You know that trope in movies where the guy wandering through the desert begins to get loopy from dehydration, sees an oasis that doesn’t exist, and dives in, only to find himself with a mouthful of sand? That’s kind of what has happened in the last two weeks for the Pirates. The oasis of being 4.5 games back from the Cubs was nothing but a mirage; a little more than two weeks later, the Pirates are 12.0 games back, only a smidge over .500, and have been left with a mouthful of sand in real danger of not making the playoffs this year.
If you’re feeling pessimistic about the Pirates right now, go read this Fangraphs article and wallow in your misery for a few minutes. If you’re optimistic about the Pirates right now (and good on you, Mr. Rose-Colored Glasses), go read this Fangraphs article and get yourself brought down to a point you haven’t been at in several years of watching Pirates baseball. The joke here, if you’re too lazy to click the links, is that it’s the same article, painting a detailed, bleak picture of the desolate wasteland that is the Pirates’ hopes for the season.
This seriously depressing article made me realize today that we’re about 40% of the way through the season, which seems like it can’t be true given the Pirates’ disappointing results thus far. Furthermore, Francisco Cervelli and Gerrit Cole are both injured and neither is in a position to easily make a comeback. Cervelli is out at least a month, and possibly more given his injury history. Cole will miss at least one start and things seem tenuous at best after that. Jameson Taillon will be called up to fill Cole’s shoes in the rotation, which is a downgrade that’s the opposite of the lift Taillon was intended to provide by moving Juan Nicasio to the bullpen. Francisco Liriano looks like his career might be over, Jeff Locke is still the most maddeningly inconsistent pitcher I’ve ever watched, and Andrew McCutchen is continuing to underperform well past the turning points he’s had in past seasons. Reverbations from the sum total of these effects (and others) include Erik Kratz getting playing time, Tyler Glasnow potentially being rushed to the Majors, and a totally lost-looking Liriano continuing to start games in the midst of a stretch against the very teams the Pirates are attempting to edge out for their fourth straight playoff berth. None of these personnel issues even acknowledge the fact that the team on the field, regardless of the individuals composing it, has played beyond poorly lately, most recently being swept by the Cardinals at home.
I’m not sure how bad this would seem if the Pirates played in, say, the AL Central, in which they would only be 3.5 games out of first place. The reality is that the Cubs juggernaut is their direct competitor for divisional supremacy, and that just puts the Pirates at a huge disadvantage that is mostly the fault of geography. Given that the odds of them winning the division are 26 times worse than hitting on a hard 20 in blackjack and pulling an ace, it seems out of reach at this point. And even the Wild Card, which we all know is a terrible prize for playing well all season, seems unlikely, with the Pirates sitting at a 13.5% chance for that “playoff spot.”
It seems if the Pirates are going to be real contenders this year, they’re going to have to do something different. That could be promoting all of their AAA arms, strengthening the bullpen with some of their starters, and hoping for the best. (This seems like a bad strategy, but could be one of those miracle stories that injects life into the team that they ride right into the playoffs.) They could also hope the offense plays even more strongly between now and tha All-Star break than they have been, leading to lots of high-scoring wins that they get despite their pitching. Or they could make some trades to bolster the rotation and bullpen, which seems the least likely given what they would have to give up; patching a boat with multiple holes the size of moon craters isn’t as cheap as acquiring a J.A. Happ that no one wants.
The trading option brings up another point: are the Pirates going to be buyers or sellers at the deadline this year? They certainly aren’t in a position to know the answer yet, but just the question of whether or not they should be one or the other is indicative of their plight compared with recent seasons. There are many timelines in which the Pirates flounder over the next month and end up being sellers at the deadline, shipping Mark Melancon and Neftali Feliz and David Freese and Sean Rodriguez off to teams in need of a boost into the playoffs. That could play out in the Pirates’ favor, as future years are projected to be better for them anyway (given the maturation of the young pitching and the security they have at most positions in the field), but it means that this season is the first in four years in which they won’t have made the playoffs.
I included “the slightest rays of hope” in the title because I think that there are some positives to be gained here. While the division is basically unattainable, the Wild Card is indeed in the cards… and the Pirates could very well find themselves with at least a chance at a real playoff series. People point out that the Mets/Nationals, Cardinals, and Dodgers/Giants make it a four-team race for two playoff spots, yet you could look at some of their situations negatively and easily find an argument for the Pirates making the playoffs. The Mets have more injuries than the Pirates and an offense that has been wildly ineffective, the Dodgers are underperforming outside of Clayton Kershaw, and the Cardinals are clearly not as good as in previous years and have many remaining matchups with the Pirates that could swing the Wild Card pendulum back to the Pirates side.
On a more basic level, though, don’t lose sight of the fact that the reason that any of this matters — the Cervelli and Cole injuries, the subpar rotation, the frustrating stretch of games recently — is because we’ve seen the Pirates make the playoffs three years in a row and expect them to do the same this year. Despite the fact that they aren’t in a good position right now, they also aren’t in a bad one and Pirates fans have plenty of things to look forward to. In addition to a potential race for a playoff spot, the emergence of Jameson Taillon and eventually Tyler Glasnow (and maybe Chad Kuhl, too) and the wear-down-the-opposing-pitcher, get-on-base offense are all exciting things that we have to look forward to for the rest of the season.
The Pirates take on the Mets from Citi Field tomorrow, and I’ll actually be in attendance at the game sitting in a box (for the first time ever, I might add, which should be cool as hell). I’m pretty damn excited to see the Pirates play, even if it’s under the shadow of the last two weeks. Maybe we’ll feel better in two more weeks and maybe we’ll feel worse, but I do know that this is still a team with something to play for and is therefore a team worth watching. Go Bucs, and I hope to god they figure something out to right the ship as quickly as possible.