For the third year in a row the Pittsburgh Pirates are contenders after the MLB All-Star break. The rotation sports the best combined ERA in the NL. Pedro Alvarez is making this look normal, and the bullpen, that’s right, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen, is getting national attention.
Bucco fans have seen this before. What makes this season different? Why is this year the year? Here are four second half keys:
The rotation has been a mess this year. An effective mess, but still a mess. Only A.J. and Locke are left from the original starting rotation. Locke is the only one to have not spent significant time on the DL. Hurdle has given starts to Phil Irwin, Brandon Cumpton, and Jeanmar Gomez. Gomez and Cumpton saw significant time in the rotation. Somehow the patchwork pitching staff has got it done. I’m not sure there is an obvious explanation for this success. Most (including me) will point towards the stellar work of pitching coach Ray Searage and the addition of veteran catcher Russell Martin. That kind of experience along with Burnett’s guiding leadership have bring intangibles to this team that most do not have. Those intangibles can only carry this team so far. Liriano will pitch tomorrow night to start an important series against the Reds, effectively making him the new number one in the rotation. Burnett, Locke, Morton, and Cole will follow him. If that five can stay mostly healthy for the rest of the season, the Pirates have a very good chance to make the playoffs. In fact, they HAVE to stay healthy. Wandy’s recovery is move so slowly that there is a chance he does not return at all this season. Last year’s collapse was a result of inconsistent pitching. Management and fans cannot expect a patchwork rotation to get a team through an entire season.
Pedro hit 30 homeruns and had 85 RBI all of last season (still an impressive mark). He has 24 and 62 at the All-Star break this year. Besides the obvious boost in his numbers, his glove has vastly improved this year. Pedro’s defense doesn’t get the attention it deserves because of his bat, but he can flash the leather with the best of them. He makes the easy plays, hard plays, and everything in between. This one is simple: If Pedro keeps mashing, the Pirates will keep winning.
This is as good a time as any to discuss the bullpen. What an unbelievable job they have done. A lot of people predicted a strong first season from Grilli after he revived his career as Joel Hanrahan’s setup man last year, but who expected names like Melancon, Mazarro, Morris, and Watson (amongst others) to show up in Sports Illustrated? They are second in the NL in bullpen ERA, and Grilli leads the league in saves. Bucco relievers have struck out the second most amount of batters in the league, and are also second in fewest saves blown. They have been the definition of lights-out. If they keep it up, it will take a lot of pressure off the starting rotation and the offense.
“What they’ve done this year out of the bullpen, not just those two guys but everybody, it’s been lights-out.” – Jeff Locke
My previous article goes a little more in-depth, but you get the point. Look at the teams we are competing with just in the NL Central and who they bring off the bench. The Cardinals get production from just about everyone. Their backup first baseman Matt Adams bats .316 with 7 homers and 26 RBI in just 133 AB. Xavier Paul, the Reds’ backup LF, has better numbers than the Pirates’ starting RF. Bottom-line: The Pirates need to upgrade.
Prediction: Assuming the Pirates address these needs/keep up what they are doing, anything is possible. Realistically, I see them finishing second in the NL Central and winning the first wildcard spot. If that is the case, the play-in game (probably against the Reds) would be at PNC Park. Now wouldn’t that be fun to watch?