Are the Pirates a Sleeping Giant? or Just Another Team Having a Long Season?
Pittsburgh Pirates 2014
Three series wins followed by six series losses
The Pirates opened the season with back to back home series, against the Cubs to open the season and the Cardinals over the first weekend. Following this, they went on the road to Chicago to start a nine game road trip. Three straight series wins by the Pirates to start the season had them back on track to continue the success they had last season, but that lasted only nine games. The next 19 games have not been so kind to the Pirates, as they have now lost six straight series. They were swept in a rain re-scheduled double header that made up a two game series in Baltimore on Thursday, and that followed two series losses to the Brewers, one to the Cardinals and two to the Cincinnati Reds. They have won only four out of their past 19 games, which marks their worst stretch of baseball since their infamous collapse in September of 2012. For the past three seasons, the Pirates have played long stretches of good baseball only to finally stumble upon a stretch like the last 19 games. Now it remains to be seen if this rough stretch will end the Pirates season early, or if they can bounce back and put together months of good baseball.
Collapses from 2011 and 2012 avoided in 2013 until now
While the 2013 season may no longer be relevant to what the Pirates are doing in 2014, they still have largely the same core group of players from last year's team. The 2011 and 2012 seasons for the Pirates were going quite smoothly deep into the summer, until a downturn put an end to their success. In 2011 it was the month of August that marked the big nosedive in the Pirates season, as they won seven out of 27 games to fall out of the playoff race. In 2012 It was the month of September and a few games in October that marked the biggest downward trend in the Pirates season, as they won only nine out of 32 games during that stretch. In 2013 the Pirates were able to avoid a month like that, and as a result they qualified for the postseason. Since this is largely the same team however, they could have just put off their downturn by about a month, with it starting 10 games into April of the 2014 season. Without much veteran leadership in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, the Pirates young core group let their struggles last about 30 games in each season. While struggles are a part of the lengthy major league season, it is the good teams that have the veteran approach that allows them to break out of their struggles in a more timely fashion. As of right now, the Pirates have struggled for 19 straight games, so it will be interesting to see if they can break out of it quicker than they did in 2011 or 2012.
Can a dynamic rookie help his team break out of a funk?
In 2013 the Dodgers were in last place in the National League West at the start of June, but the call-up of 22 year old outfielder Yasiel Puig, helped them to turn their season around. The Pirates also have a 22 year old outfielder at triple-A, who is waiting to make his major league debut at some point this season. Right fielder Gregory Polanco has gotten a lot of headlines lately about how he is the next big thing in baseball. While Polanco's impact as an individual player, will probably not be the difference in win value that the Pirates need to get going, his presence as another great ballplayer on a talented team, could get his teammates going. Like Puig, Polanco not only brings a lot offensively but his defense and throwing arm in right field are exceptional as well. Polanco would likely bat near the top of the order for the Pirates, where his great on base skills and base running would be put to good use in giving McCutchen and Alvarez run production opportunities.
Much like the Dodgers last year, the Pirates have some of their pitchers who are underperforming or are dealing with some nagging injuries. The overall health and rejuvenation of the Dodgers allowed them to win 42 out of 50 games during the months of June and July last season. While it is unlikely to see such a spectacular and extended run again from a National League team this season, the Pirates have proved over the past three seasons that they are fully capable of playing extended stretches of good baseball. The Pirates have the run production talent on their roster, now they just need a glue player to help their lineup put it all together. From a pitching standpoint, Gregory Polanco will help his teammates on the mound to be more successful when opposing hitters try to drive the ball the other way. As a natural centerfielder with great speed, Polanco will be taking over a position that has some of the Pirates weakest defenders there as of right now. While Gregory Polanco may not be the answer to all the Pirates problems, his presence would have a positive effect on his teammates. When he is called up in June, it would not be surprising to see the Pirates start playing better from that point forward, if they have not already started to turn it around by then.
The loss of Jameson Taillon for 2014 makes the giant less threatening
During spring training, Jameson Taillon was sidelined with elbow pain and eventually decided to have Tommy John surgery in early April. Taillon like fellow prospect Polanco, was scheduled for a June 2014 debut. Before the Taillon injury, the Pirates had the luxury of adding two potential franchise pieces to their team midseason. With Taillon's injury that is now no longer the case. As a prospect for the Pirates, Jameson Taillon was similar to Gerrit Cole and he was projected to be at the top of the rotation for the Pirates with Cole for the forseeable future. Now that all has to wait a year, and the Pirates will have to turn to middle of the rotation type pitching prospects if they want to add midseason reinforcements to their pitching staff in 2014. Fortunately for the Pirates, they have Jeff Locke and Brandon Cumpton as middle of the rotation types who have big league experience, and Cumpton has already been called upon to replace the injured Wandy Rodriguez. They are also getting starting pitching prospect Casey Saddler some experience by having him pitch out of the big league bullpen here in the month of May. While the loss of Taillon for the 2014 season hurts the Pirates, they do have significant incumbent talent that can win games while pitching in the Pirates big league rotation this season.
While these extended stretches of bad baseball have plagued the Pirates in their recent years of relevancy, being an early season swoon makes it easier to recover from this time. The Pirates do not want to dig a hole too deep for themselves though, because a lot of teams are playing well in the National League to start the 2014 season. The arrival of Polanco will give the Pirates a lot of confidence moving forward, because at that point they will have all the available talent in place to try to make a run. In order for the Pirates to prove to everyone that they are a good team, they will need to break out of this early season slump as soon as possible so that they can start their start their signature stretch of good baseball for the season.