Pittsburgh Pirates: Do they Have Enough to Stay in the Playoff Race?

Saturday August 4th, 2012

Jake Dal Porto:  The Pittsburgh Pirates have been one of the many surprising teams in baseball this season. Led by perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, they trail the first place Reds by just four and a half games in the National league Central division and retain the third best record in the entire N.L. If the playoffs started today, the Pirates would be playing postseason baseball for the first time since 1992. While they made a push at the playoffs last season as well, an August collapse ultimately diminished their chances of playing October baseball for the first time in over two decades.

However, an August breakdown doesn’t seem to be in the cards for these 2012 Pirates. Players like Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Garrett Jones were all on the 2011 team that plummeted from first place on July 25th to 16 games back of first place on August 25th. Nearly a year later, the same core group has the Pirates back in the thick of the playoff chase, but their mentalities have significantly changed with the experience they garnered in 2011. Why? It’s cliche, but the more experience a player or team can refer to, the better they will perform. And in this case, that team is the Pirates.

Experience isn’t the only thing the Pirates have working in the favor, though. Yes, their front office was surprisingly quiet at the trading deadline, but don’t forget about a particular move that they made during the offseason. General manager Neal Huntington optioned to roll the dice by trading for A.J. Burnett. That acquisition has him looking like a genius now, but that wasn’t the case when the move was made in the offseason. In fact, they were the laughing-stock of the league because they traded for the inconsistent right-hander who totaled 4.79 ERA in three seasons with New York after signing a monstrous five-year, $82.5 million deal with them in 2009. Considering his sub-par numbers over the past three seasons, there was no way that Pittsburgh would take on the rest of his contract. It just wouldn’t be worth the gamble. To sweeten the deal, the Yankees tossed in a good chunk of money to cover the majority of his contract while the Pirates sent two low-level prospects to the Bronx Bombers. And yes, we’re still talking about the same A.J. Burnett who was constantly booed by Yankees fans in 2011, was rumored to constantly bicker with his coaches, who finished the 2011 season with a wavering 5.15 ERA, and was just hands down atrocious.

However, it turns out that a change of scenery out of the New York media scene was just what the doctor ordered for Burnett. Less than a year out from arguably his worst season as a pro, he has rejuvenated himself into a top of the order type commodity and has stabilized the Pirates rotation with his gaudy strikeout stuff and veteran leadership. His overall numbers (13-3, 3.27 ERA) are excellent, but his sparkly 2.00 home ERA checks in as one of the best mark’s in the NL. Let’s not forget that he has yet to lose a game at PNC Park, either.

Along with Burnett, the rest Pirates starting rotation has held down the fort extremely well. Pitching is essentially how they’ve become a legitimate contender. James McDonald has made his mark as one of the most improved pitchers in the N.L with a 3.38 ERA. Southpaw Erik Bedard, who was also an offseason addition, has been solid at home, posting a dazzling 2.72 ERA at PNC Park. The back-end of their rotation has been solid as well. With Jeff Karstens sporting a solid 3.70 ERA and the newest Pirate Wandy Rodriguez being his consistent self, there are few flaws in the Pirates‘ starting staff. In total, they boast a 4.01 ERA, a mark good enough for ninth best in the N.L. And if it wasn’t for a mediocre July where the starters combined to record a 4.41 ERA, they would have one of the best ERA’s in baseball. What shouldn’t be forgotten is their bullpen. Led by closer Joel Hanrahan, they have posted a 2.81 ERA which is the second best bullpen ERA in the National league.

However, the Pirates still exhibit some glaring holes on the offensive side of the ball. Andrew McCutchen has been leading them for the past two months without much consistent help. You could say that it’s working, but it’s starting to get to the point where they’re relying on him too much. Almost to the extent where if he doesn’t hit they don’t score. To make matters worse, no one on the Pirates roster has an offensive WAR higher than three other than Andrew McCutchen (6.3). Neil Walker (2.7) and Pedro Alvarez (1.7) are close, but there’s a substantial drop off from those three. Their most obvious need remains a bat. Sure, Rodriguez will be a key addition to the staff, and if Gaby Sanchez ever rediscovers his 2011 stroke, he will be an effective platoon player with Garrett Jones. Outside of McCutchen, though, they don’t posses many alternatives.

And the rumored plan was that Neal Huntington and his staff were going to address the offensive issues by trading for a bat at the deadline. More specifically, an outfielder to complement their star center fielder in McCutchen. Justin Upton’s name was tossed around quite a bit, but Arizona ultimately decided to hold off the trade talks until the offseason. Carlos Quentin resigned with the Padres, and the Twins’ asking price for Josh Willingham was rumored to be very high. So there wasn’t much of a picking for Huntington. Though, highly touted prospect Starling Marte could be the bat within the organization that puts the Pirates’ offense over the top. He’s already hit two home runs in 36 at-bats, and he has the potential to become a five-tool player, much like McCutchen. But they shouldn’t have to count on a rookie to be the answer, much less a factor.

The Pirates will be labeled as soft-hitting club until other players can step up on a consistent basis. Walker, Jones, and Alvarez have all shown flashes of would could be, but those mini flashes don’t last very long. Despite occasional spurts, Pittsburgh ranks in the bottom half of the National league in the four main categories (AVG, OBP, SLUG, OPS). While this year’s team is much better and experienced than last year’s team, the Pirates still lack offense. Their starting pitching and bullpen will keep them in the playoff race and making the playoffs seem like a realistic possibility for them, but in a one game sudden death, I can’t see them winning. Plus, if opposing teams start walking McCutchen intentionally, the Pirates are in a world of trouble.

Jake Dal Porto is a high school student from the Bay Area. He is a big time Giants fan and his favorite players are Matt CainTim LincecumBuster Posey, and Sergio Romo. Jake’s favorite sports moment was when the Giants won the World Series back in 2010. He loves to use sabermetrics in his work.  He thinks they are the best way to show a player’s real success compared to the basic stats such as ERA, RBIs, and Wins. Jake also enjoys interacting and debating with his readers. Follow him on Twitter: @TheJakeMan24

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About Jake Dal Porto

Jake Dal Porto is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score

Posted on August 4, 2012, in MLB Teams: Articles and Analysis and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Pittsburgh Pirates: Do they Have Enough to Stay in the Playoff Race?.

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