Team Profile – Pittsburgh Pirates
Fun Fact: from 1986-2005, Jim Leyland, Gene Lamont, and Lloyd McClendon managed the Pirates. All three men were then hired by the Detroit Tigers, together, in 2006, and still currently act as the managerial staff for that team. Ever since Leyland left as manager, the Pirates have been unbelievably bad, making them a perennial contender for last place in the N.L. Central. Things seem to be turning around the last couple seasons, though, because the Pirates suddenly find themselves in a situation where there are other teams much worse in the division. Can Pittsburgh succeed?
The Pirates’ starting rotation has been a mixed bag of success this season. At the top is James McDonald, but even a 2.51 ERA isn’t enough to mask the lack of run support that his 3-2 record suggests. The rest of the rotation has been less than stellar, with Charlie Morton, Kevin Correia, and A.J. Burnett all featuring ERAs well over four. Even Burnett (who was once a top-tier pitcher with the New York Yankees) has fallen on hard times. If Pitt is going to have any success, and keep up with the Cardinals as the season goes on, then it’ll be up to the starting rotation to put things together. If they can put things together, that is. An ERA over four isn’t going to come with a lot of success, especially in the National League (where it’s generally agreed that the hitters aren’t as dangerous).
The Pittsburgh offense isn’t that bad, actually – if they could provide the run support for their starters. Led by veteran Rod Barajas (whose thirteen-year career would be a boon to any team), the Pirates’ offense has some decent hitters at the top. Andrew McCutchen is batting an admirable .339 in the three-spot of the lineup. He’s been an all-star, he’s been an amazing centerfielder, and he’s provided some real pop in a lineup that’s otherwise average. Josh Harrison is also providing the table-setter bat that McCutchen needs ahead of him. I’m going to go on the record and say that Josh Harrison is an evil man that should be hated by everyone after he broke up Justin Verlander’s no-hitter in the ninth inning last weekend. Although, I’m sure he’s actually a nice enough guy. But I will never forgive him. Other than those two, however, the Pittsburgh lineup is barren of bats. Granted, even the most sluggish of bats can put a ball in play once in a while. And if all those slow bats get it together at the same time, they can put up a win here and there. But one win once in a while is not going to allow them to meet with a lot of success as the long season progresses.
The bullpen, on the other hand, has been a major boon for the Pirates. Brad Lincoln, Juan Cruz, and Jared Hughes are all doing an outstanding job. Lincoln’s ERA currently sits at 0.53, while Cruz and Hughes are at 1.08 and 1.19, respectively. Even the closer, Joel Hanrahan, is 10/11 in saves opportunities with a 2.87 ERA. Despite the shoddy performance by the rotation, and the hit-or-miss offense, the bullpen is really putting together a stellar season. But, that seems to be the case with a lot of teams this season. Perhaps this season is going to be the Year of the Bullpen. It’s a shame, because it’s often too easy to overlook the relievers that enter a game since they sometimes only appear for one batter.
The real surprise for this bullpen, in my opinion, is Jason Grilli. Grilli spent parts of 2005-2008 with the Detroit Tigers. In that time, Grilli always seemed like an arrogant prick, and before his departure in 2008, he had some words with Jim Leyland that didn’t exactly ingrain himself in the manager’s good graces. The Detroit fan base always loathed him for his lackluster pitching performances, yet he was run out there all the time. It would seem, however, that he’s found a niche in Pittsburgh, beginning the season with a 2.12 ERA out of the bullpen. If he can keep this up, he may just find himself a place on Team Italy in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, and a few more years of pitching in the majors.
Keys for Success
The first key is for the bullpen to continue doing what it’s doing. If that group can do this good (or close to it) for the rest of the season, then there will be some success for the Pirates. But the starting rotation needs to get a heck of a lot better first. Having three starters with ERAs over four is not going to lead to much success as things progress. The starting rotation needs to perform better, even if that means letting other parts of their games (like the batting that pitchers do in the National League) suffer a little bit more. If it means finding control and focus in pitching, then it’ll be worth it.
The bigger key is going to be taking advantage of the most recent injury to plague the division leader. With Lance Berkman going down for the Cardinals, it’s now or never for these other teams. A torn ACL will put Berkman out for the rest of the season in all likelihood, and that means that the biggest offensive threat in the Cards’ lineup is gone. If the Reds, Astros, and Pirates want to compete, they have to do it now. But, for Pittsburgh at least, that’ll depend 100% on the starting rotation.