Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Pirates are right where they should be — on the outside looking in

By Mark Madden
September 6, 2016
Image result for pirates brewers september 4 2016
Andrew McCutchen watches as Chris Carter's three-run homer lands in the bushes in the ninth inning of the Brewers' 10-0 win on Sunday. (Gene Puskar/AP)
Since mid-August, the Pirates have had two four-game winning streaks, a seven-game losing streak and a four-game losing streak.
That’s what mediocre teams do. They don’t win one, then lose one in perpetuity. They ride a roller coaster to .500. Ups and downs.
Right now, the Pirates finishing with a losing record is more likely than capturing a fourth straight postseason berth. Only the grace of a system that bestows two wild cards keeps the Pirates alive on the periphery.
That is exactly where the Pirates should be.
Those in partnership with the team and/or spewing fanboy gibberish stumped for overachieving. A certain sage radio host, meantime, predicted 86 or 87 wins and narrowly missing a wild card.
The Pirates are on pace to do a bit worse than that. My bad.
So, where has it all gone wrong?
Really, it hasn’t. This was always going to happen.
But, by way of humoring you:
*Too many of the Pirates’ key players fizzled: Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Jung Ho Kang and the since-departed Francisco Liriano. McCutchen and Liriano entered the season as the team’s highest-paid players.
*The cockamamie notion that a subpar starting rotation would give way to Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow joining the team in June and contributing significantly didn’t pan out. Taillon has been solid, but has just three wins. Glasnow has been hurt. Jeff Locke and Juan Nicasio, each dropped from the rotation, are tied for the team lead in wins with nine. Not good.
*If the Pirates had kept J.A. Happ and Neil Walker and paid them what they make with their respective teams, they would be locked into a wild-card spot and still rank just 19th among big-league payrolls. You get what you pay for. (Walker is out now. But his 23 home runs would be a team high for the Pirates.)
*The Pirates are a meager 14-13 against Milwaukee and Cincinnati, the two worst teams in the NL Central. That won’t get a wild card. By contrast, the St. Louis Cardinals are 19-11 against the Brewers and Reds. That’s the Cardinals’ lead over the Pirates right there.
*Josh Bell has cooled, but him being summoned from Triple-A in June and replacing John Jaso at first base couldn’t have done anything but help.
*The Pirates don’t really have a leadoff hitter, or a cleanup hitter. No one fits those profiles analytically, especially no-walking Josh Harrison batting first. Starling Marte spent much of the season batting fourth, and he has nine home runs.
*The Pirates run the bases poorly. Marte and Gregory Polanco often seem half-asleep in the field. Sloppiness is an unfortunate trend in MLB, but that’s no excuse.
It’s not rocket science, or a fluke. What could have happened, did.
GM Neal Huntington said 2016 would be a “bridge year.” A bridge to what?
Future financial flexibility, perhaps.
McCutchen’s rotten season may well combine with his expensive contract (which has just one year plus a team option left) to get him traded in the off-season.
Bell could move back to the outfield. David Freese and Jaso platoon at first base. When Austin Meadows is ready, he slots into the outfield and Bell plays first. Marte goes to center field, where he should be right now.
You can disguise it as a baseball trade given McCutchen’s failure. Return would likely be strong. But ditching McCutchen saves the Pirates $14 million next year.
That’s what Pirates ownership and management has always been about.
But there is still plenty of baseball left. For the Pirates to match last year’s victory total of 98, they merely have to win 31 of their last 27.
I think it’s doable.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

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