Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Despite great record, critical questions haunt Pirates

Monday, Aug. 10, 2015, 10:57 p.m.
Jeff Locke (6-6, 4.31 ERA) starts tonight's series-opener in St. Louis

For a team on pace to win 97 games, the Pirates face some intriguing questions down the stretch.

Some of them — who to play when everyone's healthy, which of two solid catchers start a wild-card game — fall into the time-honored category of “good problems to have.” Trying to catch the St. Louis Cardinals is not one of those.

Trying to catch the Cardinals is a bad problem to have.

And it's the first thorny question on our docket.

The core of the issue is that in order to make up five games, the Pirates likely will have to outpitch the Cardinals and win their share in St. Louis — site of six of the nine remaining games between the clubs.

The Cardinals are 40-16 at home. They're also on pace to post one of the lowest earned-run averages in the history of baseball (their current mark of 2.60 would tie the 1972 Oakland A's for fifth-best since 1950).

The good news, maybe, besides the fact that Jonathan Broxton could single-handedly blow the whole thing up, is that the sheer length of a baseball season tends to normalize eye-popping “on pace” trends. It's called regression to the norm.

The bad news is that the Cardinals don't look like much of a regression candidate. Their staff is a game removed from a 38-inning scoreless streak. Their starting pitching is getting healthier and has been ridiculously consistent.

Michael Wacha is looking more and more like the guy who tortured the Pirates in the playoffs two years ago. Lance Lynn has allowed two earned runs or fewer in nine of his past 11 starts, Carlos Martinez one or fewer in seven of 10.

John Lackey hasn't allowed more than three earned runs since June 8, though his past two starts were iffy. Jaime Garcia, fresh off the disabled list, has a 0.75 ERA this month.

It's unreal. When Garcia went down, the Cardinals called up a kid named Tim Cooney for five July starts. He responded with 2.48 ERA.

The Pirates, meanwhile, have seen their once-dominant rotation put up a horrifying 5.48 ERA since the All-Star break. They are 12-9 in that span largely on account of a booming offense that has scored 4.6 runs per game.

The Pirates must complement their rejuvenated offense with better starts from the likes of Jeff Locke, slated to pitch the opener on Tuesday night.

Other much-debated questions:

• Who plays where when Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, both beginning rehab stints, return?

Any right answer begins this way: Jung Ho Kang plays every day. He's the second-best hitter on the team (and has perfected a wonderful Dikembe Mutombo finger wag).

Harrison could return to a super-utility role while Mercer plays short and Kang third. That's reasonable.

It's also fair to wonder if Aramis Ramirez should try a first baseman's glove when the Pirates face lefties. He couldn't be worse defensively than Pedro Alvarez or Michael Morse and might give the Pirates a better offensive option than Morse, although his propensity to hit into double plays (tied for league lead with 17) is well beyond infuriating.

• Who plays catcher in a wild-card game if Gerrit Cole pitches?

Chris Stewart has become Cole's personal catcher. That presents an issue, because Francisco Cervelli is a far-superior offensive player. Cervelli has a batting average 21 points higher than Stewart's, a slugging percentage 84 points higher, an OPS 128 points higher and six home runs to Stewart's none.

The two roughly are equal defensively, so that makes Cervelli an easy choice, right?

Not necessarily.

First, Cole's comfort level must be considered. Second, if the Pirates were to face Clayton Kershaw — a possibility — Stewart is 7 for 14 in his career with a home run against him. He also has a career home run against Cubs' lefty Jon Lester.

Unless the Pirates face Kershaw, though, the pick here is Cervelli. You just can't sit a .307 hitter in a one-game scenario against an elite pitcher.

• Should the Pirates recall ace prospect Tyler Glasnow in September?

I'd put the chances somewhere between Ramirez hitting an inside-the-park home run and Clint Hurdle quitting gum. But you never know. If Glasnow dominates Triple-A (he walked six in his last outing) and if A.J. Burnett doesn't rebound — or somebody else goes down — the idea shouldn't be discounted.

If it happened, Glasnow would break into the big leagues at the same age Cole did (22) and with more minor-league starts, though fewer at Triple-A.

And he wouldn't require his own catcher.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

Read more: http://triblive.com/sports/joestarkey/8833170-74/pirates-cardinals-game#ixzz3iVFUrx21 
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