The Pittsburgh Pirates are 76 games into the 2016 season, and they aren’t exactly in an ideal position. The Pirates, who are 37-39 this year, sit 12 games behind the Chicago Cubs for first place and three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for second place in the NL Central. The team has endured an abundance of issues; however, it’s not time to completely write off the Pirates just yet.
Young rotation help arriving
When it comes to the starting rotation, it’s no secret they’ve struggled this season. Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, Jonathon Niese and Juan Nicasio have all struggled, each holding ERAs above the 4.90 mark. The rotation as a whole has had issues, mainly with consistently giving up runs, allowing walks and giving up the long ball. This season, Pirates starters rank 21st in the league in team ERA (4.72), sixth in walks allowed (164) and sixth in total home runs allowed (66).
Since starter Gerrit Cole went down with an injury to his right tricep, the Pirates have called up an abundance of talent from Triple-A Indianapolis, including Wilfredo Boscan and Jameson Taillon. Both these players have been given opportunities to help the major league team, but Taillon has had more of an impact within the starting rotation. The Pirates also got a contribution from prospect Chad Kuhl, who is made his MLB debut on the mound Sunday against Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Despite the lingering struggles the starting rotation has endured, there are reasons to remain optimistic. Following the All-Star break, the Pirates will get Cole back, have Taillon with a couple of starts under his belt and a back of the rotation that would at least include Liriano and Niese. The Pirates could also be awaiting the highly anticipated debut of Tyler Glasnow, the top pitching prospect in the organization.
The Pirates have a ton of talent within their minor league system and, after years of grooming, these players are finally getting an opportunity to make an impact at the major league level. This, along with return of Cole, has to give fans encouragement that the future still remains bright.
Need to bolster bullpen
As the Pirates’ starting rotation has struggled, the bullpen has probably endured an even bigger slump. The pen, known in past years as the “Shark Tank,” hasn’t looked very good in 2016, ranking 22nd in ERA (4.24), seventh in walks allowed (111) and fifth in hits allowed (257).
In past years, the Pirates’ bullpen has been consistently anchored by players such as Tony Watson, Jared Hughes and Mark Melancon. Despite some bumps in the road for this trio, they’ve remained somewhat reliable throughout the course of 2016. However, the play of the bullpen as a whole just hasn’t been enough to keep the team competitive enough to win ball games. Guys like Kyle Lobstein, AJ Schugel and Rob Scahill have been up and down between triple-A Indianapolis and Pittsburgh and may not be the best options to help the Pirates down the stretch.
The July 31st trade deadline could provide a good opportunity for the Pirates to bolster their struggling bullpen. Players such as the Milwaukee Brewers’ Jeremy Jeffress and the Atlanta Braves’ Arodys Vizcaino could be trade options. They’re both relievers who have had an impact in their respective bullpens on teams that may be looking to sell on particular players.
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This season, Jeffress is 1-2 with a 2.67 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 33.2 innings. The 28-year old right hander has also contributed the third most saves in the National League (21). Jeffress could be a stellar addition to the back end of the bullpen if the Pirates wanted to add some quality relief pitching.
Vizcaino is an interesting option because he does have three years of arbitration eligibility remaining, meaning the Braves may choose to keep him around as a valuable piece within their bullpen. The 25-year old has been stellar this season, compiling a 1-2 record with a 1.93 ERA and 45 strikeouts in 32.2 innings. Vizcaino is likely the best bullpen arm available, but it’s likely there would have to be a big return for the Pirates to land him.
Return of Cervelli
In the month of June, the Pirates have been tasked with temporarily replacing Francisco Cervelli behind the plate. The Pirates’ starting catcher is currently recovering from left hand surgery and hasn’t played since June 10.
The Pirates have filled the void left by Cervelli’s injury with players such as Chris Stewart, Erik Kratz and rookie Jacob Stallings. Though this trio of catchers may be able to take on the work load, the Pirates certainly miss Cervelli’s ability to work with the pitching staff as well as his offensive upside;could make an impact when it comes to working with the younger pitchers coming up from Triple-A. Prior to his injury, Cervelli was hitting .257 with 21 RBIs and 30 walks in 49 games.
Since Cervelli went down with his thumb injury on June 11, the Pirates have compiled a 5-10 record. However, the return of Cervelli could come when they need him most. Cervelli is not expected to be back until late July, but he could make an impact in the final few months of the season as the Bucs battle for a playoff berth.
Don’t look now, but Andrew McCutchen has been swinging a hot bat the last few games. The former NL MVP has a hit in seven of his last 10 games — in Saturday night’s game, he went 2-for-4 with two home runs and four RBIs.
McCutchen’s struggles this season have been obvious — he’s hit .240 with 12 home runs and 32 RBIs in 72 games. His struggles in June have been even more evident, as he’s hit .198 compared to his .284 average in the month of May. McCutchen has also struggled with strikeouts, compiling 81 in 288 at-bats.
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Anyone who understands the game of baseball knows the Pirates’ success correlates with McCutchen swinging the bat well. He’s been their franchise player since he first entered the league, and when he’s hot, the Pittsburgh’s offense is able to perform at a remarkably high level.
In the past, McCutchen has endured struggles, but nothing like the ones he’s gone through this season. Even in those past struggles, McCutchen has been able to make adjustments at the plate, but not this year. However, his recent hot stretch could be a turning point. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle continues to place McCutchen high in the lineup day-in and day-out because Hurdle has faith that the five-time All-Star can hit his way out of his slump and make an impact for the Pirates once again.
This season, McCutchen has been battle tested. Despite struggles and even recent trade rumors, the 29-year old continues his quest to regain his form. McCutchen’s recent success should give Pirate fans hope that he may be able to turn things around into the second half of the 2016 season.
Pirates still in wild card race
The Chicago Cubs are running away with the NL Central, meaning the race in the division may be for second place between the Pirates and Cardinals. The Bucs currently sit 3.5 games behind the Dodgers for the second wild card spot, while the Cardinals trail Los Angeles by only 0.5 games.
It’s easy for Pirates fans to be disappointed in the way the team has played in June, but there’s plenty to be optimistic about as the season progresses.
The rotation and bullpen could improve, Cervelli will have an impact once he returns from injury and McCutchen could finally be returning to his All-Star form. The fact of the matter is that the Pirates still remain in the hunt for a fourth-straight playoff appearance. There are plenty of reasons to think they can make a stronger push in the second half of the season, and Pittsburgh shouldn’t be written off in the month of June.
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