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Bucs at the quarter pole? Not good

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Detroit Tigers v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

MLB’s 2020 season is a little over two weeks old – and at the same time, it’s swept past the quarter pole. Yes, at 3-13, the Pirates have completed more than one-fourth of their 60-game schedule. The Bucs were scheduled to plow ahead with three games in St. Louis this week, but they were Rona-ed out. The entire series was postponed due to the issues that the Cardinals have been having with COVID-19. Now it looks like the Pirates’ next game won’t take place until 5:10 p.m. Thursday at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark.

If you think the Pirates’ 2020 campaign has been dismal – and it has been – at least they’ve been able to play. The Cardinals? Not so much. St. Louis has seen 16 organization members test positive for the virus – nine players and seven staff members – and as a result, Major League Baseball on Sunday announced that the Pirates-Cardinals three-game series scheduled for Busch Stadium would be postponed.

According to MLB.com, eight of the Cardinals’ organizational members who tested positive have given the OK to be identified. They are catcher Yadier Molina, shortstop Paul DeJong, infielders Rangel Ravelo and Edmundo Sosa, outfielder Austin Dean and three relievers – Kodi Whitley, Junior Fernandez and Ryan Helsley. Most of the players who have tested positive have not exhibited symptoms.

At this point, the Cardinals have missed 13 games over the past two weeks and have only managed to get on the field twice in the past 10 games. In terms of raw numbers, St. Louis – which has managed to play just five games and is 2-3 — has 46 days to squeeze in 55 games.

A break isn’t exactly the worst thing in the world for the Pirates, who have avoided issues with COVID-19 but have had plenty of other issues – mostly injuries and ineffectiveness. Where to start? Take your pick. I’ll start with the bullpen. Remember in the pre-virus days, when people were handicapping the 2020 season and the Pirates’ bullpen? It didn’t look bad. Keone Kela figured to be the closer, with Kyle Crick and Nick Burdi holding down high-leverage spots and Michael Feliz, Clay Holmes and Edgar Santana available along with the usual suspects. None of them have survived the first two weeks of the season, although Kela reportedly has been throwing and could be available soon.

As a result, the Pirates have been running out a parade of wannabe big leaguers, shuttling arms between Pittsburgh and Altoona and having minimal success. On Sunday, the club reportedly signed former major leaguer Henderson Alvarez, who hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2017. The 30-year-old right-hander put together a 27-35 record and a 3.82 ERA in six major league seasons. Most recently, he was pitching for Milwaukee – not the Brewers but the Milkmen, a Class AA Independent League team. He split time last year between two Triple-A teams — Fresno in the Pacific Coast League and the Tigres de Quintana Roo in the Mexican League.

The starting rotation? The club knew it would be without Jameson Taillon and Chris Archer due to injuries, but it had high hopes for young Mitch Keller. But he took himself out of a game after experiencing left side discomfort and there’s no telling when – or if – he’ll be back this season.

It’s hard to believe, but the Pirates have actually gotten some decent starting pitching from time to time. Chad Kuhl looked solid the other night, and Steven Brault – despite struggling in his last two outings – had perhaps the best start of the season on Aug. 2 against the Cubs. He was perfect through three innings, striking out four and filling up the strike zone. But he hasn’t come close to repeating that in either of his last two appearances. Derek Holland has even looked good at times, but his numbers will be forever ruined after he took one for the team Saturday.

In terms of hitting, aside from Friday night’s outburst against the Tigers, the Pirates have shown even less than I thought they would. After Sunday’s third straight loss to the Tigers – read that again and let it sink in – those who figured to play key roles were foundering in a major way. Bryan Reynolds, a revelation as a rookie in 2019, sat at .180 with a .590 OPS and 18 strikeouts in 53 at-bats. Josh Bell, who established himself as a major force a year ago, is hitting just .213 with a .547 OPS. He’s hit only two home runs and driven in five after finishing last year with 37 homers and 116 RBIs. And that’s not all. Adam Frazier, who appeared to be establishing himself as a solid major league second baseman, is hitting .177 with a .529 OPS. Star-crossed Gregory Polanco, whose elbow shattered the jaw of Phillip Evans – one of the few bright spots in the Pirates lineup – Saturday, is hitting a microscopic .069 with one home run and five RBIs.

The only player who has truly exceeded expectations is the aforementioned Evans, who leads the team with nine RBIs and is hitting .359 with a .932 OPS but is now gone for the rest of the campaign. Colin Moran started quickly and has a decent line with five home runs, seven RBIs and an .833 OPS, but he’s hitting only .226 and has cooled off. Erik Gonzalez also has played well, batting .333 with eight RBIs and an .833 OPS, but six of those RBIs came in one game – Friday night’s loss to Detroit.

So where do we go from here? I’d be shocked if the players who’ve hit just about all of their lives – namely Bell and Reynolds and, to a lesser degree, Frazier – didn’t come around at some point. And I have no problem running Trevor Williams, Joe Musgrove, Kuhl and JT Brubaker out there as starters on a regular basis. But the club needs to work in some of the younger, unknown quantities to see what they have. I’ve never been a huge Gonzalez fan, but maybe he deserves a chance. I’ve always been a Cole Tucker fan, but maybe his ceiling is that of a utility player. And that’s not what anyone has in mind for a No. 1 draft pick. I don’t want to see Jarrod Dyson ever again, but I know the club needs to play him at least now and then to try to pump up whatever trade value he has so they can unload him at the end of the month.

Obviously it’s been a frustrating start for your Buccos. And having to hear piped-in crowd noise and see empty stands with cardboard cutouts just adds to the frustration. But at least there’s baseball in Pittsburgh. And that’s more than they can say in St. Louis.