Pittsburgh Pirates: Can they make a playoff run

Pirates' closer Jason Grilli

Pirates’ closer Jason Grilli

April was a month that the Pittsburgh Pirates would like to forget, but despite a sluggish start the Buccos are 29-32 and are two games back in the National League Wild Card hunt. The starting rotation has been subpar, the bullpen had its struggles and many players had below average performances.

May was better for the Pirates and they are 5-2 thus far in June. A return to the playoffs isn’t such a farfetched idea if they continue playing good.

One reason for Pittsburgh’s recent success has been the play of utility man Josh Harrison. Right field was an area of concern going into the season that the Pirates failed to address. Both Jose Tabata and Travis Snider failed to perform early on.

Once the hard working Harrison was given a chance, he earned the right to play every day. The 26-year-old Cincinnati native is batting .308 with four home runs and 14 RBIs. He has had both big hits and clutch defensive times when the Buccos needed him most.

Harrison is currently on a 10-game hitting streak. He adds the speed at the top of the order and he gets on base, which the leadoff hitters failed to do early on. Harrison may not be the answer forever, but he is doing a good job until Gregory Polanco is ready.

Polanco is the Pirates future, and they expect big things out of him when he makes his big league debut. He will provide an immediate defensive upgrade, as his range and arm are strong assets.

Polanco is fast and should be a legitimate threat each time he reaches. This season he is posting a .350/.409/.547 in Triple-A Indianapolis. Realistically, Polanco won’t likely post those numbers with the Pirates, but he is expected to be a big upgrade.

Another reason for the Pirates’ turnaround has been the Shark Tank. Last season the bullpen was the backbone of team. Like much of the team they pitched poorly in April. Jason Grilli is healthy again and looks to be back to his pre-injury form.

Melancon was a little shaky at times, but he is right on as the set-up man again. Tony Watson has been brilliant. He has been virtually un-hittable. Justin Wilson is having a good season and Jared Hughes has been lights-out since his call up. Stomyl Pimmentel will be returning soon. The addition of Casey Sadler has even boosted the depth. If these guys maintain their pace, they can definitely anchor the Pirates into the post season.

Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen are both having All-Star seasons. Walker is having his best season in the majors, and he 11 home runs and 35 RBIs. McCutchen is batting .302 with seven homers and 28 RBIs. Pitchers are more cautious with him, which usually means the four and five hitters will often have someone with speed on the bases. In the last week, the MVP has going deep three times.

Shortstop has been an area of concern for the Pirates as well this season. Clint Barmes is batting .217 and Jordy Mercer was struggling with the bat all season. With the exception of Mercer’s error on Saturday, the two have been solid defensively.

Manager Clint Hurdle and the Pirates aren’t giving up on Mercer just yet, and he may be finally coming around with the bat. The short stop is batting .500 with two home runs over the last week.  His average is up .226, not great, but it’s getting there.

The first base combination of Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez has been quite a surprise for Pittsburgh.  Davis is struggling a little of late, but he has done well since coming over from New York. Sanchez is batting .265 with five home runs and 15 RBIs.

Pedro Alvarez’s numbers haven’t been pretty in 2014, but the big bull will eventually bust out. His strikeout rate is down some, and Alvarez has increased his average to .239 over the past week.  He has 11 home runs and 35 RBIs, but look for those numbers to drastically improve over the next few months. If El Torro can bat .250 and start going deep, that will drastically improve Pittsburgh’s post season chances.

The one area of concern for the Pirates is still the starting rotation. Last season’s starters carried Pittsburgh into the post season, but they have struggled tremendously in 2014. Wandy Rodriguez was a huge liability in April, and his release improves the rotation drastically. Brandon Cumpton struggled against the Dodgers last week but bounced back in his last outing. The right-hander went 5 1/3 innings surrendering three runs.

Francisco Liriano was slated to be the Pirates ace, but he has been far from that in 2014. His ERA is down to 3.80, but control continues to be an issue the left-hander. His last outing he gave up just one hit, which was a bunt base hit. However, he walked six. Liriano needs to get the walks under control.

Charlie Morton is another culprit of walks. He leads the majors in hit batsman, which has always been an issue. The walks are more frequent this year, and he hasn’t always got help from his teammates behind him. His ERA is 3.31 this year and if he can get the walks under control, he will give the Buccos a solid shot at racking up some wins.

Edison Volquez has been a nice surprise for Pittsburgh. In April, he was the team’s best pitcher but fell off some in May. Like many of the other starters, control was an issue. In his last four outings, he has pitched better but he has gone past six innings.

Gerrit Cole has played a big role in Pittsburgh’s turnaround. He has had his share of struggles this season, but his last two outings have been solid. The young right-hander has been credited to starting the Buccos recent hot streak. However, should fatigue will cause Cole to miss his next start and could land him on the disabled list.

The loss of Cole will hurt Pittsburgh, but Jeff Locke will get a chance to prove he is the All-Star from last season. He has been solid in in Indianapolis, and hopefully he can do better than his last appearance.

The Pirates have a long road ahead of them to make it back to the postseason but it’s not impossible. If the offense continues to produce and Polanco is as advertised when he makes his debut, that greatly improves the Pirates shot at playing in October.

The pitching staff needs to go deeper into games. They also need to have better control, but they aren’t as big of a concern as in April.

This team isn’t as good as last year, but they still have potential to get better and do big things.