This first half of the season has just flown by but as the old adage says, “Time flies when you’re having fun”. Right now there is probably no other baseball team having more fun than the Pittsburgh Pirates. If you had told me that the Pirates would be 2.5 games out of first place in the division at the All Star break I think I would have laughed at you. The roster that Neil Huntington put together coming into this season did not have a ton of promise.
Thinking back to this past offseason, Pittsburgh kicked it off when they sent Ivan Nova to Chicago White Sox to lower the team budget. Again, this is the Pirates proving that they are going to put together the cheapest team possible. The team moved on from Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, both big parts of the turn around the Pirates had at getting back to the postseason.
What did theses salary dumps get the Pirates?
Pittsburgh brought in Jordan Lyles, formerly a relief pitcher for the Brewers. Neil Huntington on the signing of Jordan Lyles:
If he continues to pitch the way he pitched out of the ‘pen for Milwaukee in our rotation, we’ll have a strong rotation and a strong bullpen to complement it.
They then brought back Francisco Liriano on a minor league deal. For those that don’t remember, this is the same Liriano that the Pirates traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, along with prospects Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez, both at the time were top 15 in the farm system. Why did they make this trade at the time? You guessed it, to dump his $17.5 Million contract over 2 years. Oh wait, Pittsburgh did get Drew Hutchinson, a complete bust. I’m not even sure we can call it a bust because to be one you to have promise and the tools to be good, but it seems like everyone but the front office at the time saw that this kid didn’t have it.
The Pirates brought in Erik Gonzalez via trade and they signed free agent Lonnie Chisenhall. Chisenhall was a once solid outfielder but has a history of not staying on the field. The logic of the signing was viewed as being a short time starter with Gregory Polanco not expected to start the season with the team due to a dislocated left shoulder he suffered in late September of last season. They also resigned Jung Ho Kang at a discounted rate after declining to pick up his $5.5 million dollar option offseason. This resigning of Kang, Chisinhall and Jordan Lyles were the only Major League free agents brought in to camp. Neil Huntington then added some be long shots to minor league contracts in Melky Cabrera, Rookie Davis and above mentioned Liriano.
Needless to say, this did not look like a well-constructed team. 80 wins looked to be a pipe dream and that is still possible to not get to 80 games, but it’s hard not to think positive with this team the way they are batting.
The Pirates are just 2.5 back out of first place in the NL Central heading into the All Star break. They are staying in thick of it all while getting hit with an astronomical amount of injuries. Over 24 players have spent time on the IL at least one time. It’s magnificent to see they are able to keep it together through all this adversity.
The Pirates are finding key contributors from some very unlikely sources to keep the playoff hopes alive.
1 Key Contributor:
Josh Bell is posting a career year heading into the All Star Break .302/.376/.648/1.024 with 27 HRs and 84 RBIs after coming off what some would call a sophomore slump last season where he slashed .261/.357/.411/.768 with 12 HRs and 62 RBIs. Bell has been a calm and stable presence in the locker room jumping into a Super Star status in the first half of his 3rd season in the majors. While getting an All Star and Home Run Derby invites for the midsummer classic.
2 Key Contributors:
Bryan Reynolds rookie season to date has been nothing but astonishing. He is Batting .342 going into the break with .414/.536/.950, 7 HRs and 33 RBIs with 222 at bats. I don’t think anyone envisioned this type of success from him in one half of a baseball season.
Reynolds is not the only rookie turning heads this season. Former first round pick, Kevin Newman, coming into the season he seemed to be the odd man out with Gonzales coming via trade who was supposed to hold the SS spot until esteemed prospect Cole Tucker was ready. Newman was considered to be a bench player after losing the starting job in spring training to Gonzalez. On April 25th the Pirates put Gonzalez on the IL for what could be the season after he had to get surgery to fix a broken clavicle after only playing 15 games.
Kevin has made the most of his opportunity locking down his starting spot. In 223 ABs, Newman is batting .327 with 6 HRs (6 HRs is the most HRs he has hit at any level including high school) and slashing .371/.480/.851 adding 33 RBIs and 6 SBs. He has been a great addition as the lead off hitter in the lineup but is able to move up and down the batting order and still contribute.
With the emergence of Newman and 2B Adam Frazier settling into his starting role. This leaves Pirates with some interesting decisions to make with Cole Tucker’s future.
3 Key Contributors:
After all that talk about Francisco Liriano coming back this offseason I had earlier, one cannot argue with the fact that him being added this season on a minor league deal it has paid off pretty well. Francisco has fit in quite nicely as RP/ SU Pitcher when needed. He has 3 wins to 1 loss on the season and posting ERA of 3.09 in a relief pitching capacity. The Pirates have suffered a lot of injuries this season as stated above and the bullpen was not an outlier to the injury bug. Liriano has changed roles up and down the Bullpen and done everything that has been asked of him.
Colin Moran has had a sneaky solid season. Moran has 10 HRs on the season while posting .294/.335/.40/.815. He has arguably become the starter at 3rd moving Kang to the bench and providing consistent production throughout the first half.
What could arguably be one of the most underrated signings this offseason has been Melky Cabrera. Cabrera didn’t look like he would make the team let alone be such a solid contributor. Injuries to Starling Marte, Corey Dickerson, Polanco and incumbent starter Chisenhall has led for the “Melk Man” to get some impromptu playing time. With 6 HRs and is batting over .300, Melky has been a huge surprise and turning out to be a gem of a signing for this team
Currently, Pittsburgh's offense is carrying this team, which is ranks 3rd in the MLB according to FanGraphs. Pittsburgh is playing exciting baseball right now with the power and clutch batting from anyone that is being plugged in the lineup.
Without a healthy Jamison Taillion and inconsistency from Chris Archer and Joe Musgrove the pitching has been the weak link for the Bucs. Pittsburgh starters have a wOBA (Weighted On-Base Average) of .336 which is 22nd in the league for the first half over June and first week of July the rotation has gotten worst. They rank 28th in WHIP in baseball and a league worst in wOBA.
The bullpen seems to be getting on track with and sorting its setup pitchers. Richard Rodriguez has a 0 ERA in his last 7 innings pitched. A name that we cannot leave off the list of helping round out the bullpen is Michael Feliz.
Feliz has been lights out in the past handful of games. He has not given an earned run in the past seven outings and only has given up three in his last 12 games he has appeared in. This surge sparked after getting routed for five earned runs in .1 innings back in May vs the Dodgers.
The bullpen as a whole has moved up to 16th in the league in the past month and a half with a wOBA of .329 and has moved the WHIP up from 25th to 21st. Not to mention, the shortly after the break the Pirates should be getting back Keone Kela who should be another reliable arm to call upon for Clint Hurdle.
The Pirates will need more consistency out of its pitching staff and it doesn’t seem to have the guys in Indy to do it to bring up to take control of the injury bug. This means the fate of the season could fall in the hands of Neil Huntington to play Let’s Make A Deal.