I feel like this season requires a weekly “Everything is going wrong for the Pirates” update, just to keep current with all of the things that are going wrong.
The last time I covered this topic was when the offense was struggling in every way imaginable. That was when Adam Frazier and David Freese had just gone down with injuries, and when Starling Marte had just gotten suspended. Fortunately, Frazier and Freese are starting to make their way back.
Frazier is currently rehabbing in Indianapolis. He played one game on Monday, and could play another tomorrow morning. Neal Huntington said on Sunday that the next step for Freese is to do some running, and that he may not need a rehab appearance if he can return soon enough.
That will be a nice boost for the Pirates when both hitters return. Prior to their injuries, they were two of the top performers for this weak offense. If they can return with the same production, it will help boost one of the weakest parts of the team this year. The Pirates might get an added boost by keeping some of the more productive prospects who have come up in their absence. The most notable has been Jose Osuna, who looks like a guy who deserves a full-time bench role at this point, getting the spot over either Alen Hanson or John Jaso.
Unfortunately, the pending returns of Freese and Frazier come right after Jameson Taillon went on the disabled list due to surgery for suspected testicular cancer. The Pirates have turned to Trevor Williams for the fifth starter role with Taillon down, and that didn’t go well on Monday night. They have some options in Triple-A, either to pitch out of the bullpen to replace Williams, or to pitch in the rotation. They called on Josh Lindblom for the former role. As for a replacement starter for Williams, not every Indianapolis starter is an option.
“We still have Neverauskas and Santana, and a handful of other guys who can help us. Josh [Lindblom] is a veteran and he can pitch in length,” Huntington said about the pitching staff. “We love what Clay Holmes and Tyler Eppler are doing, but they’re not to the point where we feel they could come up here and help us win games.”
Huntington’s comments came before today’s start which saw Holmes strike out eight in seven innings of work. That’s a positive sign, although you’re going to want to see more of that type of production before giving him a call to the majors, rather than just calling him up after his first really good start.
The injuries, suspensions, and struggles are testing the Pirates’ depth, according to Huntington.
“There’s not question our offense has been challenged,” Huntington said. “When you take two core members out and (remove) two other players who you think are going to be contributors, that stings.”
Part of the bind the Pirates are in right now, Huntington feels, is because they spent to their budget this offseason, expecting to build around Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte. They have extra money to spend with those two out, but it’s difficult to spend that money at this point in the season. Any free agent wouldn’t be ready for more than a month. And most teams aren’t looking to trade at this point in the season.
“It’s been interesting,” Huntington said. “We essentially spent to budget in the offseason — not with the expectation that we’d have two players on the restricted list that would create money for us that’s really not usable at this time until he trade market opens up. We created a little bit of money when we made the decision (to release) Jared Hughes. So that’s money available for us, if the opportunity comes available to spend it.”
The good news is that the Pirates have some money to spend to upgrade their team when the trade market does open up. The bad news is that they might not be contenders by the time the trade market does open, due to all of the struggles, injuries, and the loss of Kang and Marte.
“The challenge is that we’ve got to be able to continue to roll forward,” Huntington said. “When Kang is able to get here, or late July when Starling is able to be reinstated, we’ve got to be able to carry the load until we get to that point in time. We’ve got some guys that are trying to do that. We’ve got some guys that are trying to hard to do that instead of just playing their role. We’ve got a team that’s going to continue to show up and fight and win some games.”
Continued Struggles From the Top Players
Travis Barnett wrote about why Gregory Polanco was struggling in a column last week. Interestingly enough, Polanco is hitting .500/.571/.750 since that article went up. As a result, we’re currently planning more articles from Travis, breaking down individual offensive struggles.
Huntington weighed in on Polanco’s struggles this past Sunday.
“It’s fascinating because he was so good and locked in, in the World Baseball Classic and then it’s been a challenge for him,” Huntington said. “The swing has gotten long and he’s tried to generate more. He’s tried to do more. For a man with long levers, trying to do more and trying to generate more creates a long, slow swing. I know they’re working on him right now to try to get it short and quick. A 110 mph line-drive to center field the other night is a good sign.”
Alan Saunders has written about how Polanco is looking to shorten his swing this year, which will certainly help matters. Polanco’s outfield mate, Andrew McCutchen, also continues to struggle at the plate, currently with a .700 OPS. Huntington discussed McCutchen’s struggles, pointing out some optimistic signs.
“You feel for Andrew because the outcomes aren’t where we thought they would be, given some of the indicators,” Huntington said. “The walk rate is better than it was a year ago. The strikeout rate is better than it was a year ago. The line-drive rate is better than it was a year ago. Batting average on balls in play is down, showing that he’s hitting into some bad luck.”
To counter-point this, McCutchen’s 2016 season is a low bar to set for improvements. The walk rate is better this year (10.9% vs 10.2%), but down from 14.3% in 2015, and a career 11.8%. The strikeout rate is down 21.2% to 17.2%, which is actually in line with his career totals. The line drive rate is actually down, going to 14.1% from 22.5%, with the latter being close to his career numbers. The BABIP is down to .230, so you could make the argument that McCutchen is unlucky. However, I don’t know if we’re going to see anything close to the .329 career average, or the .355 range from 2013-14. Those were fueled by McCutchen’s speed, which is declining.
“At the same time, this is a results-driven game,” Huntington added. “We’ve got a handful of guys. Polanco’s results are worse than his indicators. Mercer’s results are significantly worse than his indicators. Cervelli’s results are much worse than his indicators. Again, it looks like Cervelli is turning a corner. We’ll get Andrew to get a bloop here and a bleeder there and the next thing you know it, he’ll be Andrew McCutchen again.”
I don’t agree with the last part, since I’m doubtful that the old Andrew McCutchen will ever return at this point. The best the Pirates can hope for is that they get some kind of production out of him, better than they saw in 2016, while seeing guys like Polanco step up their production in the absence of the normal producers.
The Good News
Not everything is actually going wrong with the Pirates. There are some silver linings which don’t necessarily counter the problems listed above, but do provide a bit of help. One of those silver linings is the production so far from Wade LeBlanc. He’s got a 2.33 ERA and a 3.39 xFIP, seeing his ground ball rate go to 53.4% (after previously being a fly ball pitcher), and doing a good job of getting a decent amount of strikeouts and limiting walks.
The Pirates added LeBlanc last year as a veteran to give them innings in September, hoping there was upside for more.
“Again, a guy that you looked at his metrics and his results weren’t as good as his metrics,” Huntington said. “Was there something that would click here? When we traded for him, it was out of need, but it was need with interest. We were thinking that it may lead to something more and it has.”
The Pirates signed LeBlanc to an extension over the offseason, paying him $800,000 this year, with a $1.2 M option in 2018. If he continues pitching like this, that option will be an easy decision.
“He’s continued to miss barrels and continue to get a lot of soft contact and continue to take the ball in whatever role Clint has asked him to take,” Huntington said. “He was pitching in leverage situations for us in September at times and he’s saved us a couple of times pitching in length and he’s come in and got a couple of big outs in different spots. So, Wade was acquired because of need but there was some potential for longer-term interest, as well.”
A bigger bright spot would be the performance of Ivan Nova, who the Pirates signed this offseason to a three-year deal, after adding him last year at the trade deadline. Coming into tonight’s game with the Dodgers, he had a 2.14 ERA and a 3.16 xFIP in 42 innings, with just one walk (and as I write this, he has issued two walks in tonight’s game).
“Nova has just been so efficient to get early-count soft contact,” Huntington said. “He’s not pitching himself into trouble with walks and we’ve played pretty well defensively behind him. So, it is a nice sequence.”
Nova has joined Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon as the highlight of this team, fueling the starting pitching to rank in the top third of NL teams.
“As we’ve talked before, we’re about the middle or upper end of the pack in terms of starter innings this year,” Huntington said. “That’s coming on the heels of Glasnow, who’s probably the low-end and Nova is probably the high-end. It is good to have a veteran that can go out there and give you some innings and even when he doesn’t have his best stuff, battle through it and put you in a position to win a game.”
It hurts a bit knowing that Taillon is now on the disabled list, but the hope is that Nova and Cole can continue keeping this team afloat. With so many things going wrong for the team, the Pirates need Nova to remain consistent. Of course, a bigger help would be getting Freese and Frazier back healthy and productive, along with seeing improvements offensively from struggling guys like Polanco, Cervelli, and McCutchen.
Alan Saunders contributed to this report.