Williams: Where Can the Pirates Find Internal Improvements Over the Next Month?

It’s hard to say whether the Pirates will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline this year. They came close to getting back to .500 last night, before the bullpen fell apart late in the game. That’s almost a microcosm of their season, as they’ve been a streaky team in either direction, getting off to a great start, then seeing a big drop recently that led to them going below .500 for the first time this season.

They’ve also been an organization that hasn’t had a clear direction at the trade deadline in recent years, both buying and selling at the last two trade deadlines when they were on the fringe of contending. So that makes it more difficult to imagine which direction they could go in.

Fortunately, the trade deadline is about seven weeks away, which is a long time by MLB standards. That leaves plenty of time for the Pirates to climb back up to being a true contender, rather than being stuck in the middle. For that to happen, they’re going to need some help from within.

Part of that will require key members of the offense to break out of their slumps from the last month. Here are some notable guys who the Pirates need production from, and their stats over the last 30 days:

Starling Marte: .228/.274/.351

Colin Moran: .243/.325/.357

Josh Bell: .218/.297/.345

Gregory Polanco: .171/.268/.343

On the pitching side, the rotation is starting to look better over the last few weeks, thanks in large part to Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl making adjustments to their approaches and throwing more breaking pitches. The one guy who is really struggling lately is Trevor Williams, although his results are worse than his advanced metrics.

The big issue on the pitching side lately has been the bullpen, as we saw last night. About a month ago it looked like the Pirates had a dominant back of the bullpen with Felipe Vazquez and Michael Feliz. Both pitchers have struggled in the last month, with Vazquez posting a 5.91 ERA and a 3.79 xFIP, and Feliz putting up a 12.10 ERA and a 5.74 xFIP. Other guys in the bullpen are pitching well, though not consistently, and the Pirates need their set-up man and closer to step up and be the consistent leaders.

The Pirates will need some help from within if the above guys don’t rebound, or even if they do rebound.

If Francisco Cervelli misses a lot of time, then Elias Diaz will need to show he has what it takes to be a starter in the majors, and Jacob Stallings will need to step up as his backup.

I didn’t include Jordy Mercer in the list of position players above because I don’t think he can be expected to hit for much more than his line over the last month (.247/.353/.342). I do think the Pirates can find someone to either upgrade over him, or at least split time with him. Jung Ho Kang’s return can help in that area. The Pirates also have Kevin Newman playing well in Triple-A, and he could provide a replacement.

If they brought both Kang and Newman up, that could help to improve the bench by leading to the team moving on from a struggling Sean Rodriguez. They just moved Adam Frazier to the minors, which isn’t a horrible move, although Frazier has been better than Rodriguez lately.

The Pirates saw an upgrade in the outfield when they kept Austin Meadows around and went with a four-man group. A huge part of that upgrade was that Meadows has been playing like a Rookie of the Year candidate. But it also helps to have options for when one of the outfielders is struggling, or to allow for matchups to be played.

They could use the same thing in the infield. If they add Kang and/or Newman, it would give them more starting options than starting positions, which could allow them to give some struggling guys a break, play the hot hand, and ease Kang and/or Newman into the majors without expecting them to play every day.

On the pitching side, the Pirates have guys in Triple-A who can help out, such as the recently demoted Nick Kingham, plus Tyler Eppler, Tanner Anderson, and other guys who are performing well. But their current needs are for their late inning guys to step up, and for another top of the rotation performer. They aren’t getting that help from their Triple-A pitching depth.

Perhaps the impact arms could be a focus at the trade deadline. But for that focus to make sense, the Pirates would need to definitely be contending by the deadline. And for that to happen, they would need to see some internal improvements, mostly on the position player side, either from struggling guys bouncing back, or via help from Triple-A.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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