Pittsburgh Pirates: Is NL Central Division Chase Already A Lost Cause?


May 3, 2015; St. Louis, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Jung Ho Kang (27) drops a fly ball hit by St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams (not pictured) during the second inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ latest frustrating series in St. Louis, it’s fair to ask the question: are this year’s Bucs already consigned to the National League wild-card race?

That thought may seem a bit ridiculous on May 4, but Sunday’s third consecutive excruciating loss at Busch Stadium dropped the Pirates under .500 at 12-13 and – more importantly –  6 1/2 games behind those infuriating Cardinals (18-6) for the lead in the NL Central.

To put it in more basic terms: the Pirates are going to have to be a full seven games better than the Cards over the rest of the season if they hope to claim a division title for the first time since 1992.

I don’t know about you, but that seems rather unlikely.

Yes, I realize that the Pirates were even further behind the Central-leading Brewers last year at this time, only to finish six games ahead of them by the end of the season. However, while the Bucs were at their best at the end of 2014, Milwaukee completely collapsed at the same time, accelerating the standings switch-up.

More from Pittsburgh Pirates

It’s not good policy to bank on the team ahead of you to fall apart, especially when that team is the Cardinals. Even without the services of the injured Adam Wainwright, there’s still more than enough depth in their starting rotation to prevent the type of long losing streaks that can melt a division lead away.

The Pirates have shown similar pitching aptitude, which in theory should keep them at least in the playoff race all summer long. At the same time, it’s tough to ask much more from the trio of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, even though Cole appears to be making the leap to ace status and the latter two keep getting swings and misses.

Considering the unpredictability of the position – or sports in general – you have to assume that any or all of Cole, Liriano and Burnett will suffer through at least one rough patch this season. That puts the onus on the offense to pick up the slack at some point.

The good news on that front is that several key players can’t hit much worse. That list starts with Andrew McCutchen (.291 on-base percentage, .598 on-base plus slugging), Josh Harrison (.220 OBP, .533 OPS) and Jordy Mercer (.282 OBP, .486 OPS), all of whom are well below their expected production levels.

But even if the lineup finds its 2014 form and the pitching continues to be great, it’s still improbable that the Pirates will be able to make up seven games on the Cardinals over the final five months of the campaign. And that’s not even mentioning the fast-starting Cubs (13-10), who are two games up on the Bucs even after losing a weekend series to the last-place Brewers.

As you’ve figured out by now, that means the Pirates may need to adjust the expressed goal they had at the start of the season (a division championship) and move it slightly downward toward the two NL wild-card spots. Entering Monday night, Pittsburgh is 1 1/2 games behind San Diego (14-12) for the league’s final playoff position.

I said a couple weeks ago that it was monumental for the Pirates to keep pace early this season if they hoped to reach their potential as a division champion. Following a sweep of the Diamondbacks eight days ago, it appeared that would be the case.

However, in the aftermath of a 1-5 week against the two teams ahead of them in the Central, the Bucs may already find themselves in a wild card-or-bust scenario.

More from City of Champions

Next: Final view of Steelers' draft weekend performance