Can a sweep save these Pirates?
Just like last year, the Pirates are in fourth place in the NL Central going into Game 93 with the first-place Milwaukee Brewers visiting PNC Park. Once again, this series could determine their trade-deadline stance.
The window is closing fast.
1. Drawing the line: Pirates general manager Neal Huntington on Sunday outlined the importance of this eight-game stretch of their home stand and whether they will be buyers or sellers. “You don’t want to overemphasize what a week can mean, but this is one of those weeks where 4-4 doesn’t do us a lot of good,” Huntington said. “We need to make up some ground in a short period of time, and we need to show we can continue to do that. Otherwise, we get to a point in time where we start to take a realistic look at this club and look at the young players we do like.”
After taking two of three against the Nationals, the Pirates need a strong showing in this five-game series against Milwaukee. A four-game sweep of the Brewers last year put the Pirates at .500 (48-48) and within three games of first place on July 20.
But Gregory Polanco was injured the following game at Colorado, and the Pirates lost eight of their next 10 games, traded reliever Tony Watson and finished 75-87. They start this series at 43-49 and 11.5 games out of first place, so even a sweep would have them in worse shape than a year ago.
2. By the numbers: On May 17, the Pirates and Brewers both had 26 wins and were tied for first place in the NL Central.
Since then, the Brewers are 29-20 while the Pirates are 17-32. The Brewers built their lead by going 19-8 in May. They are 19-17 since, including 12-13 last month. Despite having the NL’s best record (55-38), the Brewers are 2-3 against the Pirates and have been outscored, 21-12, in those five games. Then again, Milwaukee has been outscored by every NL Central opponent this season: 7-6 against the Cardinals, but outscored, 55-49; 7-3 against the Reds, but outscored, 48-43; and 3-8 against the Cubs, but outscored 36-16.
3. The Meadows mystery: On May 17, the Pirates promoted Austin Meadows to the majors, beginning one of the most confounding statistical sequences of the season. In his first 13 games, Meadows slashed .409/.426/.795 with four home runs and seven RBIs to earn NL rookie of the month honors. By June 22, Meadows was hitting .343 with five homers and 11 RBIs, drawing five walks while striking out 17 times.
But Gregory Polanco slumped at the plate and the Pirates’ pitching blew up, as they lost 10 of those games and 17 of the next 25.
In that stretch from May 18 until June 22, Polanco slashed .192/.316/.333 with one homer and 12 RBIs, with 14 walks and 23 strikeouts.
Since then, Polanco has surged by slashing .308/.390/.635 with four homers and 13 RBIs, seven walks and 15 strikeouts, while Meadows is struggling with a .217/.260/.261 slash line with no homers, two RBIs, two walks and 15 strikeouts.
In fairness to Meadows, he has started in only one of the past six games and has played mostly in a late-inning, pinch-hitting role.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise if/when the Pirates send him back to Triple-A Indianapolis to preserve his Super 2 status, which was the original plan all along.
4. A Brewers blueprint: Pirates owner Bob Nutting referenced Milwaukee this past February as a small-market team that slashed payroll and built a winner from within.
The Brewers splurged this offseason by signing center fielder Lorenzo Cain to a five-year, $80-million contract and trading with the Miami Marlins for left fielder Christian Yelich, who is making $7 million this season and is signed through 2021. Both were selected as All-Stars.
The Pirates, meantime, traded Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco and moved Starling Marte to center and dealt with Tampa Bay for left fielder Corey Dickerson, who is making $5.95 million this season and is eligible for another year of arbitration.
The differences aren’t drastic:
Player — BA/OBP/SLG — OPS — HR — RBI
Cain — .299/.402/.439 — .841 — 8 — 27
Yelich — .290/.362/.461 — .824 — 11 — 41
Marte — .282/.334/.468 — .803 — 11 — 40
Dickerson — .309/.344/.463 — .806 — 6 — 35
5. Optimism vs. Realism: When Huntington weighed those words, he might have been tipping his hand.
With attendance at PNC Park dropping from an average of 30,847 in 2015 to 17,595 this season, the Pirates are probably going to cut payroll – no matter how they fare against Milwaukee.
That’s where the Brewers have an advantage. Despite being a similar market size, they consistently outdraw the Pirates. In fact, Milwaukee’s average attendance (31,390) was greater than the Pirates (30.847) in 2015, when the Pirates won 98 games and the Brewers won 68.
The previous season, the Brewers were 82-80 but finished third, behind the wild-card Pirates (88-74). Milwaukee’s average attendance dipped by nearly 3,000 in 2016 but rebounded last year, when the Brewers won 86 games.
The Pirates should be shooting for a sweep, but, realistically, they should be bracing to become sellers.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.