Judging by the local hysteria following back-to-back losses in Colorado over the weekend, you’d think the Pittsburgh Pirates had dropped 10 in a row.
Was the start of their season-long 10-game road trip been disappointing? Yes, especially considering the Bucs scored a total of two runs in their first two games at Coors Field, despite being the top offense in baseball according to on-base percentage.
Is their overall away record of 22-28 discouraging? Sure, almost enough to completely neutralize their league-best 34-21 mark at PNC Park.
However, despite there being legitimate concerns about the Bucs’ ability to hang in the playoff race all summer long, this team is still as good of a bet as any to grab a wild-card spot or even win the National League Central.
Let’s start with the raw probabilities as of Tuesday. The division may still be a long shot, with the Pirates (56-49) two games behind first-place Milwaukee (59-48) and St. Louis (56-48) still hanging in second. On the other hand, Cincinnati (52-53) has fallen off the pace since the all-star break, leaving Pittsburgh with about 5-to-1 odds to win the Central, if you average the projections of FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus.
Those aren’t the sunniest numbers, but both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus have the Pirates’ making the playoffs at around a 40 percent probability. That adds up, considering they are a half-game out of the NL’s second wild-card position, with the Cardinals once again in between.
I mention all of this because it’s the last week of July, which means the MLB non-waiver trade deadline is looming. While it’s tempting to say that the Pirates have to make a major addition if they want to qualify for the playoffs, that’s simply not the case.
After overcoming an awful April, the Pirates have proven themselves to be one of the NL’s best teams. If you’d like a more recent sample size, they’re 14-9 in July and – even after a rough series in Denver – 7-3 since the all-star break. As I described last week, the Bucs are a different team from last year, but that doesn’t make them any less legitimate as a contender.
Even if we assume some of their NL rivals will improve by July 31, the Pirates have enough going for them that the final two months wouldn’t be a mismatch.
On the offensive side of things, Ike Davis is a known second-half player, Pedro Alvarez still hasn’t had one of his patented power surges and Gregory Polanco is maturing by the day. If Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Russell Martin can maintain some semblance of their current form, this is a dangerous lineup.
Pitching-wise, Francisco Liriano appears to be gaining steam, Charlie Morton has grown into a reliable commodity and Gerrit Cole is a potential ace-in-the-hole following his back rehab. In the bullpen, Tony Watson may be showing signs of slowing, but Justin Wilson is on an upward trajectory and Mark Melancon is as solid as ever on the back end.
With seven of the top 100 prospects on MLBPipeline.com‘s midseason rankings, the Pirates have chips to trade. But unless they have the chance to add a truly franchise-altering talent like Tampa Bay starter David Price, they would be better served hanging onto those and seeing how far this current group can take them.