The Pittsburgh Pirates shocked Major League Baseball last year by winning 94 games and coming within a win of reaching the National League Championship Series, but this year's version of the team will have a hard time duplicating that success.
At this point last year, the Pirates were 12 games over .500 and leading a crowded pack for the first spot in the National League Wild Card race. This year, as of June 17, the team is one game under .500 and currently sits seven games back of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Despite the fact that the Pirates currently sit 2.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot, sabermetrics website Baseball Prospectus only gives the team a 20 percent chance of making it back to the playoffs for a second consecutive year.
The biggest difference between this year and last is the team's starting pitching, which has been nowhere near as efficient. As of June 17, the starting staff has only earned 17 wins in 69 games started this year, bad enough to rank 28th in baseball. In addition, the starters' combined earned run average sits at 4.12, ranking them 22nd in baseball. In comparison, the Pirates finished with the fifth-best rotation in baseball last year after pitching to a 3.50 ERA.
During an interview on the 93.7 The Fan radio station last month, general manager Neal Huntington acknowledged that his squad wasn't playing or acting like a playoff-caliber team and admitted that the starting staff lacked the fire it possessed last year.
Our starters, while as a whole haven’t been as productive as we’d like them to be, there are some definite strong signs.
Huntington made this statement long before the team released ineffective Wandy Rodriguez and before pitchers Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano landed on the disabled list. The rotation is now full of names like Brandon Cumpton, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke, pitchers who all started the season in the minors.
It will likely be several more weeks before either injured pitcher returns to the team, and there won't be any salvation coming in the form of top pitching prospect Jameson Taillon, who in April became another in a long line of pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Perhaps the only silver lining is the team's schedule heading into the All-Star break in mid-July, which features National League bottom-feeders like Chicago, New York and Arizona despite two series with Cincinnati and one with St. Louis.
Huntington will have some tough choices to make on how, or if, to improve his team heading into the second half of the season. The general manager has been a buyer and not a seller since 2012, bringing in big bats like Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau last year at the deadline and trading for Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez the year before that.
As already noted by Bleacher Report's Matthew Smith, the Pirates need to be buyers at the trade deadline this year, especially when it comes to the starting rotation.
It's clear that the team has to invest in an arm or two to make a playoff run, a fact Huntington understands. As per ESPN's Buster Olney, the Pirates are one of several teams linked to talks in acquiring Chicago Cubs pitcher Jason Hammel, who is 6-4 with a 3.02 ERA this year.
It wouldn't be surprising to see the team make a move for an arm, considering the Pirates have a pool of talent large enough in the minor leagues to entice any general manager in baseball. The question remains if Huntington will pull the trigger soon enough to save a starting rotation that is at best a gamble and at worst one of the shakiest rotations in the National League.
The decision could make or break the Pirates' playoff chances for 2014, a fact not lost on Smith.
Make no mistake: The Pirates are very much in the playoff picture. Sure, taking the NL Central is unlikely, but grabbing a wild-card spot is attainable if Huntington goes about his business the right way.