PITTSBURGH – The Pirates took an important series against the Cardinals this weekend, taking two of three against the team directly above them in the standings. In most years, that would be huge, as it usually means the Pirates are gaining ground on the first or second place team. This year, the Pirates are currently in fourth place, trailing the third place Cardinals, with both teams below .500.
After the win today, the Pirates are four games under .500, and the important number is that they’re seven games out of first place. They also have a four game series coming up against the first place Milwaukee Brewers. If they’re going to be contenders this year, then they can’t settle with beating the Cardinals — they’ll need a big week against the Brewers. That series will see the return of Starling Marte, giving the team an additional boost.
“We don’t want to undersell, we also don’t want to oversell, what this four-game series with the Brewers means,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “Every game’s important for us, not only between now and the deadline but as we get beyond the deadline, every game matters. And that’s one of the things that we need to move forward with. Obviously an 0-4 changes the dynamic pretty significantly. We go 4-0, it changes the dynamic in a much more positive direction.”
While the series against the Brewers is a big one, even a 4-0 sweep would still have the Pirates in an uphill battle. They’d still be three games behind the Brewers, and possibly still behind the Cubs and Cardinals. They’d also still be a few games out of the Wild Card race. While the Pirates might look like contenders with a big week, it’s questionable whether they are actually contenders.
“We still need to be realistic about our evaluation of this club, about our opportunities moving forward, about roles where we can get better, where are some of our flaws that we’re still going to be challenged by, what are our chances,” Huntington said. “We recognize the division’s different than the second wild card. We also recognize that we’ve gone 17-13 in our last 30 games and have lost two games, so that means the club we’re chasing is still playing very well.”
The Pirates were in a similar situation last year, where they were technically “contenders” around the deadline, but realistically they didn’t have a good chance to make the playoffs. They weren’t exactly buyers or sellers in that scenario. They traded Mark Melancon and his expiring contract to get Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn. They also salary dumped Francisco Liriano, clearing up room for future moves. But on the other side, they added by trading for Ivan Nova.
This year could see a similar approach, especially with the makeup of the team. The Pirates have a lot of young players in key positions, with all of the starting lineup and rotation made up of guys who are under control through the 2018 season or longer. They also have several relievers with expiring contracts. Then there are a few players like Andrew McCutchen and Josh Harrison with one year of control remaining beyond 2017, who could lead to some interesting decisions.
Last year the Pirates didn’t trade all of the players with expiring contracts. A few of those players were kept around beyond the deadline. David Freese was extended before the season was over. They attempted to bring back Sean Rodriguez after the season, but he signed with Atlanta.
One of the guys who makes sense for the Pirates to extend is Juan Nicasio, as he has been solid out of the bullpen, which is a big weakness for the Pirates this year. Alan Saunders asked Huntington if the team had extension talks with Nicasio yet, but Huntington didn’t provide an answer.
“We obviously like what Juan does,” Huntington said. “He’s been very good out of the bullpen since we moved him back there at the midpoint last year. There was a reason we signed him. We were interested him as a reliever out of the Dodgers. We knew he had starter history. He pitched so well in Spring Training as a starter, we decided to give that a roll. We don’t talk publicly about whether we do or don’t engage in extension conversations with players. He certainly does things that we like. We’ll go from there.”
The Pirates could still try to re-sign Nicasio during the offseason if they trade him in the next few weeks, and that is true of any other pending free agent they trade. But the fact that they didn’t take that approach with guys they tried to extend last year — all while bringing in pending free agent Ivan Nova — indicates they have some value in keeping around guys they want to try and re-sign. So we might get a preview of their offseason targets in about two weeks, based on who they decide to keep around.
As for a preview of the trade deadline plans, those will probably be heavily influenced by the next four games against Milwaukee. I have a hard time picturing the Pirates as traditional buyers, even if they win. However, if they have a rough week, I think it’s going to be inevitable that they end up selling in some fashion when the deadline rolls around.