It’s August 5th, the Pittsburgh Pirates have 57 games left to play and they currently own a record of 53-53. They are 12.5 games behind division leading Chicago Cubs and three games back of the St. Louis Cardinals for the 2nd Wild Card spot. The Pirates have made some confusing moves at the deadline putting their future into flux. GM Neal Huntington did not go into full sell or buy mode, instead he chose to sell pieces here and buy pieces there. He maintains that the Pirates are still focused on making the postseason. Is that really possible though, can the Pirates get back to Buctober?
To get an idea of how the pirates season will end we must look at a couple of factors: future schedule, opposing teams, recent trades, and of course the effect of baseball black magic.
The Pirates have not come out of the 2nd half gate strong, as they posses a 7-9 record post All-star break, but things could turn around. Seven of the last 16 series are to be played against teams with losing records (CIN, MIL, SD, and PHI), and only 3 series are to be played against division leaders (SFG, CHC, WAS). The remaining schedule is somewhat soft and provides opportunities to gain on teams that currently lead them in the wild card race.
The Bucs made some trades before the deadline, but none of them increase the likelihood of the Pirates reaching the postseason. They moved RP Mark Melancon to the Washington Nationals for RP Felipe Rivero and minor league pitcher Taylor Hearn. Melancon was likely going to leave the Pirates this offseason and it was a good move to get some value out of Melancon for the 2017 season, however it doesn’t help their chances this season. Obviously losing a closer is not a good idea if you plan to win games but the Pirates have a closer-in-waiting in Lefty Tony Watson. He may not be as good as Melancon but he will get the job done and the Pirates got a serviceable 7th inning arm in Rivero. This bullpen is not likely to make the Pirates drop out of the playoff race.
Starting pitching on the other hand may be the hole that sinks the playoff ship. The Pirates were able to trade two of their worst starting pitchers, Jon Niese and Francisco Liriano. Niese was already relegated to bullpen duty due to his ability to make any hitter look like Mark McGwire, and Liriano has been consistently walking every batter in sight (5.5 walks per nine innings), leading to an ERA of 5.46(FIP of 5.27). The cost and return of trading players has been covered here and here, and the general idea is that either unproven rookies (Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow, and Steven Brault) or inconsistent veterans (Jeff Locke and Ryan Vogelsong) will be tasked with playing much better than Liriano or Niese did this year. The good news is that the Bucs can run a 4 man rotation, with spot starts here and there, from now until almost the end of the season. The bad news is that four man rotation will probably look like this: Gerrit Cole (2.73 ERA), Taillon (3.52 ERA), Glasnow/Kuhl (depending on how well Glasnow recovers from his recent injury, 5.40/4.19 ERA), and either newly acquired Ivan Nova (4.90 ERA) or rookie Steven Brault (3.60 ERA). The rookies haven’t seen a lot of action yet, and those ERAs could drastically change, but the Pirates are betting on a lot of youth right now.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle to achieving a postseason berth is the opponents that Pittsburgh must overtake. The Cubs are one of the best teams in baseball at the moment, and they recently fixed their biggest weakness, the bullpen, by picking up flame-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman. This pickup likely slams the door shut on the Pirates’ chances of taking the division crown. The Cardinals have recently become a lesser threat due to the loss of their All-star SS Aledmys Diaz, however they should soon have their best player, 3B Matt Carpenter, back. No one should count them out. The New York Mets possess one of the most lethal rotations in baseball, but it is paired with a weak offense that just got better with RF Jay Bruce. The Miami Marlins have some prolific hitters and just got the speedy 2B Dee Gordon back from his PED suspension. Finally there’s the Los Angeles Dodgers, they have lost SP Clayton Kershaw for another month maybe even the year, but they did pick up RF Josh Reddick. The teams the Pirates have to surpass are vulnerable but not weak, and the same could be said of Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh’s rotation is suspect, but with the potential to be good if the rookies bring their excellent numbers from AAA to the majors. The offense is one of the top five in the NL, and that is with limited contributions from former-MVP Andrew McCutchen. If the current break in Atlanta resets McCutchen and he gets hot, then the chances at Buctober rocket upwards. The bullpen won’t be quite as lock-down as it has recently, but the offense could give the bullpen some large leads that will be hard to lose.
The black magic of baseball could play a huge a role in the success of the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates, as well. The Cubs are cursed, and although they have curse-breaker Theo Epstein, the billy goat may once again rear its head and provide an opportunity for the Pirates to swoop in. The Pirates also have to play at Miller Park six more times. They are 17-64 since 2007 at Milwaukee, so even the Brewers are bad you can basically write down 6 more losses for the Pirates (not including the sweep they experienced at Miller Park last weekend).
The predictions (ignoring any sort of catastrophic injuries)
- Worst Case: The rotation becomes an even bigger dumpster fire, as the rookies are too inexperienced and the reliance on Jeff Locke and Ivan Nova as the third and fourth starters keeps the offense from gaining any leads. Pirates fans feel like they are actually at a Pittsburgh Steelers game: 7-3, 10-7, 14-6. Pittsburgh has its first losing season in four years, and Pirate fans begin to secretly worry that another 20 years of losing lies ahead.
- Best Case: The Curse of the Billy Goat imbues the Pirates with spectacular levels of production from every aspect of the game, and the Bucs finish both August and September with a record of 40-17. The Cubs falter and have the biggest late season collapse since the 2011 Atlanta Braves. The Pirates win the NL Central for the first time and Pittsburgh rejoices shouting: WE DON’T HAVE TO PLAY IN THE WILDCARD!!!
- Actually possible: The front end of the rotation in Cole and Taillon find their stride, but the back end of Nova and pick-a-rookie make it hard to gain games on anyone. The offense keeps scoring, and McCutchen remembers how to hit for average, power, and finally cuts down on his strikeouts. Tony Watson proves to be a reliable closer, only blowing saves against potent offenses. The weak schedule helps the Pirates, although playing in Milwaukee is still hell on earth. By the end of the season, the Pirates finish with a record of 86-76 (6 losses coming at Miller Park), and have to play the New York Mets to determine who hosts the NL Wildcard game.