If you’re looking for a team to break out of the NL Central muddle that’s piled up behind frontrunning St. Louis, the Pittsburgh Pirates would be a team to keep on your radar over the next couple weeks. The Pirates’ record of 10-14 is certainly nothing special, but there’s an intriguing nuance in that record—Pittsburgh has played six series against teams other than St. Louis. They’ve got a 3-2-1 record in those series. It’s nothing that suggests a burgeoning powerhouse, ready to shoot up the ladder to second place, but it does suggest that Clint Hurdle’s team might make some hay when they begin a nine-game homestand against Cincinnati, Washington and Houston on Friday.
If the Pirates are going to make a move, they are going to have find hitters who will drive the ball with some authority. The only slugging percentages that are productive right now belong to Pedro Alvarez at third, who lifted his numbers with hot week, and Garrett Jones at first base, slugging .482 on the season. But they need more from Andrew McCutchen. The centerfielder is hitting .303, but has only one home run and in drawing only six walks, he’s not a productive as his batting average suggests. I don’t mean to imply McCutchen isn’t playing well, but the Pirates locked him up to a big long-term deal this offseason to be a star and he has to earn that contract with complete offensive performance. The coming nine games would be a good place to start. And rightfielder Jose Tabata simply has to do something—he’s batting .221—or some of us, like myself, have to stop talking about his potential.
The starting pitching is getting the job done, as Erik Bedard, James McDonald and Kevin Correia all have ERAs under 3. Doing that for the entire season might be unrealistic, but there’s no reason to think that in general, Hurdle’s got a good top three. Bedard’s health is the biggest X-factor. And don’t be fooled by A.J Burnett’s 8.04 ERA in three starts. He got barbequed last night in St. Louis for seven runs and left in the third, but his other two starts—another against the Cardinals and one against the Braves—were both excellent.
I wasn’t a big believer in Pittsburgh at the start of the season, so I’m not necessarily predicting a breakout. What I am saying is that if you were a believer, now is the time for the team to justify that optimism. And all of us should be paying attention in a division looking for a challenger to St. Louis. Here’s a look around the rest of the NL Central…
St. Louis (16-8): The bats have reached some level beyond scorching hot, averaging close to ten runs a game in the past week. I can rattle off the hot hitters and bury you with numbers, but how about we just cite David Freese. I choose him because he’s hitting .250 this week and popped a couple home runs, but he’s the coldest hitter in the everyday lineup. I’m also going to cite Jon Jay, who had an on-base percentage of .636. I cite him because a couple hours ago I picked him up for my Fantasy team, meaning an 0-for-15 stretch is sure to follow.
Cincinnati (11-12): As this article goes online the Reds are playing the Cubs, and hold a 1-0 lead so they could be .500 by the time you read this. And I don’t think they can be too unhappy. Cincy has gradually played better baseball, is getting very good pitching and enjoyed a power surge from Jay Bruce who homered in four straight games. If Pittsburgh is the challenger to watch in the short term then Cincy is the one with the best long-term prospects for making a move on the Cardinals.
Milwaukee (11-14): On Monday night, Ryan Braun hit three home runs in San Diego’s Petco Park. Tuesday and Wednesday the team was shut out. It’s the latest in an up-and-down year that includes Yovani Gallardo’s inability to even be competitive against St. Louis. The Cardinals rocked the Brewer ace last Friday night, the second time this year, they’ve run him off the mound early. There’s time to get things fixed, but this team has problems right now.
Houston (11-14): It’s a sign of how low expectations were in Houston that this record makes them kind of a nice early story, as they come off sweeping the Mets three straight. The Astros are doing it with the bats, with second baseman Jose Altuve continuing a strong start, along with shortstop Jed Lowrie. Young centerfielder Jordan Schaefer, acquired from Atlanta in the trade that shipped Michael Bourn out of town, had a .389 OBP over the past week. The starting pitching continues to show why the ‘Stros likely finish in the season in last place anyway, but Brett Myers is handling the closer duties well, nailing down three chances this week in perfect order.
Chi Cubs (9-15): If the Cubbies can continue to get the kind of starting pitching they got this last week from Jeff Samardizja, Matt Garza and Paul Maholm, they can make a move up the standings. The team ranked 7th in the NL in ERA over the past seven days, but the offense continues to struggle.