Friday, July 11, 2014

Pirates can't afford to stay put, won't pay to improve

Edinson Volquez pitches against the St. Louis Cardinals in the third inning at Busch Stadium on July 10, 2014 in St. Louis.  Volquez pitched the Pirates' first complete game of the year in their 9-1 win to improve to 8-6, 3.65 ERA.
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America)

Losing three out of four at St. Louis is no disaster for the Pirates.
But there are disturbing signs. Predictable signs. Water finding its own level.
Case in point: National League All-Star and Yinzer-christened future Hall-of-Famer Josh Harrison. (BTW, Harrison making the All-Star Game after a good couple of months is an insult to Neil Walker, who is having a mostly superior year and has been a far better player over the long haul.)
Coming into this season, Harrison’s lifetime on-base percentage was .282. His OBP for the season is .335, a significant jump. But Harrison's OBP for July is .265. You can prove anything you want by carving up stats into argument-specific samples. But Harrison might be fading.
Harrison had two great months. Does that make him a legit big-league regular? Less can be more. More can produce less. That might be the Jay-Hay way.
It’s not just Harrison. He’s merely the poster boy.
Consider the lower-echelon pitchers. Brandon Cumpton was summoned from Class AAA, got beat up Wednesday and got sent back. Vance Worley’s ERA in July is 5.25, and now he’s in the bullpen.
Jeff Locke and Edinson Volquez are still doing well. Volquez was brilliant last night, allowing six hits and one run en route to a complete-game victory. But Locke and Volquez have little positive track record. Just flashes. Can they truly be counted on?
The bullpen needs to be better. San Diego closer Huston Street (23 saves, 1.13 ERA) is available. His acquisition would move Mark Melancon and Tony Watson up an inning. Depth and comfort level would be served.
But Street makes $7 million (with a club option for next year), and owner Bob Nutting wouldn’t want to pay even a pro-rated portion of that.
Nearly every move the Pirates make is based primarily on money.
Management was rightfully lauded for acquiring Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau last season. But that happened just before the Aug. 31 playoff roster deadline, not the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. The Pirates risked the uncertainty of doing waiver deals to avoid paying Byrd and Morneau for an extra month.
Is that cheap? Well ... it’s certainly thrifty.
The Pirates could be out of the running by Aug. 31. It’s not like their playoff hopes are hanging by a thread. But they need improvement sooner, not later. It’s a fine line. Gerrit Cole missing starts feels like a death sentence.
The Pirates are 12-24 against Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis. Not coincidentally, those teams are ahead of the Pirates in the NL Central. The Pirates don’t have depth of pitching or depth of talent.
Will the Pirates fix it? Probably not.
Ownership wants to stay close. That’s where the bar is set. If the Pirates overachieve and make the playoffs or win the division, that’s good. Nutting is obviously not against that. But Nutting can market where the Pirates are at right now. He can pile up mad stacks if the Pirates merely contend.
Is improving the team worth increasing payroll for?
We’ll see. Improving the team likely isn’t worth sacrificing much of the future. People pay today for the promise of the future. That limits potential deals.
The Pirates are a good team.
But probably aren’t good enough.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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