There is no doubt that the Pittsburgh Pirates have failed to recapture the magic that propelled them to their first winning season and first playoff appearance in 20 years last year. We’re 78 games into the 2014 season and the team sits with a .500 winning percentage.
This time last year, the Pirates were 18 games over .500 and tied with St. Louis for the division lead.
Despite the differences in personnel and play between last year’s team and this year’s version, the Bucs aren’t necessarily destined to fall back in to their losing ways. They might be eight games behind first place Milwaukee, but the Pirates find themselves only 3.5 games out of the last National League Wild Card spot and have been playing much better ball lately.
The team is only several games away from reaching the halfway point of the 2014 season. How do the team’s offense and pitching rank compared to the rest of the league, and what do the Bucs have to do to improve their chances of making the playoffs?
The addition of Gregory Polanco has injected some much-needed energy into a Pirates lineup that has been bopping the ball as of late. It’s indisputable that the team has one of the best outfields in all of baseball, one that will only get better as the summer progresses. The team will always have a chance with Polanco, Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen manning the outfield.
That’s not to mention the very solid play of second baseman Neil Walker, who, despite sitting out the last two weeks after an appendectomy, is still very much a contender to make the All-Star team. Shortstop Jordy Mercer has been swinging a hot bat in the past month and Russell Martin has been consistent behind the plate again for the Pirates this year.
The team currently ranks ninth in the majors with a .258 average, according to MLB.com, and their 72 home runs rank 13th even without Pedro Alvarez crushing the ball like last year. The team also boasts a sizable speed advantage with their 53 stolen bases, which ranks eighth in the majors.
It’s a good feeling knowing the offense can always keep the team in games, a far cry from last year, when the onus to win games was always on starting pitching and the bullpen. As we’re about to see, unfortunately, the roles have reversed this season, as it’s the offense that now props up the pitching staff.
It’s been a year of turmoil for the Pirates pitching staff both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. Injuries have plagued starters like Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, forcing the team to rely on minor leaguers like Brandon Cumpton, Vance Worley and Jeff Locke. It’s a testament to the organization’s depth that all three of those pitchers have performed admirably during their time as fill-ins.
However, it hasn’t been a smooth ride for the rest of the pitching staff. The team cut Wandy Rodriguez in May, Jason Grilli was removed last week as the team’s closer and the bullpen in general hasn’t been nearly as solid as it was last year.
The staff has gone from one of the best in the game to one of the shakiest in the league.
Statistics from MLB.com show the truth: The team’s 3.85 ERA ranks 18th in the majors, while their 583 strikeouts rank 21st. The starting rotation’s 21 wins are the third-least in the majors, too, while the bullpen’s 14 blown saves rank as the most in baseball.
Overall grade: B
Bleacher Report’s Joe Giglio gave the team a C+ grade, a fitting mark given the team’s .500 winning percentage is the epitome of average. However, the Pirates have a 27-18 record since May 6, the best in the National League, and the team seems to be trending upward.
Manager Clint Hurdle understands his offense is trending in the right direction, and said as much in an interview with MLB.com's Phil Rogers last week: "There's energy in the lineup. There's a different look at the top. There's more danger involved."
In that same interview, Hurdle relayed that he understands the pitching must get better for the team to have a shot at the playoffs. But he’s optimistic, if only for the fact that young pitchers from the minors have arrived to stabilize a rotation decimated by injury and a lack of productivity:
It's been all about pitching. The reason for my optimism is that we've found a way to stabilize our rotation the last couple of weeks. Actually, our June has been very good off the mound. May got better, and April was hard for us all over the place. Each month, our pitching has incrementally gotten better.
The Pirates have spent the entire season struggling to maintain a .500 winning percentage, but all the pieces are in place offensively for this team to prop up a pitching staff that will soon get Cole and Liriano back from the disabled list.
The team is most definitely trending in the right direction and could again find itself in the thick of a playoff chase, especially if the front office makes some moves for additional pitching in the coming weeks.
Bleacher Report’s Ryan Gaule agrees that the team is right where it wants to be right now, only weeks away from heading in to the All-Star break: "They have the pieces needed to make a run at the playoffs again in 2014, and this season is still very young for a team full of promise and potential."