Pittsburgh Pirates review: at the quarter pole


May 17, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; A general view of Pittsburgh Pirates equipment prior to the game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

With 40 games played, the baseball season is just about a quarter over even though it feels like just yesterday we were discussing who would take the final bench spot out of spring training. With the Pittsburgh Pirates sitting at 18-22, the season has not progressed the way we hoped it would at this point. So this seems like an appropriate time to do a review of the season so far. Let’s take a look at some of the surprises, disappointments and what needs to happen for the Pirates to catch up with the Cardinals.

Three Surprises

Starling Marte is one of the most important players in the lineup, given his combination of power and speed. Fans certainly had reason for concern at the beginning of April given how often he was striking out, but Marte recently went through a stretch where he was knocking the cover off the ball. If Marte can start to draw more walks and be more selective at the plate, it is definitely not a far stretch to think that he can make a serious run at being a top MVP candidate as long as he continues to hit the way he has. He has been moved around the lineup a lot, but the cleanup spot seems to be a good place for him, at least until some of his teammates start hitting. This should also cause Andrew McCutchen to see better pitches since most pitchers are not going to pitch around him to get to Marte.

When A.J. Burnett elected to take a pay cut and come to Pittsburgh in 2015, most fans recognized that he may not be the same pitcher he was in 2012-13. He entered the season at 38 years old and spent 2014 pitching through an injury on a pretty terrible Philadelphia club. But at the salary he has for 2015, he only needs to be a decent 3-4 starter to make the contract worthwhile. So far into 2015, Burnett has been pitching some of the best baseball of his life. He has a sub 2.00 ERA and continues to generate over half of his outs from groundballs. At this pace Burnett could end the season as one of the best free agent signings of the 2014 offseason.

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After it was announced that the Pirates won the bidding for Jung Ho Kang and ultimately signed him for 4 years at $11 million plus the $5 million posting fee, we weren’t sure how he would produce in the MLB. No position player has ever made the transition from the KBO to the MLB, so we could not compare him to others to give us any hint of what the Pirates were getting. After a poor spring, I’m sure many fans were resigned to the fact that this signing was a low risk endeavor that may not pan out. However, over the last few weeks Kang has shown some of the power and discerning eye at the plate that made him such a threat in the KBO. Playing time will be an issue for Kang since his primary position is occupied. But if he takes advantage of his opportunities, management will have no choice but to play him, either at shortstop or third base.

Three Disappointments

Fans of the Pirates were drooling at the idea of having the dream outfield of Marte, McCutchen and Gregory Polanco finally together for a full season in 2015. And rightfully so: McCutchen is a perennial MVP candidate, Marte has shown tremendous potential the last few years and Polanco’s talent was hyped beyond belief. While McCutchen and Marte seem to be coming out of their early season funks, Polanco continues to perform poorly. Even if you don’t consider his recent misadventure in Chicago when he looked like a video game character suffering a glitch, his hitting is well below what he did in the minors. The fact that his batting average today in 2015 is eerily similar to what he did in 2014 frightens this writer.

Over the last few weeks Kang has shown some of the power and discerning eye at the plate that made him such a threat in the KBO. Playing time will be an issue for Kang since his primary position is occupied.

After putting together a decent season in 2014,  Jordy Mercer has seemed lost at the plate so far into 2015. His walk rate has dropped and he has shown little power so far this season. With Kang hitting well and being a shortstop by trade, it’s not out of the realm of possibilities to see the team sit Mercer more often if he continues to struggle. The Pirates recently gave Mercer an entire weekend series off, which could be a sign of things to come if his bat does not come alive.

At this point of the season, Tony Watson is clearly the most dominant arm in the bullpen. Jared Hughes has actually seen an uptick in strikeouts but at the same time has seen his ERA rise from 2014. Rob Scahill has been a surprise, as well. But other than those three, the bullpen is an area that may see an upgrade in the coming months. Mark Melancon is not the shutdown closer he was in previous years and has a well reported loss of velocity. The newly acquired Antonio Bastardo has been striking out a lot of batters in his limited innings, but also has giving up too many runs. Arquimedes Caminero, the type of hard throwing pitcher with a lack of control that the Pirates love, has been exactly that. It’s a shame to see so many bullpen arms under performing, but this is one reason why relief performances are the hardest to predict year to year

Three things that need to happen
Even with the Pirates sitting at 18-22, I still think they can get back into the race for the division. Here are a few things that could help turn the tide of the season.

Continue to play the hot hand
The Pirates have shown in recent weeks that they are not opposed to sitting players who are struggling and rewarding those who have been playing well. Kang has started many games in recent weeks because of his hot bat and the fact that Harrison and Mercer have not been hitting well. I hope this is a trend that continues.

Continue to get good starts from the rotation
While the bullpen as a whole has not performed as well as they did last year the rotation, specifically the front end starters, have been exceptional. Burnett is pitching as if he wants to forget the stint in Philadelphia ever happened, Gerrit Cole is morphing into the top of the line starter he appeared to be when he was drafted, and Francisco Liriano pretty much justifies his three year contract every time he pitches (outside of Tuesday’s meltdown). Jeff Locke and Vance Worley have been shaky as of late, and it will be interesting to see which one is removed from the rotation once Charlie Morton is healthy.

Leaving runners on base
22, 11, 22, 22, 13. Do you know what those numbers represent? The number of runners left on base from May 14-19. Gregory Polanco left 6 runners on base on May 19th alone. A few timely hits and the Pirates record could look very different. Let’s hope that this pattern changes quickly.

So with 121 games to go, there is a lot of baseball to be played this summer. We’ll check in again around the 81st game and see where the Pirates are at that time. Hopefully by then they’ll be looking down at the Cardinals instead of up!

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