The Pittsburgh Pirates went into full-scale rebuilding mode this offseason when they traded Andrew McCutcheon to San Francisco and Gerrit Cole to Houston. But the Pirates have done an admirable job in the early part of this baseball season. Their 19-16 record has them amidst a four-team logjam in the NL Central with expected contenders in the Cardinals, Brewers and Cubs. Here’s a look at what has keyed Pittsburgh’s early winning ways and what needs to happen for it to continue…
The Pirates are swinging the bats well. They’re the second-best offense in the National League and the biggest reason for that is consistent power. They rank second in slugging percentage and the primary reason is that they do it the old-fashioned way—simply getting hits, with the #2 batting average in the league. Pittsburgh is also top four in both doubles and home runs.
Corey Dickerson has been the team’s best offensive player. The 28-year-old left fielder has posted a stat line of .356 on-base percentage/.532 slugging percentage, has driven in 24 runs and ripped ten doubles. Dickerson has yet to post numbers like these for a full season, but at the same time, they do fit a pattern of improvement that showed during his past two years in Tampa Bay.
Francisco Cervelli has given the Pirates a .391/.559 stat line. At age 32, he’s a known commodity and is not going to hit for this kind of power over the long haul. But Cervelli has become pretty consistent at delivering good on-base percentages and as a catcher, provides offensive pop at a position not known for it.
Starling Marte joins Dickerson in the outfield, and Marte’s numbers are .349/.471. That’s better than his career norms, but not out of the question for him to put up if 2018 is going to be a career-best season.
These three players have lifted an offense that has carried a subpar pitching staff. Pittsburgh ranks 10th in the National League in ERA and there is no individual pitcher delivering any kind of signature performance this year.
It’s for that reason that the smart money in Vegas is right to stay very cautious with this team. The Pirates are still priced at a healthy 8-1 simply to win the NL Central. By contrast, the Brewers are 4-1, the Cardinals are 7 -2 and the Cubs are the 1-2 betting favorite.
But there is a seam of hope in the starting rotation. Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl both have ERAs in the low 4s and both are in their third big-league seasons. It’s not like either one is getting rocked right now and both are at a point in their careers where a breakout is possible. If the rotation gets stable, the task of manager Clint Hurdle in piecing together a bullpen becomes much easier. If that happens, Pittsburgh can at least stay in the mix of the playoff race until August or so when the city turns its attention to the Steelers.
I wouldn’t bet on it happening. But as one who lived in Pittsburgh for nine years and has fond memories of summer nights and Sunday afternoons at PNC Park, I hope they can get the place hopping again soon.
There’s no guarantee the NL Central will sweep the wild-cards, nor is there even a guarantee they will get one, with both the San Francisco Giants and Atlanta Braves in the pictures. So the stakes are high for the NL Central’s power trio. The Notebook Nine will focus on the Brewers, Cards and Pirates, with three pertinent thoughts for each team as we head into the homestretch…
*The two key under-the-radar players for Milwaukee are Khris Davis in left field and starting pitcher Mike Fiers. Davis has quietly hit 20 home runs, while Fiers has made four starts and four relief appearances and posted a 1.54 ERA in the process. With Matt Garza on the disabled list and Ryan Braun now hitting like he’s not on PEDs, the bat of Davis and the arm of Fiers will continue to be critical.
*Speaking of Braun, a common theory held at the start of the season was that, if clean, he might prove to be the kind of hitter who would hit .280, hit 20 home runs and finish with 85 RBIs. In other words, still pretty good, but no longer an elite player. Braun’s numbers to date—he’s hitting .277 with 17 home runs and 74 RBIs. Let’s never again here the “he would have been good anyway” argument that gets thrown up the enablers of PED-using players. Clearly, the drugs are the difference between being good and great.
*Braun’s failure to play up to his $10 million per year contract would normally kill a small-market franchise, but the Brewers have gotten big-time production all year from Carlos Gomez in centerfield (.347 OBP/.483 slugging percentage) and catcher Jonathan Lucroy (.367/.481). Both players are showing a little bit of slippage though, and they need to find way to keep producing for one more month.
*The training staff in St. Louis is either the greatest in the world, or they notoriously overstate how bad injuries are. Yadier Molina is the latest to make a faster-than-expected recovery. The catcher, one expected to be out to mid-September at least, and possibly gone for the year, will make his return to the lineup tonight. This comes with the Cardinal offense already improving—they still rank 12th in the NL in runs scored, but that’s after a season mostly spent at 14th.
*Two big keys behind the pickup of the St. Louis offense are shortstop Jhonny Peralta and left fielder Matt Holliday. Peralta began to gain steam prior to the All-Star break after a terrible start, and now has a stat line of .339/.455. Holliday has been effective getting on base all year (.364 OBP), but has finally elevated his slugging percentage past the .400 mark. The Cardinal offense is still far from the force it’s been in recent years, but at least the lineup is no longer doing a fair imitation of the San Diego Padres.
*The trades to bolster the starting rotation have not worked. John Lackey has been disappointing, with five starts and a 4.50 ERA. Justin Masterson has been an absolute disaster, with a 7.43 ERA in his five times to the post. In fact, the Cleveland Indians, who dealt Masterson, appear to be the real beneficiary, as they’ve nudged back into the American League wild-card race since the deal. With Michael Wacha still rehabbing his shoulder, and Adam Wainwright struggling since the break. St. Louis’ starting pitching is in bad shape at a bad time.
*Your key under-the-radar contributor in Pittsburgh is third baseman Josh Harrison, at .338/.494. We’ve also seen a good year from Starling Marte in left, with a .349 OBP and Neil Walker continues to be a steady offensive producer at second base.
*Pittsburgh has had pitching problems all year, but perhaps their rotation is coming together while St. Louis’ falls apart. Gerrit Cole is back off the disabled list. Francisco Liriano has been better of late, and Vance Worley seems to have again found the form that made him a rising star in Philadelphia. In fact, every single Pirate starter has an ERA in the 3s. There’s no real ace, but Pittsburgh can expect to be in the game each night.
*Could Andrew McCutchen steal another MVP award? He’s not gotten a lot of media attention, with the focus going on Giancarlo Stanton in Miami and Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles. But what if the writers take their usual route of deciding they don’t want to vote for a player on a non-playoff team (presuming Stanton’s Marlins can’t make up the 5 ½ games separating them from the postseason) and they don’t want to vote for a pitcher? McCutchen, with shiny numbers of .402/.537, stands ready to win the award again if the Pirates at least get a wild-card.
At the start of the season, I picked St. Louis to win this division, Milwaukee to make the playoffs and Pittsburgh to be strong enough to get into the playoffs, but knocked out by the strength of the division’s schedule. If the Brewers and Cardinals just flip and the Pirates stay where they’re at, we’ll have an unprecedented situation—I’ll have been right. Just for that alone, I’ll stay with my preseason picks and call that as the final outcome, with Atlanta riding the weak NL East into the second wild-card slot.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
After twenty years of losing baseball and a September collapse last season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have their share of doubters. One of them has been TheSportsNotebook. I’ve resisted and resisted acknowledging this team, especially on my Monday podcasts with Pirate believer Greg DePalma, but here we are on the final day of June and coming into today’s games it’s the Pirates who have the best record in all of baseball.
My stubbornness over accepting the Pirates as a legit playoff contender is not about hostility—I lived in Pittsburgh for nine years, have great memories of it, and particularly love the idea of beautiful PNC Park being in the national spotlight. When I sat out at a mostly empty ballpark in the summer of the early ‘00s, I would think how fantastic this little gem on the Allegheny would be on a crisp October night with playoff baseball in town.
But sentiment can’t override analysis, and the Pirates earned the skepticism our MLB coverage has given them, particularly with their anemic offense last year that was unable to give any help to an embattled Andrew McCutchen down the stretch. This season though, Pittsburgh has put together a 50-30 record—an astonishing 101-win pace—through phenomenal pitching and an offense that’s improved just enough to keep scraping out wins.
SUPPORT FOR THE STAR
I don’t want to make it out like Pittsburgh is an offensive juggernaut—they’re still 10th in the National League in runs scored, but they’re piecing together enough help for McCutchen to at least get by. We can start with hot-hitting Pedro Alvarez at third base. Over the last month, Alvarez has hit 10 of his 20 home runs and also batted .330. His season-long on-base percentage is still pretty bad, and there are questions about how much he can contribute when the long balls hit a drought, but he’s become a big-time power bat in the middle of the lineup.
Neil Walker is the other end of the spectrum. The second baseman doesn’t have much power, but what he does do is consistently get on base—a .357 OBP and has a career track record that suggests he can sustain this for the balance of the season. Simply getting runners on base ahead of McCutchen will ease the burden the star felt last September, when he resembled Kevin Durant in the second round of this year’s NBA playoffs—someone who was giving his all, but was finally crushed under the weight of having to do it all.
Key supporting roles are played by veteran catcher Russell Martin and young left fielder Starling Marte, who each get on base consistently and provide a little bit of pop. Martin’s experience in handling pitchers, and also being in a clubhouse with expectations—the Yankees the past couple years—bring added intangibles to this roster.
The wild-card is young shortstop Jordy Mercier, who has replaced the offensively inept Jordy Mercier Clint Barmes. With a stat line of .326 on-base percentage/.451 slugging percentage, Mercier has made an instant impact on the lineup.
Oh, and McCutchen? He might not be putting up MVP numbers like this time last year, but at .358/.465 he’s enjoying another solid season and doing it a sustainable rate. Think of what might happen if he goes on a month-long offensive binge.
TOP-TO-BOTTOM PITCHING DOMINANCE
If I’d told you that when July began, the Pirates would have A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and James McDonald all on the disabled list, you’d have thought it would be a good time for the city to turn the page and get ready for football season. Not only is not the case, but Pittsburgh’s pitching is the best in the National League.
It starts with the Double L combo of Locke and Liriano. Jeff Locke has been a revelation, with a 2.06 ERA in 16 starts. Francisco Liriano has had a comeback year, with a 2.23 ERA in 10 starts. The club called up highly touted Gerrit Cole, and with a 3.74 ERA in his four trips to the post, Cole looks ready to be an immediate contributor to the rotation and the potential for even more. Jeanmar Gomez has pitched effectively, as has Charlie Morton.
We should note that Morton is just back from the DL himself, and Gomez did a short stint. The Pirates’ rotation has not had it easy, but they keep getting the job done.
And if you’re trailing the Pirates after five or six innings, you might as well shut it down. The bullpen is deep, with a balance of consistent pitchers and those who’ve been nothing less than outstanding. Bryan Morris, Vin Mazzaro, Justin Wilson and Tony Watson are all having good years. Mark Melancon, with an 0.92 ERA has been the best setup man in the league. And Jason Grilli, closing 27 of 28 save chances with a 1.77 ERA, needs to be in the MVP discussion.
The concerns would be this—Wilson, after a blazing start, has a 4.38 ERA in the last month and needs to settle back down. And then there are the injured arms. McDonald is going for a second opinion on his shoulder this week. We don’t know what the first opinion was, but if the pitcher is looking for another one, is it unreasonable to think he got some bad news? At this point, I don’t know if I count on having an effective McDonald back this year.
Rodriguez had pitched well in his 12 starts, but he had to be shut down again Saturday, continuing what’s been a troubled several weeks for him. We haven’t heard a report suggesting any long-term problems, but given the difficulty he’s had getting off the DL, and the fact he’s 34-years-old, I’d be a little nervous here. There’s not as much concern about Burnett. He’s recovering from a torn calf and will throw a simulated game this week. The team’s strong play has given them a cushion to avoid rushing the 36-year-old back into the rotation, but I think he holds the key to their ultimate postseason success.
WHERE IS THIS ALL GOING?
Did I say “ultimate postseason success” with the Pittsburgh Pirates? The implication being that there will finally be playoff baseball in the Steel City for the first time since 1992? Look, when a team is on a 100-win pace at the halfway point, I think basic respect requires you say they can advance into a 10-team bracket for a 30-team league. I still feel cold feet personally, but it would require a pretty substantial collapse to not at least pick up a wild-card.
It’s getting an NL Central title—and the assurance of a complete playoff series—that’s a bigger question. St. Louis won’t go anywhere quietly and is only a game back. Cincinnati is facing some obstacles, but Dusty Baker finds a way to get his teams in contention.
Pittsburgh probably still needs another bat—with Travis Snider having a lousy year in right field, that would be a good spot to add someone. But the foundation is much stronger this year than it was when they were looking to make moves last July. We can further add that after their home city watched the Penguins flame out in the NHL playoffs because they were all about flashy offense and not able to score, they might appreciate a team that’s good at preventing scoring.
I’m not ready to pick Pittsburgh over St. Louis in the NL Central, but yes, it’s time for us doubters to buy into the Pirates as a playoff team.
AROUND THE NL CENTRAL
St. Louis (49-31): On a pace close to 100 wins themselves, the Cards still have the league’s best offense and are close to the top in pitching.
Cincinnati (46-35): The problems with Johnny Cueto persist. He was sent to the disabled list for the third time this season with a lat injury sustained on Friday.
Chicago Cubs (34-45): Think if the Cubs actually had a bullpen. They’ve blown nearly half of their 33 save chances.
Milwaukee (32-47): Unsurprisingly, the injury to Ryan Braun, has hurt the Brewer offense, which is down to 11th in the league. And the pitching is still the NL’s worst.
The St. Louis Cardinals might be riding high with the best record in the National League, but there’s three worthy contenders right on their heels in the Central Division. Today, TheSportsNotebook will take a snapshot look at Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, assess how each has looked through the first 5 ½ weeks of the season and what might lie ahead. Today’s MLB coverage will lay out each team’s pros and cons and then move into an extended discussion of each.
PITTSBURGH (18-14, 2 games behind St. Louis) PROS: Bullpen great, power on offense, reasonably productive CONS: Problems with starting pitching and getting runners on base
The Pirates’ ‘pen was supposed to be a weak point after they traded closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox. But instead, the revamped bullpen is the biggest reason Pittsburgh is in second place coming into Wednesday’s games. The relievers’ ERA is fifth in the National League and more importantly, they’re closing out their save chances. Pittsburgh has nailed 14 of 17 save chances, well above the league average, which is two-thirds success.
Jason Grilli has been unhittable in the closer’s role, with Justin Wilson and Mark Melancon being the same in setup. Meanwhile, Hanrahan is struggling, and the Red Sox’ early success has come in spite of the former Pirate closer, rather than because of him.
The offense needed someone besides Andrew McCutchen to hit and 24-year-old Starling Marte has stepped up. With a .393/.524 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage, Marte is outperforming McCutchen in the early going. This is what Pittsburgh needs—while McCutchen is hardly performing badly (.331/.457), he’s not MVP-level. Last year the Pirates relied on McCutchen to be at MVP pace every month and when that predictably didn’t work out, he began to press and the offense completely tanked. This year’s team is also getting help from veteran catcher Russell Martin, over from the Yankees, and putting up a .362/.543 stat line in the early going.
What the offense does not do, however, is get runners on base consistently. While the team slugging percentage is a solid 6th in the National League, the on-base percentage is only 11th. It’s the latter that keeps you going during the inevitable stretches during the summer when power slumps. Pedro Alvarez has been a disaster at third, and even when he’s not, his value is hitting for power. Garrett Jones is the same at first base, and second baseman Neil Walker is hurt. Furthermore, even Marte’s high numbers are driven by his batting average of .325, rather than walks. That’s fine, but again, you need players who can draw walks to keep an offense up in down times.
And if the starting pitching does not improve, the offense will need to be kept up. While A.J. Burnett and the surprising Jeff Locke have been solid, James McDonald has been a disaster is now being sent to the disabled list. The big question mark right now is how effective will Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens be when they come off the DL over the next few weeks. Your answer to that probably determines your outlook on the 2013 Pirates. I’m pessimistic—this team has possibilities, but after last September I’ve really got them on the “prove it to me first before I believe” list.
CINCINNATI (19-15, 2 games back of St. Louis) Pros: Great pitching from start to finish, consistent runners on base and MVP candidates in the lineup. Cons: Lack of depth to the offense, very poor power early on.
The Reds are fourth in the National League in ERA, with the starters being even higher at second. This is in spite of Cy Young candidate Johnny Cueto being on the disabled list. Cincy already had a deep rotation, with Mat Latos stepping up to be great (2.23 ERA), Bronson Arroyo and Homer Bailey solid and Mike Leake serviceable. What they also got was a call-up in Tony Cingrani, who’s posted a 2.63 ERA in four starts.
Had Cincinnati kept to its original plan of moving Aroldis Chapman to the rotation, they would likely have never called up Cingrani, the pen would lack a closer—Chapman’s 7-for-7 on save chances—and it’s at least possible Chapman’s career would be negatively altered (see Daniel Bard, Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz). Give the Reds credit for at least recognizing their own stupidity and changing course.
Joey Votto is having a vintage year, with a .463/500 stat line—not to beat a dead horse here, but Votto draws walks. It’s why, even his power is a little down, with only four home runs, he remains a supremely productive offensive player. And I think it safe to say the home runs are going to come. Shin-Soo Choo has embraced his new team and new position in centerfield with a monster start, at .465/.587. Choo was a very underrated rightfielder across the state in Cleveland until injuries slowed him the last couple years. It’s easy to envision a dark-horse MVP run in hitter-friendly Cincy.
The problem the Reds have to deal with is an offense that’s only 10th in the National League in slugging percentage. When you consider how easily the ball flies out of Great American Ballpark, it makes you wonder just how bad the power showing would be if this team played in San Diego. Jay Bruce is the big culprit, with only one home run. Bruce is a streaky hitter and will likely get on a tear that will lift his numbers, and the team’s overall. But even during last year’s run to the NL Central title, the Reds’ slugging numbers were low for the park they’re in.
If you have to pick a weakness though, that’s the one to pick. It’s better to have great starting pitching, solid relief and a lineup that consistently puts runners on base, with a couple MVP-caliber players mixed in, and live with some low power totals across the board. It’s why, of the three teams under review today, Cincinnati is clearly the one with the brightest future over the next twenty weeks of the regular season.
MILWAUKEE (15-16, 4.5 games back of St. Louis)
Pros: Great offense in all phases, with young players performing and good veterans on the way back. Plus a late-inning combo in the bullpen. Cons: The pitching staff is a disaster for the first seven innings of a game.
Remember Jean Segura? He’s the minor league shortstop that was the focal point of the deal that shipped Zack Greinke to the Angels last year. Segura’s putting up huge numbers, at .384/.530, while Greinke is no longer with the Angels and on the disabled list. Someone in Anaheim needs to get fired and Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin deserves a big thumbs-up. Even allowing for the inevitable cool-down, Segura is a good defensive shortstop and has quickly established he can contribute with the bat.
Carlos Gomez is also tearing it up, at .412, and an otherworldly .636 slugging percentage. Ryan Braun continues to be steady, with a .410/.571 stat line that has him well on pace to be in the MVP conversation if voters overlook his latest controversy regarding PEDs (unlikely) and his team turns it around (up in the air). The Brewers rank in the National League’s top four in both OBP and slugging. Even if you allow some slumps from the players currently hitting, you can factor in better months ahead for Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy, each of whom are slow out of the gate.
When the offense can slug the team to a lead, the Brewers can turn to Tom Gorzelanny and new closer Jim Henderson to close the game out. But anything prior to these two is a complete crap-shoot. Actually that might be kind, because a crapshoot implies you don’t know what will happen, whereas the Brewer pitching staff has been predictably bad.
The team-wide number of worst ERA in the National League speaks for itself. We can add to this that John Axford has definitely proven that his masterful 2010 season as the closer was a fluke. He was awful last year and quickly lost his job to the flame-throwing Henderson this season. The rotation is 14th in the NL in starters’ ERA, with only Kyle Lohse pitching effectively. Yovani Gallardo has been mediocre, with only a DUI arrest being noteworthy in his early campaign.
Where the Brewers did get some help, was three nice starts by 25-year-old Hiram Burgos. Now the team is in the midst of a schedule stretch where they can get by on four starters due to off days, so manager Ron Roenicke has decided to skip Burgos. Let’s see if I’m following this—your rotation is a train wreck, you get a kid who comes up and starts pitching well, and the first chance you get, you bury him in the bullpen. Brilliant.
It’s the latest reason why I don’t see the Milwaukee pitching staff making this a playoff team. The offense will keep hitting and if Gallardo joins Lohse in making an effective 1-2, the Brewers can have a winning season, which probably keeps them on the fringes of the wild-card discussion throughout the summer. But I wouldn’t expect September baseball in my home area to have anything to dent the fanaticism for the Green Bay Packers when the time comes.
AROUND THE NATIONAL LEAGUE
NL EAST: Roy Halladay going to the disabled list is the big news here, but I wouldn’t write the Phillies off too quickly. They’re off to a slow start at 16-18, but still lurking behind Washington and Atlanta and any staff with Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee can keep a team in the wild-card conversation. Especially with Kyle Kendrick pitching well.
NL WEST: If you were in Las Vegas at the start of the season, I wonder what the odds were on the Colorado Rockies being in first place, and the Los Angeles Dodgers in last. Or the odds if you parlayed the two. After an offseason of trying to rival the Yankees in spending, the Dodgers are now trying to rival the Pinstripes in the length of the injury list.
The Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates, natural geographic rivals and playoff sparring partners in the 1970s, were each in last year’s NL Central race into August. They went in opposite directions, as the Reds blew away the division and the Pirates collapsed and remained in search of their first winning season since 1992. Today we’ll take a look at both teams, and continue the pattern of TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage and assess each team’s chances against their Over/Under win projection posted in Las Vegas.
Cincinnati is coming off a playoff disappointment. They lost three straight games at home to San Francisco, any one of which would have put them in the National League Championship Series. But there was no small amount of bad luck involved—ace pitcher Johnny Cueto was injured very early in Game 1 and unable to pitch in the series.
Cueto should have won the Cy Young Award last season and he anchors a good pitching staff that includes a solid #2 in Mat Latos, steady innings-eating veteran Bronson Arroyo, and up-and-comer Homer Bailey. This staff looks respectable enough on the surface, and when you consider they pitch in one of the most hitter-friendly parks in baseball, they look even better.
Manager Dusty Baker made a wise decision to keep closer Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen, rather than convert him to a starter—a path that has been nothing but disaster for pitchers like Joba Chamberlain, Daniel Bard and Neftali Feliz, and I frankly don’t even know why the Reds even toyed with the idea this spring, but at least they came to their senses. The pen in front of Chapman is led by Jonathan Broxton, who can also close, and a collection of respectable middle relievers like Sean Marshall and Jose Arredondo.
Joey Votto leads the lineup and the first baseman is reliable for an on-base percentage over .400, a slugging percentage in the high .500s (and perhaps over .600) and to be in the MVP conversation, so long as he’s healthy. He missed a couple months last year and it speaks well to the Reds’ depth that they pulled away in the NL Central race with Votto sidelined. The outfield has quality hitters at each spot in Ryan Ludwick, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce. Todd Frazier will have the third base job to himself with the departure of Scott Rolen, and has a proven ability to hit for power.
I’m not all that sold on the capabilities of second baseman Brandon Phillips. He had a career year back in 2011, but otherwise is mostly mediocre. Shortstop Zack Cozart broke into the majors last year, and needs to hit more consistently this season.
Cincinnati’s biggest weakness is a lack of players who get on base consistently, and I’m concerned about the possibility of long summer droughts offensively. I think this will be a good team and in contention throughout the year—starting pitching, a top closer and power will do that for you. But their win total is 91 and that’s a hefty number to take for a team I think will be up and down offensively. That’s why I go Under.
THE PROBLEMS IN PITTSBURGH
The collapse of the Pirates in September was a big free-fall and I’m not sure that the Buccos can get back up. I like their addition of Francisco Liriano to the starting rotation—he’s still only 29 and has time to save his career, but this is also a classic small-market move, of having to bet on a reclamation project. A.J. Burnett pitched well last season, but both he and Wandy Rodriguez are getting older. James McDonald is the pitcher I want to see really step up. He’s had a couple years in the low 4s with his ERA and he has the talent to make the next step and be a true horse.
But even if the pitching can keep the team in games through six innings, they’re still going to have to score and they’re still going to have finish games. I don’t see much reason for optimism on either count. Joel Hanrahan was dealt to Boston and the closer’s job is now Jason Grilli’s, who’s done nothing to suggest he can handle the role. And if he does, the depth in the pen took a hit with Grilli’s promotion.
Andrew McCutchen remains as good a player as there is in baseball, excelling in all phases, including defense out in centerfield. But he wore down last year because of a lack of help. Where’s the help coming from this year? Russell Martin can provide leadership behind the plate, but he didn’t hit in the Yankee lineup and he’s not about to start here. Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez give you home runs at the corner infield spots, but don’t get on base. Travis Snider was a nice pickup to play right field and at age 25, has an upside, and any hope for real offensive support has to start here.
I like this team, and after nine years living in Pittsburgh, I’d love to see PNC Park rocking in early October on a crisp fall night on the Allegheny River. But I don’t see it happening. Even with the win total a modest 77.5, I’m still taking the Under.