The Pirates are 44-45 at the All-Star break, and only a few games out of first place in their division. It feels like so much has gone wrong for the team this year, and yet they obviously needed a lot to go right to be in this position — and granted, one of the things going right for them is the fact that the NL Central is wide open right now.
I wrote about some of the best things happening to the Pirates this year in the first half. Today we focus on what has gone wrong, along with what the Pirates need to see in the second half in order to contend.
I’ll be resuming my midseason analysis the next few days, looking at what the Pirates should do at the deadline, along with an overall summary for the team going forward. For now, here are the downsides to this season.
The Injuries – The worst thing that has happened to the Pirates this year has been an extreme case of the injury bug. Almost every key player coming into the season has gone down with an injury at some point this year. Some of those have worked out well for the Pirates, such as the Starling Marte injury opening the door for Bryan Reynolds, or the lengthy injury to Erik Gonzalez giving Kevin Newman an opportunity. Most of the injuries have hurt the Pirates, whether it’s the decimation of the rotation starting in late-April, or the constant injuries to the starting outfield trio. Throughout all of this, the Pirates have finished the first half with a 44-45 record, and thanks to a division where no one has run away with things, they’re still within striking distance of the playoffs. You wonder where they might be right now with a normal year of injuries. They’re going to need something more normal on that front in the second half if they want to contend this year.
The Top of the Rotation – Chris Archer and Jameson Taillon were set to lead the Pirates rotation this year. Archer was injured briefly in May, and has struggled for most of the rest of the season. Taillon started off well, had a few struggles, then went down with an injury that still is keeping him off the mound. You’re never going to keep everyone healthy, and not everyone will play up to expectations. But between the struggles from Archer, and the lengthy injury for Taillon, it’s hard to imagine a worse combo for the Pirates this year.
The Set-Up Men – I wrote yesterday about how good Felipe Vazquez has been this year, once again rating as one of the top relievers in baseball. The Pirates entered the season with a strong looking bullpen, with Vazquez being joined by Keone Kela, Kyle Crick, and Richard Rodriguez. Kela struggled before joining the injured list. Rodriguez struggled early in the year, although he hasn’t given up an earned run since the start of June. Crick was injured for a bit, and returned to post decent numbers, but his high walk rate and xFIP don’t suggest he’ll continue pitching well. The Pirates can feel pretty safe when Vazquez gets a lead, but getting the lead to Vazquez has been a problem at times this year.
The Catchers – The Pirates had the best catching combo in the game last year, per the combined WAR from Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz. We’re only half way through the season and Cervelli is now no longer a catcher, while Diaz has struggled on both sides of the game, raising some questions about the future starter in Pittsburgh. That will most likely still be Diaz, with Jacob Stallings as his backup. But the Pirates will need either the strong defense that Diaz is known for, or for his offense to bounce back to something closer to last year.
Gregory Polanco – He’s the only player I’m singling out here, but that’s mostly because it was easier to group everyone else together. Polanco is kind of in a group by himself now. He’s got a long extension that could be very team friendly if he got anywhere close to his offensive upside. He’s shown that upside in flashes in the majors, and was coming off a big year last year when he was healthy. He hasn’t carried that over to this season, and has lost an everyday starting job to Bryan Reynolds. He’s now out with another injury, with hope that he returns to be more productive than he has been to date. Polanco is still one of the starters for the Pirates going forward, but they’ll need his numbers similar to last year if they want to contend while this current group is together.
Poor Prospect Debuts – For as much as the Pirates are getting out of Reynolds and Kevin Newman, they’ve also had some top prospects arrive and struggle this season. Mitch Keller has come up for a few starts, and hasn’t looked like he’s ready yet. Cole Tucker started off well, but quickly struggled and there’s no reason to rush him back up now with Newman playing so well. Not every prospect will come up and light the world on fire. The examples of Keller and Tucker are far more common than what is happening with Reynolds. But the Pirates have needed depth at times this year, and the struggles from some of their top prospects — highlighted by Keller and Tucker — hasn’t filled that need for depth.
Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates are on their All-Star break until Friday when they begin a three-game series on the road against the Chicago Cubs. The Pirates will be represented in the All-Star game by Josh Bell, as well as Felipe Vazquez, who was just added to the roster.
The minor league schedule includes Max Kranick, who is attempting to make his start for the third day in a row after two straight rain outs. He has a 2.56 ERA, a 1.01 WHIP and a .226 BAA in his last six starts. He has held batters to a .234 average both at home and on the road this season. Bradenton will attempt a doubleheader today, with the second game being a bullpen game. Colin Selby will get the start for Greensboro. He has allowed one earned run in three of his last four starts. Morgantown will send out Jesus Valles, who will be making his fifth start. In his last appearance, Valles gave up just one run over five innings, which is his longest outing of the season so far. Indianapolis is off until Thursday due to the International League All-Star break. Altoona is off until Thursday due to the Eastern League All-Star break. Bristol has off today.
MLB: Pittsburgh (44-45) @ Chicago Cubs (47-43) 2:20 PM 7/12
Probable starter: Chris Archer (5.49 ERA, 88:41 SO/BB, 78.2 IP)
AAA: Indianapolis (44-44) @ Columbus (55-33) 7:05 PM 7/11 (season preview)
Probable starter: TBD
AA: Altoona (46-38) @ Erie (44-39) 7:05 PM 7/11 (season preview)
Probable starter: TBD
High-A: Bradenton (47-38) @ Lakeland (36-48) 5:00 PM DH (season preview)
Probable starter: Max Kranick (3.83 ERA, 65:23 SO/BB, 87.0 IP) and TBD
Low-A: Greensboro (53-33) @ Kannapolis (39-47) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Colin Selby (3.27 ERA, 49:18 SO/BB, 52.1 IP)
Short-Season A: Morgantown (13-10) vs Auburn (11-12) 6:35 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Jesus Valles (5.09 ERA, 7:5 SO/BB, 17.2 IP)
Rookie: Bristol (11-9) vs Johnson City (11-8) 6:30 PM 7/10 (season preview)
Probable starter: TBD
GCL: Pirates (6-6) vs Twins (5-7) 12:00 PM (season preview)
DSL: Pirates1 (16-16) vs Indians/Brewers (9-23) 10:30 AM (season preview)
DSL: Pirates2 (26-6) vs Tigers2 (13-19) 10:30 AM (season preview)
From Altoona over the weekend, Bligh Madris gives Altoona a 3-2 lead with a two-run double the opposite way
A two-out, two-run double by @Bligh_Guy gives us our first lead of the day!
⬇️6⃣ Curve 3, Erie 2 pic.twitter.com/ppQCzPdzED
— Altoona Curve (@AltoonaCurve) July 7, 2019
Domingo Robles with the quick reflexes, then quick thinking to get a double play to end the inning
Life comes at you fast pic.twitter.com/9h1zvWOrBJ
— Altoona Curve (@AltoonaCurve) July 7, 2019
7/8: Trevor Williams reinstated from paternity list. Kevin Kramer optioned to Indianapolis.
7/8: Pirates release Nick Garland and Mason Fishback
7/7: Mason Martin promoted to Bradenton.
7/7: Braeden Ogle and Logan Stoelke placed on injured list. Matt Eardensohn added to Bradenton roster.
7/7: Pirates recall Kevin Kramer. Montana DuRapau optioned to Indianapolis.
7/6: Pirates recall Dario Agrazal, Luis Escobar and Montana DuRapau. Steven Brault place on injured list. Trevor Williams placed on paternity leave. Dovydas Neverauskas optioned to Indianapolis.
7/6: Jake Brentz added to Indianapolis roster.
7/5: Bralin Jackson placed on Altoona injured list.
7/4: Ke’Bryan Hayes and Pablo Reyes activated off Indianapolis injured list. Yefry Ramirez placed on temporary inactive list. Logan Hill assigned to Altoona.
7/4: Gregory Polanco assigned to Indianapolis on rehab.
7/3: Pirates sign Jake Wright and Jasiah Dixon
7/3: Jake Brentz placed on temporary inactive list
7/3: Yandy Vega and Hai-Cheng Gong assigned to GCL Pirates
7/2: Pirates sign a ton of international players
7/2: Mario Garcia promoted to GCL Pirates
7/1: James Marvel promoted to Indianapolis. Blake Cederlind added back to Altoona roster
7/1: Pirates sign JC Flowers, Ethan Paul, Jake Snider and Marshall Gilbert.
6/30: Hunter Owen placed on Indianapolis injured list (retroactive to 6/27).
6/30: Oneil Cruz activated from Bradenton injured list. Chase Lambert placed on injured list.
6/30: Yandy Vega and Hai-Cheng Gong assigned to Morgantown.
6/29: Ke’Bryan Hayes and Pablo Reyes assigned to Morgantown on rehab.
6/29: Ryan Peurifoy assigned to Bradenton
6/29: Fernando Villegas assigned to GCL Pirates on rehab
6/29: CJ Dandeneau and Alex Roth assigned to Bristol.
6/29: Jordan Lyles activated from injured list. Geoff Hartlieb optioned to Indianapolis.
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
One former Pittsburgh Pirates player born on this date, plus a couple games of note. The only former Pirate born on this date is Coot Veal, who pinch-hit for the team on April 17, 1962. Veal turns 87 today. In his only game for the Pirates, he pinch-hit for pitcher Tom Sturdivant in the second inning and struck out looking. He spent the next 19 days on the Pirates bench before being sent to the minors. A month later, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers.
On this date in 1912, the Pirates sent their young pitching phenom Marty O’Toole to the mound, where he faced off against a young pitcher for the Phillies named Eppa Rixey. Back in 1911, the Pirates paid $22,500 to sign O’Toole, which was a huge sum back then. Early in the career it looked like a great purchase, but his star quickly faded. In this game however, O’Toole out-pitched Rixey, who would go on to win 266 games and get elected to the Hall of Fame. The Pirates won 2-0 and Hall of Famer Max Carey plated the go-ahead run with an RBI triple in the sixth inning.
The link above includes a game recap/boxscore for the Pirates 9-8 win in 12 innings over the Phillies on this date in 1977. The winning hit came off the bat of Mario Mendoza and the losing pitcher was former Bucco Gene Garber. The pitching match-up that day was Steve Carlton versus John Candelaria, and closer Kent Tekulve lost a two-run lead in the ninth to send it to extra innings.