23. Pittsburgh Pirates (20–24, minus-32, LT: 19)
For the coldest offensive team in baseball over the past two weeks and the third-lowest-scoring team in the NL overall, the news isn’t all bad. On the pitching side at least, good news might come in threes.
First, Gerrit Cole is back to being Gerrit Cole. The team’s most talented pitcher from the moment he made the Show in 2013, Cole took a step back last season, slowed by a combination of injuries, bad luck, and a lessened ability to miss bats that hiked his way all the way up to 4. This year, he’s up to his old tricks, reinvigorating his K rate (22.2%, compared to 19.4% in 2016) while also hiking his groundball rate to a career-high level (50.3%). Never a big changeup user in the majors, Cole’s throwing that pitch two-and-a-half-times more often this year than he did last year, and he’s snuffing out opponents with it, holding them to a .133 batting average.
Second, Felipe Rivero has quietly become one of the best relievers in the league. The fruit of last season’s Mark Melancon deadline deal, Rivero is that rarest of breeds, a left-hander who can touch triple digits with his fastball. Combine that pitch with a devastating changeup (opponents are batting .150 against it this season) and an unhittable slider (.000!), and the Pirates have a clear heir apparent to free-agent-to-be Tony Watson. Armed with a 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and a huge 61.4% groundball rate, Rivero is one role change away from becoming a star.
The third source of optimism is more of a wish right now. Jameson Taillon didn’t throw a single pitch in a game in 2014 or 2015, stacking Tommy John and hernia surgeries. He finally stuck with the big club last year, pitched well, then looked ready to build on his gains in 2017 ... until he learned earlier this month that he had testicular cancer. Now, less than three weeks after his most recent start, Taillon’s back on the field, playing catch and doing light cardio drills. There’s no firm timetable for his return. But if the Canadian right-hander can make it back to PNC Park this summer, that would be one of the better stories we’ll have heard all year. If he finds a way to quickly regain his impressive pitching form, that would be some spectacularly delicious icing on the cake.