(Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug; opening image credit idahostatesman)
1. This could be the sweep that locks in a playoff spot for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and saves their September. After being swept and knocked out of first place by the St. Louis Cardinals- and heading to Arlington with a slumping rotation to face a high-powered Texas Rangers’ offense- the potential was easily there for a 7-game losing streak. With the suddenly hot Washington Nationals closing in fast, disaster awaited. Huge credit to the Pirates for stepping up against one of the best franchises in baseball in one of the most vital series of the year.
2. Speaking of the Nationals, they’re still within striking distance. The preseason World Series favorite has won 4 in a row, moving to 6 games over .500, only 6.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds (themselves 2 games behind the Pirates) for the final Wild Card spot. Granted, the Pirates or Reds would have to significantly collapse over the final 3 weeks of season, but Washington could easily push them right to October.
3. Recent waiver trade acquisition 1B Justin Morneau broke a noticeable 0-15 slump with a huge 4-5 performance during the series finale against the Rangers. The 6-4 lefty slugger is back up to a .796 OPS with the Pirates, though the surprising OF Alex Presley- traded to the Minnesota Twins for Morneau- is crushing AL pitching to the tune of an .870 OPS (138 OPS+) over his first 9 games in the Junior Circuit.
4. Still, Pirates’ fans shouldn’t worry too much over the loss of Presley. The 27-year old does have a career 101 OPS+ over 4 seasons, but stood no realistic chance at ever unseating MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen or Starling Marte in LF/CF, and didn’t possess enough power to ever hold down RF full-time. Hopefully, this is a “win-win” trade for both teams that won’t discourage the normally tight-fisted Twins from dealing with the Pirates in the future. Filling the needs of full-time 1B, left-handed power hitter, and established veteran, all without giving up a key prospect or young MLBer? GM Neal Huntington did well on this trade, regardless of how Presley continues to perform for the Twins.
5. Marlon Byrd. MARLON BYRD! Any fears fans had about the elder statesman 36-year old not maintaining his torrid production pace from the New York Mets while in the black-and-gold should be fully put to rest. Byrd is OPS’ing .852 as a Pirate, and has hit safely in 11 of his 14 games as a Bucco. Most importantly, Byrd solidified a revolving door RF in desperate need of power and stability.
6. Speaking of power, the Pirates suddenly have a bevy of hitters with 10 or more home runs. Pedro Alvarez (32), Byrd (22), McCutchen (19), Morneau (17), Russell Martin (13), Garrett Jones (13), John Buck (15), Marte (11), and Neil Walker (10). That’s 9 hitters on a team that normally has no more than 3 or 4 tops.
7. Is anyone else suddenly more worried about the starting pitching than they are the hitters? With Byrd and Morneau in the lineup nightly, Marte on the mend, and Jones and Sanchez properly bolstering the bench where they belong, the lineup seems capable of hanging with the majority of teams in the National League.
On the flip side, the rotation seems more volatile than ever. Ace Francisco Liriano just won his 16th game, but has alternated excellent starts with terrible ones. The 29-year old lefty hasn’t made it out of the 4th inning in 3 of his past 7 starts. While Liriano is probably still the leading candidate to pitch in a potential 1-game Wild Card playoff against the Reds, part of that is because there’s no clear-cut better option. Fellow ace A.J. Burnett, fresh off a complete verbal beatdown of teammate Clint Barmes, has given up 4 or 5 runs in 5 of his last 7 starts.
Rookie Gerrit Cole has surprisingly emerged as the most stable starter of the group. The former #1 overall pick has given up less than 4 runs in 15 of his 16 MLB starts, and has received national consideration from ESPN writer David Schoenfield as a viable candidate to take that rubber if the Wild Card game is the Pirates’ postseason destiny.
8. Jeff Locke has to find himself in a very small group of players to become an MLB All-Star, and be demoted to the minor leagues in the same season. While none can blame the Pirates for wanting to give Locke a few days away from the pressure at AA Altoona, the team certainly misses the dominant lefty from the first half of the season. Like Liriano, Locke has struggled to escape the early innings, and unlike Liriano, hasn’t made up for it in his other starts. Still the owner of an impressive 9-5, 3.23 ERA this season, one wonders whether Locke will be the odd man out if the Pirates are fortunate enough to reach the NL Divisional Round, and opt for a 4-man rotation.
9. Fellow former Atlanta Braves’ farmhand Charlie Morton- acquired along with Locke in the Nate McLouth trade of 2009- has been quietly consistent out of the back of the Pirates’ rotation. Outside of a disappointing 5-run outing during the Cardinals’ 3-game sweep of Pittsburgh, the 6’5″ guitar-playing righty has limited opponents to 2 runs or less in 6 of his last 7 starts.
10. Given the Pirates’ cautious handling of returning closer Jason Grilli, and multiple near-meltdowns during the team’s 3-game
sweep of the Rangers, one can’t help but wonder how the normally bullpen-philic Neal Huntington failed to acquire a high-end bullpen arm at the Trade Deadline or during the waiver trade period. The Pirates did add free agent Kyle Farnsworth, and the 37-year old veteran has been nearly perfect through 4 innings of relief thus far, but his velocity is down significantly from his prime (93-94mph now, down from 97-98mph years earlier), and Farnsworth did post a 5.76 ERA for Tampa Bay in 2013, prior to being released by the Rays in early August.
Can a young, largely untested bullpen with a rehabbing Grilli, 2nd chance for Farnsworth, and quietly steady current closer Mark Melancon hold together into October? Only time will tell. One thing that IS certain is that the Pirates’ 3-game sweep of the Rangers got the team that much closer to getting there. Thanks for reading.