The Pirates are in last place, a position all-too-familiar to fans of this team since at least Barack Obama’s first term (and let’s be honest, what five year olds are reading this blog?). Not all last places are created equal, though. This year’s NL Central has been such a tightly contested race that the Pirates’ 28-35 record would be good for third place in the NL East despite that fact that they would be trailing the Nationals by 9.5 games instead of the 4.5 they are behind the Brewers right now.
Such are the vagaries of the baseball season. We’re almost 40% of the way through the season, yet one good week could turn the Pirates into division contenders. The Cubs have not replicated their GOAT defense and, as it turns out, putting a human fire hydrant who goes by the name Kyle Schwarber in the outfield may have something to do with that. (Couple his -2.0 Fangraphs Def rating with his .171/.295/.382 slash and you’ve basically got a pitcher playing left field…maybe Joe Maddon should just go back to that strategy.) The Reds and Cardinals are more or less what everyone thought they were going to be, with the Brewers a slight surprise. The Pirates have probably been the most disappointing team in the Central, if only because of off-field issue like Kang’s drinking and Marte’s steroids and Taillon’s cancer.
Just because the division has played out this way thus far is not to say that this is the new status quo — the Cubs will likely be more in line with their projections, Cardinals/Brewers/Reds notwithstanding, meaning the Pirates will have even more ground to cover as the season progresses. A door has been opened for them, though, and the mediocre play of their other division rivals has further enforced this point. Even though Fangraphs still only has the Pirates at 4.9% playoff odds, the weak play thus far in the division has inflated that number higher than it would be if the Buccos were playing in any other division in baseball.
All this is to say that every game matters, even this far away from September. Jameson Taillon is back tonight to take on the Rockies, which should hopefully give a big boost to the rotation if he can pitch near his previous levels. Starling Marte will be back around the All-Star break, which should bolster the outfield defense as well as provide a needed boost to the lineup.
Here’s the key point: the next month or so of the season will determine not only how this season shakes out for the Pirates, but their medium-term trajectory as a franchise. Players could get moved at the deadline in order to acquire higher level minor-league talent in an effort to reload for 2019 and beyond, when a Polanco-Marte-Meadows outfield will complement a Cole-Taillon-Nova-Glasnow(?) pitching staff and a strong infield that will hopefully include Jung-Ho Kang playing with Joshes Bell and Harrison. This future is a bright one, but having some additional pieces around these guys would be helpful, and whether the Pirates are buyers or sellers at this upcoming trade deadline will have a big impact on what the Pirates look like in the future.
The Pirates have a had a lot of bad breaks in a season which had the potential for a big breakout from a team finally assembled into a strong 25 man roster. Despite this, the wide-open division is something worth playing for while keeping an eye on the long-term implications of this year’s squad. It all starts tonight with Taillon’s start vs. the surging Rockies.