While the Cardinals were busy sweeping the Cubs at Wrigley Field this week, thus preventing Chicago from socking away the NL Central before the All-Star break, the division's third postseason entrant from last season, the Pirates, continued their nosedive. Pittsburgh dropped three out of four at home to the Giants and has now lost 11 out of 13 and 20 out of 26 to plunge to 34-39 overall, 14 games out in the division and five back in the wild-card. More bad news: The Pirates' upcoming schedule will provide no relief. As July approaches, the Bucs are in serious jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time since 2012 and could even be forced into becoming sellers at the trade deadline.
Back on May 27, Pittsburgh was 28-19, just 4 1/2 games behind the Cubs' blistering pace and tied with the Mets atop the wild card race. Since then, the Pirates have won just one of the eight series they've played, taking two of three at home against New York earlier this month while losing series against the Rangers, Marlins, Angels, Cardinals, Mets (in New York), Cubs and Giants, with a makeup-game defeat in Colorado thrown in for good measure.
Back at PNC Park on Monday, Pittsburgh won the opener of its four-game series with the Giants, a 1-0 squeaker over Madison Bumgarner via backup catcher Erik Kratz's unlikely solo homer, his first hit as a Pirate, and one that leftfielder Angel Pagan gloved but could not hang onto. The next night found Kratz pitching mopup in a 15-4 blowout, one that made him the first player to pitch and catch for two teams in the same season since 1879. On Wednesday, the Bucs chased Jeff Samardzija by building a 6-1 lead through the first three innings, but Francisco Liriano and Jared Hughes frittered it away en route to a 7-6 loss, and then they fell 5-3 on Thursday.
Three factors have helped to fuel this latest slide: injuries, terrible starting pitching and the slump of Andrew McCutchen. In their June 10 series opener with the Cardinals, staff ace Gerrit Cole departed after facing one batter in the third inning with what was later diagnosed as a right triceps strain. In the fourth inning of that game, catcher Francisco Cervelli left in mid-plate appearance due to a broken hamate in his left hand, suffered while swinging. Pittsburgh went on to lose that game in the 12th inning.
Cervelli and Cole were both placed on the disabled list, and their absences are notable. Cervelli, who has struggled at the plate (.257/.373/.293) but been solid behind it (+4 Defensive Runs Saved, +6 framing runs via Baseball Prospectus) underwent surgery that will likely keep him out until late July. Chris Stewart (.205/.319/.282) and the recently-acquired Kratz (3-for-52 this year, including 1-for-23 since being acquired from the Astros) will share the catching duties in his absence.
Cole has since played catch but has yet to throw off a mound again, so he won't be ready to return after missing the minimum time, a major blow given the gap between his performance (2.77 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 67% quality start rate) and that of the rest of the rotation (5.12 ERA, 43% quality start rate). Among the Pirates' other starters, Liriano, Juan Nicasio, Jon Niese and Jeff Locke all have ERAs between 4.93 and 5.83, with FIPs in a similar range; the lowest home run and walk rates among that quintet both belong to Locke and neither (1.3 and 3.0 per nine) are good. Liriano and Nicasio have both whiffed 9.2 batters per nine innings, but that has been offset by homer rates of 1.6 and 1.7 per nine, respectively.
Twenty-four-year-old rookie Jameson Taillon has been the team's only reliable starter of late. The No. 2 pick of the 2010 draft, who didn't throw a competitive pitch in 2014 or '15 due to Tommy John surgery, has thrown two quality starts out of three turns. The rotation as a whole has a 7.58 ERA and 2.3 HR/9 in that span while averaging just 5.1 innings per turn. Overall, the unit ranks 12th in the NL in ERA (4.73) and 14th in FIP and home run rate (4.86 and 1.4 per nine, respectively). The bullpen has been similarly unimpressive, running 12th in ERA and FIP (4.35 and 4.44, respectively) and dead last in strikeout rate (7.1 per nine).
The Pirates do have one potential upgrade available in 22-year-old righty Tyler Glasnow, who placed between No. 6 and No. 14 on all four major prospect lists before the season and has posted a 1.61 ERA with 10.7 strikeouts per nine at Triple A Indianapolis. Despite not giving up a hit over 13 combined innings in his past two starts, Glasnow's command and control have been issues; he walked 11 while striking out 14 in those two outings and is sporting a walk rate of 5.0 per nine. Catcher Jacob Stallings, who caught Glasnow's first 14 starts in the minors, told the Pittsburgh Tribune's Rob Biertempfel, "[H]e's so tall (6' 8") and lanky that sometimes it's hard to get those body parts synced up consistently. I think that's what he's dealing with more than anything else, just learning how to grow into his body. His stuff is always there.” Said Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, "When you're averaging (five) walks a game, that's a number you have to pay attention to. He has to shave that down, because there are plenty of pitchers with big arms who get up here and that's part of the challenge.”
The Pirates' offense hasn't been much better, ranking 11th at 4.55 runs per game. On the positive side, corner outfielders Gregory Polanco (141 OPS+) and Starling Marte (133) have both come into their own, third baseman David Freese (133) has been a bargain and utilityman Jung-Ho Kang (135) has been outstanding since returning from last year's season-ending knee injury, tying for the team lead in homers (10). The catching corps and the middle infield of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer have been drags on the offense, but the biggest issue has been the production of McCutchen, whose .238/.315/.401 line, 93 OPS+ and 25% strikeout rate represent across-the-board career worsts, well below his pre-2016 marks of .298/.388/.496 with a 144 OPS+ and 17% K rate. Over his past 35 games dating back to May 15, he's hit just .216/.268/.302 with a 28% whiff rate.
On June 3, McCutchen revealed that he had been playing through inflammation in his right thumb for at least a week; on Saturday, the Tribune's Travis Sawchik reported that the base of McCutchen's thumb had at one point swollen to the size of a golf ball. While the 29-yaer-old centerfielder had previously pointed to his mechanics as the root of his offensive woes, he conceded, "I know[the thumb] probably has to do with how I've been doing out there."
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Pittsburgh's slide, the clarity of McCutchen's problems and the promotion of centerfield prospect Austin Meadows—the ninth pick of the 2013 draft and a consensus top-25 prospect this past spring—to Triple A on the heels of a 24-game hitting streak at Double A Altoona has kick-started a discussion regarding whether it's time to trade McCurchen. The 30-year-old former NL MVP has declined defensively (-25 DRS over the past 2 1/2 seasons, including -6 this year), and he's signed to a very club-friendly contract, making just $13 million this year with a $14 million guarantee for next year and a no-brainer $14.5 million club option for 2018. Even if he were dealing with a season-ending thumb injury, he would command a hefty multi-player return on the trade market this winter. If the issue is a transient one that could be aided by a brief stay on the DL and then a demonstrated uptick in performance, the return would be that much larger.
While the idea of trading McCutchen has been much-discussed in recent days, it makes little sense to deal him when his value is so depressed, even temporarily, particularly when a return to form would represent an instant upgrade that could help to turn the Pirates around. A long-term, nine-figure extension may not be in the cards given the Pirates' small-market status and the recent history of such deals, but there's no reason to make a panic move. Regarding the possibility of trading McCutchen, general manager Neal Huntington told ESPN's Jerry Crasnik on Thursday, "We hear the narrative. We're aware of the narrative. But it's not on our radar."
Yet Pittsburgh could still be a seller at the July 31 trade deadline if it can't arrest this slide. Jon Heyman of Today's Knuckleball reported that multiple teams have inquired about Liriano, with MLB com's Jon Morosi separately reporting the Orioles' interest. His $13 million per year price tag is affordable, so Huntington would probably have to be bowled over to move him. Closer Mark Melancon, a pending free agent making $9.65 million this year, would almost certainly be dealt in a sell-off, with their other free agents-to-be (Freese, Rodriguez and setup man Neftali Feliz) all representing inexpensive targets if that scenario comes to pass.
The Pirates don't have to commit to that route yet, but their stretch of games between here and July 17 is an imposing one, with series against the Dodgers, Mariners, A's, Cardinals, Cubs and Nationals; if Seattle pulls out of its six-game losing streak, then the A’s would be their only sub-.500 opponent in that stretch. In other words, this may be the Bucs' last chance to save their season.