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Pirates' playoff hopes take a big hit after Andrew McCutchen's injury

The Pirates have been one of the hottest teams in baseball over the past couple of months, going an NL-best 34-22 since the beginning of June to put themselves within striking distance in  the NL Central and Wild Card races. Alas, their push to secure a spot for a second straight season has taken a hit with the loss of Andrew McCutchen with an injury that could sideline him for three weeks to a month.

UPDATE: After further examination, the Pirates announced on Tuesday that McCutchen actually sustained a fractured rib, not a strained oblique. General manager Neal Huntington described the injury as an avulsion fracture involving the costochondral cartilage of his left 11th rib and said that McCutchen remains on the active roster while the team attempts to determine its course of action.

An avulsion fracture is one where part of a bone attached to cartilage, tendon or ligament pulls away from a larger mass of bone as a result of physical trauma. Furthermore, the 11th rib is a floating rib, one that attaches only to the vertebrae (in the back) but not the sternum (in the front). It's impossible to be certain, but the nature of McCutchen's injury increases the possibility that it was related to the retaliatory plunking he received the day before against Arizona, though it's worth noting that, via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Travis Sawchik, such injuries are related to twisting and torque. That raises the possibility that McCutchen'ssliding catch early in Saturday's game — the one in which he was hit by the pitch — may have been a factor.

While the Pirates remain optimistic for the moment, it's the severity of the injury that will determine McCutchen's absence. Orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Geir told Sawchik the injury could mean anything from a 1-2 week absence to a 4-6 week one.

McCutchen suffered the injury during the eighth inning of Sunday's game against the Diamondbacks. After hitting a game-tying sacrifice fly, he grabbed his left side while running down the baseline, slowed to a walk once the ball was caught, and was immediately taken to the clubhouse, as you can see from the video:

The injury came one day after the Diamondbacks plunked McCutchen in the back in the ninth inning of a blowout as part of their reheated attempt to exact retribution. On Friday, Pirates reliever Ernesto Frieri broke a bone in Paul Goldschmidt's left hand via an inside pitch that appeared to be an accident, whereas Diamondbacks reliever Randall Delgado appeared to act with intent, taking two shots at McCutchen separated by a breaking ball outside — the latest chapter of drama for a team whose tough-guy act has been known to misfire amid their continued losing.  

McCutchen's injury isn't directly attributable to the hit-by-pitch, but he didn't entirely dismiss the possibility that the two were related. Via's Tom Singer:

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As he stood from the chair in front of his locker, McCutchen hoped that the fastball off his spine in the eighth inning Saturday had nothing to do with triggering the left side discomfort that forced his exit in the eighth inning Sunday.

"I hope not, but it did hit me right in the spine… So it was tight, stiff a little bit. And I had to get a little bit of [pregame] treatment.

"But I went through my warmups fine, no issues, hitting and all that. It wasn't a major issue besides being bruised. But the side has never been a problem ever in my life, so I've never had to deal with this, so who knows."

Connected or not, McCutchen's injury is a huge blow to the Pirates. The reigning NL MVP is hitting .311/.411/.536, ranking in the league's top five in all three slash categories and running third with a 167 OPS+ — a slightly better line than the one with which he won the award last year. With 17 homers, he's closing in on last year's total of 21, and he's also stolen 17 bases in 18 attempts. His 5.2 WAR ranks fourth among NL position players, 0.4 behind injured league leader Troy Tulowitzki. It's not a stretch to say that an absence of a month is likely to cost him a shot at a second MVP award, though I'll leave it to colleague Cliff Corcoran to delve deeper into the matter in his next Awards Watch.

Of more importance is what the injury means for the Pirates, who at 59-52 came into Monday 1 1/2 games out of first place in the NL Central and half a game back in the Wild Card race. The team's offense has been among the league's best, ranking third in scoring (4.22 runs per game) and in a virtual tie for first in OPS+ (106) thanks to the league's top on-base percentage (.332). Fortunately, the Pirates do have the depth to withstand the injury better than most.

Starling Marte, who’s set to return from the seven-day concussion disabled list on Tuesday, is the likely choice to shift to center field in McCutchen's absence; he spent most of his time in the minors at the position and has made nine starts there in his three big league seasons. Rookie rightfielder Gregory Polanco played center for most of his time in the minors as well, though he has yet to do so in the majors. Either Travis Snider or Josh Harrison can play leftfield in place of Marte, though the latter had been seeing considerable time at third base lately given Pedro Alvarez's ongoing throwing problems, which have been so bad — he made his 22nd throwing error of the season on Saturday night — that the team is mulling a midseason move to first base.

While that juggling may provide better than replacement level production, none of those moves will fully replace McCutchen's big bat, and without him, manager Clint Hurdle loses a fair bit of flexibility with regard to his lineups and in-game maneuvers. The good news is that the team still has time to add players from outside the organization. Last year, general manager Neal Huntington added Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau during the August waiver period, and the pair helped the team secure its first playoff berth in 21 years.

Incidentally, Byrd (hitting .272/.320/.479 with 21 homers) was among several Phillies placed on waivers on Monday. Owed $8 million for next season, with an $8 million club option for 2016 that can vest, he may be too costly for the Pirates' purposes, but you can expect Huntington to augment his roster in response to the loss of his best player, as a failure to do so could wind up costing the Pirates another playoff berth.