Analysis: Playoffs might be long shot, but Pirates can make moves to stay relevant
While the Pirates turn the page on the first half of the season, their biggest question is this (and there is no easy answer):
How do they become relevant over the next three months?
Fans love a pennant race, even a chase for a wild-card berth. But before Friday’s game at San Diego, which was the 81st of the season, the Pirates (38-42) were nine games behind the National League Central-leading Brewers.
Statistically, catching the Brewers is doable. Just pick up one game every nine outings, and you’re there.
Of course, we’re talking reality. That scenario doesn’t allow for any regression. Just in June, the Pirates lost three of four, five of six and five in a row (all separate stretches of bad baseball).
Plus, they are in fourth place, so it’s not just the Brewers, but the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, who have to cooperate by losing. And you can expect the Brewers and Cardinals to get better when they bring in veteran help prior to the July 31 trade deadline.
There also is little chance to earn a wild-card berth. The Pirates are closer to the last-place Cincinnati Reds (only 4 1⁄2 games ahead) than to the second wild-card team, the Phillies, who are 5 1⁄2 ahead. Just to get the Phillies, the Pirates need to climb over five other teams.
Unless the Pirates win 14 of the 16 games heading into the All-Star break, you’ll need to drive to Cleveland, Philadelphia or check out your local Little League to find some meaningful baseball.
What can the Pirates do to make staying engaged with the team worth the effort? Here are a couple of suggestions (two legitimate and one just for fun).
Keep playing Polanco
This would have been a highly unpopular opinion less than two weeks ago. Actually, it still is.
But every lineup needs a hammer, and Polanco, whether you like it or not, fills that role better than anyone on the team. He’s snapping out of his slump, getting 11 hits in 24 at-bats before Friday, including three home runs, a double and six RBIs. His average has jumped 26 points to .226, which is the highest it has been since May 18.
He’s going to strike out, and he’s going to slump. But he’s only 26 years old, and he’s the Pirates’ best long-ball threat, with 11.
If you play Polanco every day, Austin Meadows’ time will decrease, and there are some people who believe Meadows’ batting average has fallen from .409 at the beginning of the month to .314 because he’s not getting enough at-bats.
That’s a legitimate argument, but is .314 his major league ceiling, no matter how much playing time he gets? Meadows’ career minor league average is .292.
If the Pirates decide to seek a trade using one of their four outfielders as bait, either at the deadline or in the offseason, Corey Dickerson might be the choice over Polanco.
Make a trade
Sometimes, they even work out.
The Pirates have acquired eight players at the deadline the past two years, and four of them have brought value.
Ivan Nova has been a reliable starter most of the time, closer Felipe Vazquez has 15 saves and Altoona’s Taylor Hearn was named Friday to the Eastern League All-Star Game with the league’s eighth-best ERA (3.28). He is the organization’s 10th-best prospect, according to MLB.com.
The fourth player is infielder Oneil Cruz, 19, who was obtained from the Dodgers last year in the Tony Watson trade. Cruz (6-foot-6, 202 pounds) is hitting .306 with 10 homers, 44 RBIs and an .891 OPS with Single-A West Virginia.
Tim Tebow, anyone?
Actually, I was going to suggest (for laughs) trading for the Mets’ Double-A outfielder, who’s hitting .261, with five home runs and 30 RBIs in Binghamton, N.Y. He would put people in the seats for at least one game and provide a role model for young fans.
Then, I looked at his strikeout history: 88 in 236 plate appearances this season and 126 in 126 games last year. Really?
Plus, he’ll be 31 in August and never has played in the big leagues.
Uh, no thanks.