NL Weekly Report: Pittsburgh Pirates Join National Heat Wave

Amidst a mid-July that has much of American submerged in record heat, the Pittsburgh Pirates are only serving to turn up the temperatures further, ripping off a hot streak that’s moved them to the top of the National League Central as the franchise looks for its first winning season since 1992—also the last time they made the playoffs, as the “Buccos” as they’re called down on the banks of the Allegheny where I once worked the produce yards, have never made the postseason in the post-realignment era begun in 1994 with the creation of the NL Central.

The hot streak started in mid-June. Pittsburgh lost three straight in Baltimore, but came out of Camden Yards and haven’t lost a series since. They beat Minnesota and Detroit, then split four with Philadelphia. Then the Pirates took a series from St. Louis and hung a four-game sweep on Houston. It’s worth noting that while that schedule isn’t brutal, nor is it a walk in the park. The Twins are an above-average team in the AL over the last two months, and the Tigers are playing better. The Cardinals are right in the midst of the Central race. Only Houston was truly an easy series and even at that, any major league team that sweeps a four-game set is playing good baseball.

Andrew McCutchen is the undisputed star of this team, with his .413/.610 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He’s batting .360, has hit 16 home runs and is going to spend the rest of the season having his MVP merits debated. What has helped Pittsburgh of late is that he’s gotten a little bit of help. Not a lot, but for a lineup that previously lined up the Seven Dwarfs behind the star, anything helps. Second baseman Neil Walker has lifted his on-base percentage to a respectable .345 and gotten eight hits in his last 21 at-bats. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez has chipped on the power side of the equation, moving his slugging percentage to .484 behind 16 home runs on the year. Both Walker and Alvarez are in their mid-20s and there’s reason to hope that each could swing the bat well in the second half of the season. Perhaps you can pair that up with the occasional random hot streak from the others, like the one journeyman rightfielder Drew Sutton is currently enjoying, and get enough offense to compete.

Ultimately it’s pitching that’s going to determine if Pittsburgh can win the division and bring postseason play to the beautiful gem that is PNC Park. But it’s here that manager Clint Hurdle has reason to be a little concerned. Erik Bedard has been struggling after a strong start, and his ERA has risen from 3.07 in mid-May to 4.80 after losing a series opener to San Francisco last night. Normally the question with Bedard is just his staying healthy. Now it’s his actual performance. A.J. Burnett has been reasonably competent, but with a 3.74 ERA while facing DH-less lineups in the game’s worst division, I’m sure he’s not inspiring regrets in the Bronx after the Yankees traded him to Pittsburgh this past offseason. I wonder how long Hurdle can hold off making Brad Lincoln a regular member of the rotation. He’s been a fill-in when there are injuries, giving five starts to go with his sixteen relief appearances and his ERA is a solid 3.14. And the 1.17 WHIP (baserunners per inning) tell us that it’s not a fluke. I’d pull the trigger and put Lincoln in the rotation. Better to move out Kevin Correia or Charlie Morton.

One pitcher who’s not getting moved anywhere is James McDonald, the ace of the staff who’s delivered a 2.45 ERA and gets the ball today with a chance to keep Pittsburgh’s streak of series wins alive for at least one more day (Burnett pitches Sunday).

The Pirates will need to make some moves at the trade deadline and the recent struggles by the veteran pitchers may shift the focus from the everyday lineup, where we assumed it would be as recently as a month ago, to the staff. Last year Pittsburgh was cautious at the deadline, making low-risk investments in Ryan Ludwick and Derek Lee. That was the right move at the time. But now the Pirates have a much better chance to win the division and the NL Central has at least a chance to grab one of the wild-cards in the expanded playoff format (Cincinnati would be in the postseason if the season ended today). It’s appropriate for general manager Neal Huntingdon to roll the dice.

Around the rest of the National League…

*The Washington Nationals keep churning, which will only add to the drama when they have to shut down Stephen Strasburg when he reaches his innings limit. I’d say it would add to the debate, but it looks like there is no debate within the Nationals organization. That will add to the trade deadline debate in places like New York, where the Mets are hanging close enough to catch a Strasburg-less Washington. And there’s no doubt Atlanta, five games off the pace will make improvements at the trade deadline. And don’t lose sight of Miami, who may be well off Washington’s pace, but is only five out in the wild-card race.

*St. Louis got bad news when it learned Chris Carpenter won’t make it back this month, or any other month in 2012. The Cardinals are still only 2.5 back of the Pirates and within a game of Cincinnati, who as noted, would be getting a wild-card game shot against San Francisco if the playoffs started today. Add another team to the market for starting pitching as the July 31 trade deadline nears.

*Los Angeles recovered from the slump that dropped them from first place and nudged back ahead of San Francisco, and the Dodgers were saved from themselves in the trade market. A foolish move to acquire Carlos Lee, who isn’t hitting in Houston and would do even worse in pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium, was vetoed by Lee. Now the Dodgers can either acquire someone who might actually produce or do they really smart thing and just continue the building process that’s moving along at a nice pace.