PITTSBURGH - JULY 19: Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington talks to reporters prior to the game against the Cincinnati Reds on July 19, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
It's August 15 and the Pirates are 64-52, precariously hanging on to the newly-created second wild card spot. Entering Wednesday's action, three teams are within a game, while the Bucs are six games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central and three back of the Atlanta Braves for the first wild card spot. (Please tell me again who thinks that having two wild cards is a bad idea, and why.)
46 games, just under 30 percent of the season, remain.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, and by Clint Hurdle's own admission, they are probably playing their worst baseball of the season. Funny how that often coincides with playing a string against a bunch of good teams. They are 4-8 in their last 12, which has included three with the Reds, four with the Diamondbacks, three with the Padres (18-13 since the All-Star break) and two so far with the Dodgers.
They have lost five of six and six of eight and have given up at least five runs in each of those eight games, capped by an 11-0 drubbing by L.A. last night. They have allowed an astonishing 58 runs eight games. They gave up 59 in the season's first 19.
On Twitter the hardcore fans and bloggers mock the shrill cries of the falling sky and a season lost.
You know what? If things aren't righted fast, it could be. Not lost in the sense of failure. Winning fewer than 81 games would be almost impossible at this point. Lost as in staying in contact with the playoff race until season's end. And based on where this team was two weeks ago, that would be unfortunate.
This Pirates season has been built on periods of exceptional performance. For the first two months it was solid starting pitching and an exceptional bullpen. A.J. Burnett and James McDonald dominated the first half. Juan Cruz, Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan were rock-solid in the back end, nailing down every seven-inning lead. In May and June the pitching was a constant and the hitting turned robust. Pedro Alvarez, Casey McGehee, Garrett Jones and Michael McKenry were carrying thundersticks, Andrew McCutchen established his MVP candidacy and Neil Walker played like the best second baseman in the league.
Each of those players had significant stretches of what can only be described as over-performance. As good as he's been, Cutch probably isn't going to hit .372, A.J. isn't going to win every home start. But for the Pirates to continue playing at a .560 clip, guys needed to continue to over-achieve and right now that isn't happening.
Historically, the starting staff doesn't have much of a pedigree. Right now, history is showing up almost every night. The lineup is made up a superstar and a bunch of guys, some with potential, but some just role players. They are playing those roles at the moment. The bullpen, the strongest part of this team, has remained strong, but less so. And its significance is lessened when playing from behind.
It's time to at least locate the panic button. If not now, when?
As much as most Pirates fans won't admit it, this team isn't as good as the Reds, Cards, Braves, Dodgers or Giants on paper. Can they make the playoffs? Sure. Is it likely? Less so with each passing game. I pointed to this current seven-game stretch, four at home with the Dodgers followed by three in St. Louis, as pivotal. Winning or losing five of seven would go a long way in determining the team's playoff chances. Things aren't off to a good start.
My one consistent problem with this team all year has been personnel management. The Pirates have rarely, if ever, had their best 25 players on the roster. 15 games remain until the rosters can be expanded on September 1. Six of those are against the Cardinals. The Pirates turned over five players on the 25-man roster at the trade deadline, so chemistry be damned. They need to shuffle the deck now and then fully supplement when the September 1 date arrives. (Neal Huntington has given lip service to possibly waiting to raid the Indianapolis roster because the Indians will also be in a playoff chase on September 1. Let's just say that if the Pirates are still in the middle of the race, and they should be, not adding every player that might help the team win just one game will be his most colossal failure. Add to the Indy roster with players from Altoona.)
Huntington and Hurdle need to shuffle the deck now. Here is what they should do if they want their best chance at winning the next 15 games to set themselves up for the month of September:
DFA Kevin Correia and Chad Qualls
Correia has given the Pirates more than expected. At the beginning of the year I thought he would be insurance until July and then the team would turn to better options. That seemed to be the plan until the whole rotation fell apart at the same time. Correia has been serviceable this season, but he isn't capable of having a dominant start. It is clear that the Pirates have other options and it's time to go to them. Some team may claim Correia if the Pirates DFA him and they can save a million bucks. So be it. After his request for a trade, keeping him around to work out of the pen doesn't seem like a great idea. Oh, and he isn't good either.
The Qualls-McGehee deal was a favor to McGehee. The Bucs rode Qualls through a few scoreless outings but he isn't a good pitcher and, again, the Pirates have too many better options. Qualls won't be used in high-leverage situations.
Option Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer to AAA
Harrison's defense has been better than expected. He's scrappy. He has a .285 OBP. Ticket please. Harrison should be, at best, a 50-50 proposition for the 40-man roster in the offseason.
This iteration of Clint Hurle And The 25th Man is played by Jordy Mercer. Hurdle's use of the last roster spot has baffled since day one. The Pirates' bench is wafer-thin. The offense is 20th in runs, 22nd in avg., 28th in OBP and 16th in SLG. Send Jordy down for 15 days. Add a bat.
Adjust the Starting Rotation
The Bucs next day off is August 23. I'm fine with a six-man rotation for the next two weeks. Here is how it should roll starting tonight: Wandy Rodriguez, A.J. Burnett, James McDonald, Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens, Jeff Locke. McDonald, Karstens and Locke should be auditioning for future starts. McDonald has been awful since the break, but it's hard to see the team making the playoffs without him in the rotation, pitching well. I'd give him the ball a few more times. Chris Leroux will be waiting if more than one falters.
Leroux is a no-brainer. You've heard me sing his praises often enough. He has been excellent in AAA and can fill a variety of roles. He slots into the open spot on the 40-man roster.
Clement has an .850 OPS in Indy. He has some pop. He will immediately upgrade the Pirates' bench.
(Incredibly, Hurdle continues to put injured players in the starting lineup. We knew Travis Snider had a hamstring strain. He started last night. He hit a double. He felt the hamstring tighten. He batted again and jogged out a grounder to second. He was removed. He now probably won't be available for at least a few days. We saw this with Jose Tabata. What doesn't this management team and training staff not understand about muscle pulls? The bench is likely to be short tonight. It's been short all season.)
Navarro also upgrades the bench. He has an .859 OPS in Indy and eight homers in 197 at bats. He can play shortstop if necessary. See Jeff Clement above.
One Roster Spot Open
Currently the Pirates are carrying 13 pitchers. They could call up Bryan Morris or Justin Wilson to fill the open spot I've created to get through this stretch of consecutive games and keep things as is. However, if Snider is out a few days, they are better served by calling up Jose Tabata or Alex Presley.
If they call up the pitcher, he should eventually be swapped out for Jared Hughes before Sept. 1. But sooner or later they have to get back to 13 position players and 12 pitchers so one will have to go. If the Pirates decide that they want to keep Juan Cruz and Chris Resop around (neither is likely to be next year) then maybe Hughes isn't added until Sept. 1 and the Pirates deal with the playoff roster if and when they have to.
The Pirates' season isn't over. This could just be a rough patch and they could go on a roll, making September baseball as exciting as it's been since 1997. However, as has been the case most of the year, it doesn't appear the team is maximizing it's chances with the current roster. Yes I appreciate that Hurdle shows faith in his players. He and Huntington were justly rewarded by the offensive turnaround in June. But we are now about 3/4 of the way into the season and the die is almost cast. Management needs to take a really critical look at the current team.
The Pirates need to make changes to maximize their opportunity. One or two wins here in August could be the difference. Get to work, Neal.