Pittsburgh Pirates: Can Pirates hang with Reds all season long?

(Opening image credit idahostatesman)

Grilli; image credit zimbio

Pittsburgh Pirates’ closer Jason Grilli’s first blown save of the season eventually resulted in a disheartening 13th-inning, 2-1 loss to the Reds Wednesday night.  Still, the Pirates are currently leading the grudge-filled season series with Cincinnati 5 games to 4, and the current 4-game series has already whetted fans’ appetites for the 9 games that remain.  Of particular excitement is the fact that the Pirates play the Reds 6 times over the final 10 days of the season, which could be particularly epic if the Pirates can avoid a 3rd straight September collapse.

But does Pittsburgh have what it takes to stay hot on the Reds’ heels or even surpass Cincinnati over the summer?  Let’s break down each part of the team.


Starting Pitching:  Advantage Reds

It seems overly critical to give Cincinnati the nod here.  After all, the Pirates’ rotation leads all of MLB in shutouts (12) and BAA (.228) by a wide margin.  But unfortunately, the Reds’ are 2nd in both categories (9 shutouts, .238 BAA), and may boast more impact arms than the Buccos.  A healthy Pirates’ rotation will look something like this:

A.J. Burnett

Wandy Rodriguez (L)

Francisco Liriano (L)

Jeff Locke (L)

Gerrit Cole

…with the surprising Jeanmar Gomez, a recovering Charlie Morton, a big question mark in James McDonald, and mopup work from Brandon Cumpton.

Healthy and performing at current levels, that rotation is better than almost any in baseball, especially if the young guns of Locke and Cole can maintain their phenomenal work thus far.  But now take a look at the rotation of the Reds:

Jonny Cueto

Mat Latos

Homer Bailey

Bronson Arroyo

Mike Leake

Cingrani; Image credit cdn.turner.com

Not only is that rotation productive, but it’s so deep that rookie phenom (and the only potential southpaw of the bunch) Tony Cingrani (3-0, 3.10 ERA, 48 K in 40 IP) has been relegated to the bullpen for the time being.  In addition, outside of the 36-year old Arroyo, all of those pitchers are still in the primes of their careers production-wise, whereas the top 2 starters of the Pirates’ rotation are at least statistically beyond those peaks (Burnett, age 36 and Rodriguez, age 34).  The Reds are more likely to maintain this excellent pitching down the stretch.


Hitting:  Advantage Reds

Unfortunately for Pirates’ fans, the disparity between the NL Central rivals is far greater here.  As a team, the Reds are currently 9th in the Majors in runs; the Pirates, 24th.  The Reds have a +63 run differential; the Pirates only a +18 (which is substantially above the Pythagorean projection for a team currently 12 games over .500).  Cincinnati’s team OPS (.725) is 13th, while Pittsburgh is a disappointing 24th (.682).

Individually, the Reds’ lineup boasts the following productive bats (OPS in parentheses):

Joey Votto (.944)

Shin-Soo Choo (.891)

Jay Bruce (.823)

Xavier Paul (.788)

Todd Frazier (.763)

Brandon Phillips (.755)

Not only are 6 of 8 regulars above the .750 OPS benchmark, but the Reds boast 3 fairly elite bats in Votto, Choo, and Bruce.  The production of Pirates’ hitters has been stark in contrast:

Jordy Mercer (.819)

Gaby Sanchez (.802)

Andrew McCutchen (.796)

Russell Martin (.783)

Starling Marte (.769)

Alex Presley (.756)

1.  Note that the only Pirates’ hitters currently above .800 OPS’s are 1/2 of a platoon (Sanchez), and the surprising youngster (Mercer) who has yet to officially win over the SS job from the abysmal Clint Barmes.

2.  While many did not expect to see McCutchen contend for MVP honors year-in and year-out like 2012, Andrew is still well below his career OPS average (.853), which is hurting the team greatly.

Too many swings and misses this season; Image credit slewfooters

3.  Last year’s team home run leader Pedro Alvarez is nowhere on the list, due to an abysmal on-base % keeping his solid .441 slugging % in check, resulting in a disheartening .724 OPS.

4.  Also surprisingly absent from the list are consistent performers Garrett Jones (.743 OPS) and Neil Walker (.722).  Both are substantially below their career averages.

5.  It’s unlikely Alex Presley maintains this pace, and the sample sizes of Mercer and Marte are small enough that fans cannot bank on them continuing to produce at this level either.


Intangibles:  Advantage Even

Both benches are weak.  The Pirates may boast a slight bullpen edge, but based on age and past performance, it’s more likely that Reds’ flamethrowing beanball-machine Aroldis Chapman continues his dominance than the 36-year old Jason Grilli, a phenomenal story, and currently best closer in baseball, last night notwithstanding.  Neither rival should receive big boosts for the stretch run from their farm systems.  For the Pirates, SP Jameson Taillon (Baseball America #15 prospect) is a natural choice, but he has yet to pitch above AA, though his 2013 has been dominant, and a callup appears imminent.  Reds’ speedster SS/CF Billy Hamilton (BA #11 prospect) has struggled to reach base for AAA Louisville, but still boasts an outstanding 45 steals to date, while teammate at #94 prospect SP Daniel Corcino has been hammered by International League competition, to the tune of a 3-10 record, and 7.40 ERA.


Overall Advantage:  Cincinnati Reds

For the Pirates to continue to fight for the 1st (or more likely, 2nd) Wild Card spot with their NL Central rivals, a lot has to go right.  It’s likely that even including some regression to the norm, Pittsburgh’s rotation will continue to remain among the top 10 in all of baseball.  Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, and Locke have been phenomenal, and the depth of the rotation is far greater than it was the 2 previous seasons.  Consecutive injuries to Burnett and Rodriguez would’ve immediately imploded the 2012 team, but this year’s version hasn’t missed a beat.

A far greater Achilles’ heel lies in the Pirates’ hitters.  The Pirates arguably boast only 1 elite bat in Andrew McCutchen (as opposed to the Reds’ 3), and the fan favorite is well below his normal production, as are above average bats like Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, and Neil Walker.  And with Alvarez’s struggles to even reach base in 2013, there’s arguably not even a consistent middle of the order bat anywhere on this team.

General Manager Neal Huntington may have to seriously ante up this July for an elite difference-maker: not a fringy bat like last year’s acquisitions of Gaby Sanchez or Travis Snider, who, though they may produce from time-to-time, are ideally suited to bat 6th or 7th in a normal lineup.  A sexy idea surfacing on ESPN.com this morning involves the Pirates trading for young Miami powerhitting stud OF Giancarlo Stanton, whom the Marlins continue to dangle on the block for reasons unknown to anyone outside of Florida.

But the price of an elite bat is high, and Huntington may have to come to terms with dealing multiple quality prospects- including perhaps even Taillon- to add that evasive piece.  But with playoffs- and a potential end to the worst streak of sub-.500 futility in North American sports’ history- on the line, it may be a necessary tradeoff.

Thanks for reading.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=208685666&trk=nav_responsive_tab_profile Stephen Koenigsfeld

    Loved the piece. Very well written, had a nice flow and it was well researched. However, even after this latest series between the two, I’d say the Pirates have a much larger advantage in the pitching category. Cueto is just coming of the DL, and has been on and off that all season long. The Reds are also without set-up man Sean Marshall. That was one of the biggest blows to the rotation, besides Cueto. Other than that, you’ve hit the nail on the head with what you said about the rotation. I just feel like the streaks and results the Pirates pitchers are putting out right now tops the health of the Reds bullpen.

    • James Krug

      Great comment, and thanks for taking the time to read the article. I hope you’re right about the Pirates’ rotation for sure!

      In a thrown-together division with few natural rivalries, Pirates-Reds has been a real treat, especially this year.