrow, focusing on the needs of the team. I don’t think they have any major needs. That’s not saying they can’t find upgrades, but I just don’t look at this team and see a team that needs to go out and make a big splash. I think they’ve got a lot of guys who can perform better in the second half. They’ve got a lot of depth in the minors, and that’s an area where they’ve already seen in-season upgrades. Pat Lackey made a good point today about the big questions surrounding this team at the start of the year.

A bunch of the questions that everyone assumed would drive the success of this team in March: “Can Jordy Mercer be an every day shortstop?” and “Will Pedro Alvarez ever make the leap?” and “Is Gerrit Cole the next Justin Verlander?” and “Can anything stop the Gregory Polanco Train?” and “So is Starling Marte kinda good or pretty good or really good?” have all been more or less deferred to the second half and the Pirates are still in contention.

The Pirates are contenders, despite no answer to those big question marks. As I said earlier, every team has question marks. The Pirates have a lot of potential upside on their roster, and they’ve been contending without a lot of those upside players performing to their expectations. They’ve got a team capable of contending and possibly winning the division. They just need the big guys to step up. The performances of Cole, Alvarez, Polanco, Marte, and Liriano are going to be far greater than any external addition. If most of those players do well, then they won’t need a big splash. And if most of those guys struggle, then a big splash isn’t going to be enough to make the Pirates a contender.

Links and Notes

**Prospect Watch: Josh Bell Makes Altoona Debut, Cumpton and Glasnow With Strong Outings

**Joely Rodriguez Moving to the Bullpen in Altoona

**Minor Moves: Andrew Lambo Returns to Indianapolis

**Starling Marte Reinstated From the Bereavement List

**Pirates Still Playoff Contenders, But Need to Beat Their Own Division

**Pirates Have Four in Keith Law’s Mid-Season Top 50

**Prospect Highlights: First Look at a GCL Pirates Pitcher With a Tale of Perseverance

**Minor League Schedule: Adrian Sampson Tries to Build on His Outstanding First Half

First Pitch

  • lonleylibertarian
    July 18, 2014 6:39 pm

    I have always believed.
    1. Trades to try and cement a position/lead are not a bad idea.
    2. Giving up prospects to try and catch teams ahead of you is not a good idea.

    The Bucs are better served this year by…
    1. Hoping Pedro catches fire and hits 18+ HRs
    2. Praying that Ike Davis has a great second half in him…
    3. Hoping and Praying that Polanco figures things out and moves up the learning curve rapidly

  • lonleylibertarian
    July 18, 2014 6:33 pm

    Probably the biggest questions is not one that directly involves the Pirates….

    Will the Cards add Price and Zobrist?

  • My answer to #5 would be little or none. So #5 should probably be replaced by #5. Will Sterling Marte and Polanco continue to falter or return to hitting like top major league outfielders?

    • Texas_Teacher
      July 18, 2014 3:53 pm

      Polanco doesn’t concern me. He’s young and figuring things out. Watching Marte’s OPS drift downward, where now it sits at just over .700 is causing me some concern.

  • You could argue that the Dodgers team of Hanley, Adrian, Kemp, Kershaw, etc was enough to contend last year, but the addition of Puig is a splash that actually propelled the team.
    Polanco is similar, but less experienced, and perhaps less prepared to be that big of a splash.
    An addition if significant can propel an already talented group though to greater overall results as seen with their group. As for who could be that player for the Bucs? The place most discuss is the starters but they are fairly solid if not spectacular. I like the possibility of adding Kingham if nothing else to the group if needed.
    I would rather focus on the bats and there is little need for me to look deeply to see the biggest need is at 1b. Ike has been a major disappointment IMO and Gaby is actually a decent bench part, I’d look for a lefty bat for 1b and I have the perfect guy. Mark Texiera.
    Face it the Yanks are out of it, and this guy has been a disappointment for them and they are ready to deal. He’s an OBP guy (341) OPS (805) with 17 dingers and if you include some talent in the deal the yanks will pick up some salary to make it work.
    I’d send IKE back to NY as part of the deal to clear some salary on our own end and for prospects to make the deal, they need starters so leading with Sampson, Cumpton, Heredia, (possibly Locke if needed – replace with Kingham/Cumpton) and add youthful bats to get the trigger pulled. Harold Ramirez, Rojas Jr, Alen Hanson (Jeter of the future). Get Tex and this team makes a push. C’mon NH – you know you love making deals with NYY anyway it’s the perfect fit.

    • Wow, what? Good one brian. At first I thought you were serious. #1. You want to gut one of the best minor league sustems for a 34-yr-old 1B with bad knees who has played exactly 88 games the last 1 2/3 seasons. And has a combined .780 OPS during the last 2 years. #2. How much of the $55 million still owed to Tex do you think the Yankees would be willing to pay? Seems to me they learned their lesson with AJ Burnett. #3. $24 million per year would be over 30% of the Pirates current salary for the entire team.

    • Did I mention the Yankees are 5 games out of first in the AL (L)East and have the best record in the division the last 3 1/2 weeks?

  • pilbobuggins
    July 18, 2014 11:49 am

    26 homers is 10 less than last year tim not 6. And does a trip to the dl negate the sophmore jinks ala gerrit cole ? I still think melancon is a very shaky closer and is a big question mark, it would not surprise me if the bucs bring in a closer before the deadline, melancon is fine as a setup guy or spot closer not long term. It also would not surprise me if pedro along with a couple of prospects was traded along with liriano. Time will tell.

  • Pedro always only hits two months of the year. Also, he hit 36 last year not 32.

  • I don’t like the way they use Polanco. I think he can hit leadoff, but I think the Pirate philosophy gets in the way, they want their leadoff man to take pitches, get walks and I think for a rookie getting into 2 strike holes all the time especially to skilled lefties is a big problem. If Polanco hits and I think he would if they move him out of that leadoff spot, this team with some work with the pen should take the pennant.

    • I like him at leadoff…he works counts and walks even when he isn’t hitting.

      • Yes he works counts and gets walks, something that he can do down in the order, but if he does not hit he is going to end up back in the minors.

        • I think the same can be said about Marte….he keeps getting a free pass, but between his TOOTBLANs and his .708 OPS, I’m thinking some Indy time might be in his future?

  • The team record in Liriano/Cole starts is 16-13 (7-8 for Liriano, 9-5 for Cole). I don’t see a huge leap coming even if both are more on their game than they have been. Liriano probably has 14 starts remaining, Cole one or two fewer. IMO, probably best that can be expected is 16-10 between the two, if run production remains the same.

    Personally I think this team goes as far as the top of the lineup takes them. When they get on base, Cutch and Walker can get RBI. If they struggle, no RBI. I expect more Harrison in RF if Polanco doesn’t get it together soon.

  • As a lot of you know, I think Tim has the best Pirate site in the business.

    But, for all those who want even more fascinating (and mature) Pirate talk, Pirate-centric links galore (we even link to P2), Twitter feeds, and especially Game Chats, try: http://pbc-asylum.blogspot.com/

    It’s like a one stop shopping Pirate site!

    We’ve been around in one form or another for well over 5 years (mainly associated with ‘PG Plus’). We ‘broke off’ and formed our own blog.

    Come join us!!!!

    Lee Foo

  • Scott Kliesen
    July 18, 2014 4:40 am

    This team will go as far as Cole and Liriano take them. Hard to see them succeeding in any meaningful way w/out them leading the staff. Or not overtaking the competition if they pitch like Aces. Every other point is secondary to this one.

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