After getting off to a great start this season the Pittsburgh Pirates are struggling mightily. Leaving Ben Cherington to answer the question - now what?
The Pittsburgh Pirates had six crucial games this past week. To use a phrase from the movie Armageddon, it was a "massive failure". The Pirates were swept on the road by both the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers, and only one (maybe two) of the games were truly competitive. They have since followed up that road trip with an 8-0 loss at home against the Cubs, making it seven straight losses.
Pittsburgh began that horrific stretch in first place and were four games over .500. Now, the Pirates are in third place and are three games under as they continue their very important three-game homestand against the Cubs. To describe these next two games as must-win would be an understatement.
What follows thesegames against the Cubs are four games at Miami against a red-hot Marlins team, three games at home against San Diego, a team that seems to have the Pirates' number over the last several year, three VERY crucial games at home against Milwaukee, then four games at Los Angeles and three more at Arizona. The All-Star Break begins at the conclusion of the Arizona series.
Arizona surprisingly leads the National League West by three and one half games over San Francisco. The Dodgers are now in third place.
If the trend continues and the Pirates continue to be who we thought they were, then general manager Ben Cherington is going to be greatly under the microscope as to what he is going to do between the All-Star Break and the rest of the regular season.
Will Cherington try to supplement this current roster in hopes to turn things around in order to try to contend in the mediocre National League Central division or will reality strike and make moves that will continue the seemingly endless rebuild of this franchise?
Consider the following:
Cherington signed manager Derek Shelton to a contract extension on April 22 when the Pirates were 15-7 and were one half game behind Milwaukee. The Pirates would eventually improve to a season-best 20-8 on April 29.
Since April 30, the Pirates have been an abyssmal 14-29, which is a .326 winning percentage.
If things don't improve soon, Cherington will be heavily scrutinized for giving Shelton that extension after a 28-game stretch of success. Other than that 20-8 start, can anyone think of a good reason why Shelton was extended?
On another note, the bullpen, which had been the Pirate strength, fell apart last week as they gave up 24 earned runs in only 19 2/3 innings for an embarrassing 11.20 ERA. They gave up 14 walks in that stretch, which certainly didn't help matters, and led to Sunday's final inning collapse in Milwaukee.
Even David Bednar wasn't immune to the collapse as he gave up a two-run single and a DEEP sacrifice fly. Inactivity could be the reason as he has only been used three times since June 4.
The latter, Borucki, was a waiver wire acquisition after being released by the Cubs. Borucki had not allowed an earned run in his eight appearances for Indianapolis, but has walked six batters, which fits right into the current state of the bullpen.
If the bullpen does not improve, what will Cherington do? Will he continue to pick from the meager Indianapolis pitching staff, make a trade to add to the bullpen for a sign that the Pirates are still in the race, or will he raise the white flag and unload major league arms, including Bednar?
In being swept twice consecutively be divisional opponents, the reasons do not come down to just one thing. You can add the feeble hitting that the Pirates have shown to that list.
Here are some of the "hitting" numbers from last week of the players still on the roster.
The Pirates hit .208 with 13 extra base hits (7 doubles, 6 home runs).
They struck out 49 times, which is more than 8 per game.
The best of the bunch was Carlos Santana, who hit .304 in that span with a double and two home runs.
Also having a decent week was Bryan Reynolds, who hit .250 with two doubles and a home run, which came yesterday in Milwaukee. On the other hand, Reynolds struck out seven times in 24 at-bats.
As for the rest, it paints a grim picture. Time and space do not permit me to list everyone, but here are the lowlights.
Ke'Bryan Hayes was 4-21 with no extra base hits and seven strikeouts.
Rodolfo Castro was 2-11 with no extra base hits and two strikeouts.
Jack Suwinski was 2-16, although both were home runs in Chicago on Tuesday. Suwinski hasn't had a hit since then and has struck out seven times.
Connor Joe was 3-19 with two extra base hits and he struck out eight times, which "led" the club.
While pitching has been up and down during Cherington and Shelton's regime, there has been a whole lot more downs when it comes to hitting. Since Cherington pulled the trigger on Shelton's extension too soon to make Shelton accountable for this mess, Cherington will have to find a scapegoat for the futile hitting. That person will most likely have to be hitting coach Andy Haines.
Haines was summarily dispatched from his hitting coach position in Milwaukee a couple of years ago, so did it really make sense to jump so quickly and give him the responsibility of improving the hitting on a major league level again?
If you were watching just these past six games, how many times did you watch our batters watch pitch after pitch go by, especially on strike three? Hello, Joe!?!?!! The sad part is that this isn't a recent trend. It's been a continuing trend during Haines' tenure.
Cherington is going to have to do something to cover up the risk that he took in extending Shelton's contract and if things don't improve, can anyone else think of a better fall guy than Haines?
Going back to the catchers, the latest move from Cherington was calling up the number-one overall pick in the 2021 draft in catcher Henry Davis. However, Shelton has since made it clear that Davis will primarily play right field and DH for the Pirates, not catch.
The question becomes whether or not this was a move that was truly intended to improve the currently sad state of the catching position and the overall hitting of the Pirates or was it a public relations move to stem the current negative overall vibe?
Looking at the facts, this season Davis hit .284 with 10 home runs, 7 doubles, 1 triple, 27 RBIs, and, surprisingly, 7 stolen bases in 41 games at Double-A Altoona. Then, he was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on June 4. In only 10 games there, he hit .286 with 1 home run, 3 doubles, 1 triple, 3 RBIs, and 2 stolen bases.
In all this season, Davis hit .284 in the minors this season. For a career, Davis has hit for a .276 average with 52 extra base hits including 24 home runs.
On a troubling note, he's been hit by an astounding 28 pitches in 118 total professional games, a couple of which landed Davis on the injured list.
You be the judge as to what you think Cherington's motivation was to promote Davis. Hopefully, he can be part of the solution to get the Pirates back on the winning track.
In addition to what Davis will do for the Pirates in the short and long term, the amateur draft is coming up.
If you've been following the NCAA baseball tournament and, specifically, the College World Series, the two likely candidates for the Pirates number-one selection, Dylan Crews and Paul Skenes, have shined. On Saturday, Skenes pitched 7 2/3 innings, giving up two runs and striking out 12, while Crews went 2-5 with a double.
Both Crews and Skenes were nominated for the Golden Spikes Award as the best college player in the nation.
Cherington, aside from what to do with the current state of the Pirates, will have a huge decision to make as to which of these two will be the next face of the franchise, as Davis is expected to become someday, hopefully soon.
If Davis doesn't pan out in the short-term, what Cherington does next will go a long way as to where the Pittsburgh Pirates are headed for the rest of 2023 and beyond.