With the addition of reliever Mark Melancon to the National League roster for the MLB All-Star Game, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ five-man contingent at Citi Field on Tuesday will be 60 percent pitchers. Even though injured starter Jeff Locke won’t participate, that ratio seems appropriate for a team that has ridden elite run prevention to a 56-37 record.
It’s even more fitting that two of the Pittsburgh five in New York this week are relievers, since the duo of Melancon (25 holds) and Jason Grilli (29 saves) have played primary roles in the Pirates’ 41-2 record when carrying a lead into the eighth inning. As the Baltimore Orioles demonstrated last summer, a lockdown bullpen can help a team squeeze every drop out of its talent level. An efficient defense – the Bucs lead the big leagues in converting batted balls into outs – can also maximize potential.
The Pirates have certainly done just that through three and a half months, as they’ve won an overwhelming majority of games they’ve had a chance to claim. There might have been one or two heartbreaking defeats squeezed into the opening 93 games, a remarkably small number considering the sample size.
Long-term statistical studies have indicated that a run saved is slightly better than a run scored, with stingy teams enjoying better-than-projected success more often than their slugging brethren. That fact bodes well for the Pirates in the final 69 contests, as they will never be confused with the “Lumber Company” Bucs of the 1970s or this year’s St. Louis Cardinals, to use a more relevant reference.
That offensive paucity has led many Pirates followers and media members to suggest the club should target a couple extra hitters as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. Names from the practical (Nate Schierholtz of the Cubs) to the intriguing (Alex Rios of the White Sox) to the fanciful (Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton) have been floated around in rumors and reports, and for good reason.
While incumbents like Russell Martin and Garrett Jones figure to improve in the unofficial second half, Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez could possibly regress, thus neutralizing any internal offensive boost. The addition of another competent bat or two would also have the welcomed effect of pushing Michael McKenry, Brandon Inge and Josh Harrison further down the depth chart – or completely off it.
But focusing solely on offense in potential trades would be a mistake for Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. Pittsburgh’s pitching has been dynamic overall, but the starters have laid too much work at the feet of the relievers too often. Additionally, zero Pirates starters have made every turn in the rotation, with Locke (one missed) and A.J. Burnett (three) the most reliable.
Although Francisco Liriano has emerged as this year’s ace and Gerrit Cole has provided some energy since his call-up, the Bucs can clearly afford to add another proven arm to the rotation. Last year, Huntington pulled the trigger on a deal that brought Wandy Rodriguez to town for B-level prospects; a similar move this year would be just as prudent.
If the Pirates are to compete for the division title, their pitching needs to remain among MLB’s best. Doing one thing better than everybody else can be quite powerful, so Huntington and his staff should do all they can to reinforce that strength.