Pirates face tough road to becoming trade deadline buyers

If the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to remain in the playoff picture come trade deadline time, they are going to have to do so by fending off much of their competition.
May 10, 2024; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz (15) walks to the dugout after striking out in the seventh inning against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports
May 10, 2024; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Oneil Cruz (15) walks to the dugout after striking out in the seventh inning against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports / David Dermer-USA TODAY Sports
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As the calendar turns to July and trade season heats up, the Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in a curious position. The club's record sits at 40-43, which places them third in the NL Central, but just three games out of the final NL Wild Card spot.

The Pirates are one of nine teams within five and a half games of each other fighting for two playoff spots. Between that, the team's excellent starting pitching, and a stated desire to improve offensively, it would make sense for the Pirates to approach the trade deadline as buyers. But it might not be that simple.

The Bucs went 14-12 in June and would likely need to see similar, if not better, results in July to stay in the Wild Card race. The problem is that almost all of their July schedule is against other teams in the playoff hunt:

Dates

Series

Current record

July 2-4

3 vs. Cardinals

43-40

July 5-8

4 vs. Mets

41-41

July 9-11

3 @ Brewers

50-35

July 12-14

3 @ White Sox

24-62

July 19-21

3 vs. Phillies

55-29

July 22-24

3 vs. Cardinals

43-40

July 26-28

3 @ Diamondbacks

41-43

Aside from what should be a freebie series against the team with MLB's worst record, that's a tough stretch. Six of those games come against the first-place Brewers and Phillies, who currently lead their divisions by a combined 14 games. The Pirates have hung tough against those two clubs this year, going 5-6 and being outscored by only two runs. They've actually played up to much of their tougher competition this season, sporting .500-or-better records against the Braves, Orioles, Dodgers, and Twins.

The rest of that stretch features 13 games against the Cardinals, Mets, and Diamondbacks, each of whom are currently ahead of the Pirates in the Wild Card standings. The Bucs lost two of three close games in St. Louis in mid-June, but the two teams combined to score just 16 runs across the entire series. Fortunately, both of the upcoming series with St. Louis will take place at PNC Park.

Pirates' pre-trade deadline schedule will leave them with tough decisions

Things went much worse for the Pirates in their first go-round with the Mets in mid-April. After scoring five runs off of Zack Wheeler the day prior, the Pirates proceeded to score five runs in the entire Mets series, losing all three games. They have yet to play the defending NL champion Diamondbacks in 2024, but if history repeats itself, the Pirates probably aren't winning that series.

That takes the Pirates to July 29, the day before the trade deadline. Given how congested the standings are currently, it just might take some teams—the Pirates included—that long to decide how to attack the deadline.

If that is the trade deadline approach that Ben Cherington and the Pirates choose to take, it is imperative that the team plays well against this stretch of tough opponents. Alternatively...

If the Pirates start the month off hot with series wins against the Cardinals and Mets and gain ground in the Wild Card race, perhaps they decide to act early and add a bat or two ahead of the rest of the league. In a recent interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, team owner Bob Nutting suggested that as a possibility:

"I'm not at all sure that we won't have opportunities well in advance of the deadline. I think we should be prepared to move early. I think we should be prepared to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. I know Ben [Cherington] has that flexibility to look across a broader range of alternatives, options but also a timeline of when it makes sense to strike."

Bob Nutting to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Nutting made comments of a similar tone over the winter when the Pirates were reportedly actively seeking to upgrade their pitching staff, seemingly nudging Cherington to make a move to improve the 2024 club. Two days later, completely out of left field, the team agreed to terms with Aroldis Chapman.

Having the owner speak out in that way is an encouraging sign, but ultimately the deciding factor will be how the team plays in the coming weeks. The stakes are higher now than they normally are at this point of the season. A bad stretch of baseball here likely takes the Pirates out of the playoff picture and prevents the front office from adding an impact bat to complement the pitching staff.

The Pirates have played tough competition fairly well so far in 2024.

The team needs to keep it up throughout the month of July if they expect to remain in the playoff race in the second half.

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