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Monday Morning Mop-Up Duty: a Collapse Trilogy?

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SAN DIEGO – So are the Pirates really on the precipice again?

 

Is this part of The Collapse Trilogy?

 

The Pirates have lost seven of nine. They are again struggling in August. There’s the whole Sports Illustrated cover jinx going on perhaps.

Charlie Brown Charlie Brown balloon floats at the 86th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 22, 2012 in New York City.

This sums up the Pirates’ circumstance since 1992 (Getty images)

 

Is Lucy about to pull the football away again?

 

No, I don’t think so.

 

Back away from the ledge. Eighty-two is going to happen, though that seems less important now. I still think the Pirates at least advance to play in the wild card play-in game. Baseball Prospectus has their playoff odds at 97.5 percent. They still have a 7.5 game lead over Arizona, which would be the first team out of the playoff dance if the season ended today.

 

I don’t think this is a collapse Part III because the pitching and the pitching depth is better (see: Charlie Morton on Sunday).

 

I don’t think this is the collapse Part III because the defense is legit.

 

I don’t think this is the collapse Part III because I don’t sense there’s anyone in the clubhouse inching toward the panic button.

 

But the Pirates are at risk of quickly losing grasp of a division lead. The Pirates’ lead over the Cardinals is down to a single game. The surging Reds are not to be forgotten and are only 2.5 back. And now the Pirates have to travel to the West Coast, which is always a difficult road trip. And, hey, the Giants did win the World Series this year.

 

I don’t think this is Collapse 3.0. But the Pirates are eroding their margin for error when it comes to contending for a division title. And playing a play-in game on the road, like at Cincy, is hardly ideal.

 

STARTING NINE

9. – It might be time for the Pirates to get serious about Justin Morneau.

 

Morneau has made it through waivers unclaimed. The Twins are free to trade their declining, but perhaps still useful, first baseman to any club.

 

Because of their offensive black hole at the right-side corner positions, one would think the Pirates would be exploring the possibility of adding anyone available, including Morneau, and the $4 million remaining on his contract. Morneau has homered six times in August and is batting .260. He has an .850 OPS in the month, but also a disturbingly low walk rate (2%). He has a .732 OPS on the season.

 

Still, a scout who spoke to CBSSports.com’s Danny Knobler suggets Morneau looks better.
“He’s swinging the bat much better than he was,” the scout said. “His body is more lively, too.”

 

Is his rebound for real? I have my doubts. He’s not the same player he was pre-concussion. But I think he’s worth a flier. He would come at a relatively low cost in terms of prospects.

 

Neal Huntington said Sunday the club is still seeking a bat. And said the waiver wire has been active.

 

9a. This is Team A’s offensive resume: 3.81 runs per game, .237 team batting average,  .296 on-base mark , 119 home runs.

 

This is Team B’s offensive resume:  3.90, .246 batting average, .313 on-base, and 117 home runs

 

Team A: is the Astros.

 

Team B: is the Pirates.

 

OK, so I did not adjust for parks and the Astros have the benefit of a DH, but the Astros are fielding essentially a lineup of Triple-A and Quadruple-A players … and Jose Altuve.  Can a team advance and succeed in October when it is hitting something like the Astros?

 

More balance, and perhaps a Morneau, are required. I don’t think Morneau is some sort of savior, but I don’t see any internal options for the Pirates either. (S0rry Andrew Lambo)

 

8. Not only would Morneau perhaps improve the first base situation where his left-handed swing would play nicely at PNC Park, but he could also help right field by shifting Garret Jones there to full-time duty. Jones is more comfortable in the outfield, it appears, and perhaps a more comfortable defensive player might result in a more productive offensive player.

 

7. Charlie Manuel was scapegoated by the Phillies this week. The Phillies didn’t have a Manuel problem they had a Ruben Amaro and baseball operations/developmental problem. A system bereft of young talent is their No. 1, No.2 and No. 3 concerns, not Manuel. If Manuel cannot find a managerial job, he would be an outstanding hitting coach somewhere. Before he became a manager in Cleveland, he was a regarded as a standout hitting coach with the Indians. Hitting coaches matter. Look at what George Brett did for Eric Hosmer in Kansas City this year. Look at how Robinson Cano developed under Kevin Long. Manuel will resurface somewhere, I think.

 

6. Jordy Mercer homered for the first time since June at St. Louis. I’m just not sure Mercer adds enough offensive value to start over Clint Barmes at shortstop, especially with so many groundball pitchers on the staff. Plus, Barmes’ leg-kick adjustment appears to have boosted his power. Barmes, to me, offers the superior package at short.  But there is role for Mercer, perhaps playing more 2B against left-handed pitching.

 

5. This is going to be a tough trip for the Pirates. The good news is the Pirates don’t travel to Coors Field on this road trip, where their brand of small ball is probably not best suited to the thin, mile-high air. Instead, they should welcome the heavy Marine Layer air and large ballparks in San Francisco and San Diego. The Pirates were built to play in such conditions.

 

 

4. If the Pirates should play in a playoff series, I get the sense Charlie Morton’s rotation candidacy has enjoyed a significant spike of support. Part of this is due to Jeff Locke’s recent performances, part of it is Morton’s improved consistency and part of it is the uncertainty regarding Wandy Rodriguez.

 

While a playoff rotation is heavily match-up dependent, this is my playoff rotation in a vacuum if a series started tomorrow: 1. Francisco Liriano, 2. A.J. Burnett, 3. Gerrit Cole, 4. Morton.

 

(Though I am intrigued with what Cole could do as a bullpen arm. Could he touch 103 mph? in short stints).

 

3. Is that all for the Andrew Lambo show? He can be recalled 10 days after his demotion. But it appears the Pirates are going to lean more defense and contact-hitting ability in right field.

 

2. Could Jose Tabata be a wild card? Clint Hurdle said Tabata’s “special” ability is to drive the ball the other way and we saw that with his opposite field home run Friday vs. Arizona. Tabata has never quite put it together but perhaps there is the possibility something clicks down the stretch.

 

1. Looking for a right fielder? Manny Ramirez is available (released by Texas earlier this week where he was with the Double-A club).

 

OK, just kidding. Sort of.

 

 

STAT THAT ONLY I MIGHT CARE ABOUT: 2

The Pirates have fallen from No. 1 in baseball defensive efficiency to number No. 2, trailing Oakland. The Pirates’ record of converting batted balls into outs has declined a couple percentage points. Meaningless? Perhaps. But might opponents also becoming aware of the Pirates’ extreme defensive shifting tendencies and beginning to use more whole-field approaches? I’m not sure. Just a thought.

 

MODEST PROPOSAL OF THE WEEK

Make an offer, when he becomes eligible to talk contract, to Cuban defector Jose Abreu. Yes, Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan is reporting the price could be $60 million for the slugger. Yes, the Pirates are not likely going to play ball in that territory. But consider this is a first baseman who some scouts think has more power than Yoenis Cespedes. Look at what Puig has meant to the Dodgers. The Pirates could make a Cespedes-like offer (4y/36 million). Because there’s still a lot of uncertainty involving Cuban players’ performance, perhaps Abreu will be undervalued, like Cespedes and Puig, and perhaps the Pirates can add an impact bat at a need position for 2014 and beyond at below market prices.

 

HE SAID IT

“We like him. It will be interesting to see where the bidding goes.”

Pirates GM Neal Huntington on Abreu

 

HE SAID IT II

“It’s not hard. It’s just another game.”

Andrew McCutchen to our Dejan Kovacevic after Sunday’s 16-inning loss to the Diamondbacks.

 

NON BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK:

Headlands Beach State Park. Mentor, Ohio

If you want to get in a beach trip before summer ends, and you don’t want to drive to the Jersey Shore, I’d recommend the 2.5 hour trip to Headlands Beach, the best Lake Erie has to offer. I believe it’s been named one of the top 10 freshwater beaches in North America. Free parking, grills for use, nice views, a wide beach and a fishing trail that takes you through some natural dunes. It’s not Southern California. But it’s a nice day trip.

 

-          TS

 

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Comments

  1. RobertoForever says:

    Travis,

    As usual, your Monday morning stuff is awesome. And i just got the chance to catch up on the last two weeks of the blog. Good stuff there as well. I hate when work interferes with my chance to read the Bucco Blog!

    A quick note on the Morneau / Jones connection. Garrett developed in the minors for the Twins at his natural position of first base. Played almost all of his minor league games there. He ONLY shifted to RF because Morneau was blocking him back then. It would be an interesting twist of fate to have that occur a SECOND time, and with a new team.

    Here’s hoping the Bucs can get back on the winning side in that huge ballpark in SD.

    PS – yesterday was Roberto’s birthday, he woukd have been 79. Thank goodness the streak will end before tarnishing his #

  2. NorthPirateFan says:

    The problem with the question about being on the precipice is that its predicated on the myth that the Pirates did in fact collapse the previous two seasons when they really didn’t. The Pirates record thus far is simply an anomaly, a mathematical quick as much a result of luck and schedule as it is their performance on the field … just as was in the previous two season.

    Teams with offenses as poor as the Pirates have had all season, and the resultant pathetic RS/RA differential that come with them, the past two seasons as well, have no business having let alone expecting to maintain a record of 26 games over .500. If they find themselves in that position at any point in the season as the Pirates did, it’s just dumb luck.

    The same dumb luck that is turning what were 1 and 2 run wins in the first half of the season in to 1 and 2 run losses just as the math would have told you it would without anything on the field having changed in the least. The Pirates are still near the top of the majors in pitching, just as they have been the past two season, and they’re still near the bottom in offense, just as they have been the past two season and those two facts will always conspire, just as they did in 2012 and 2012 to result in a final record much closer to .500 than they currently have.

    They still have time to capitalize on their good fortune in the first half if they move aggressively to upgrade the offense, but not much.

  3. BostonsCommon says:

    “Barmes, to me, offers the superior package at short. But there is role for Mercer, perhaps playing more 2B against left-handed pitching.”
    .
    I’m fine with this, and would probably welcome it. I don’t mind Walker being available to PH in clutch situations after the lefty starter has been removed as well.

  4. Michele Cardone says:

    Hi Travis, Great post – realistic, yet optimistic! I enjoyed talking with you during the plane ride on Sunday into San Francisco. Hope you’re enjoying your stay In San Diego. Bring the Buccos good luck and the beginning of a sweep on the west coast! Who knows – maybe I’ll run into you at ATandT park at Friday’s game against the Giants. We’ll be sitting near the Pirate dugout.

  5. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, Roberto. Interesting point on Jones. He does seem more comfortable to me in RF

  6. Travis Sawchik says:

    Agreed. I don’t think Walker should give up switch-hitting, but Hurdle feels Mercer is an asset against left-handed pitching, so it’s another way to get his bat in the lineup

  7. Travis Sawchik says:

    Michele, nice to meet you the other day and thanks for the post. Great seats in Frisco.

  8. Travis Sawchik says:

    North,
    Run differential is a useful tool and helpful in predictive uses … but I believe there’s studies that show teams with elite bullpens and defenses can out perform their pythagorean expectations because they are simply better in low-scoring, close games.

  9. BostonsCommon says:

    Mercer has an OPS of 1.120 against lefties this year. There is absolutely no justifiable excuse for him to not be in the lineup against them. Especially considering Walkers poor performance against LHP recently. It’s black and white and really should be a non-issue.

  10. Brendan says:

    BARMES VS. MERCER

    I’d be curious to dig a little deeper and see what difference in outcome has been w/ Mercer at SS rather than Barmes. In terms of BABIP, ERA, FIP, WPA, etc. As well as simply W-L (although there are obviously too many other factors involved in a win or loss for that to be especially meaningful).

    JOSE ABREU

    Of course it’s always easy to propose signing an expensive free-agent as solution to a teams woes, be they at one particular position or in general.

    I’m certainly not a fan of the Pirates spending a ton of money on long term free agent contracts. But Abreu is a bit younger than your typical big ticket free agent and he’d also cost less, relatively speaking.

    Obviously the particulars matter. The number of years, how the contract is structured, etc. As does the scouting evaluation. Based on his physicality Abreu could the the sort of player who doesn’t age–he’s bigger guy and not athletic enough to play anywhere but 1B or DH I don’t believe. He could also be Miguel Cabrera or Miguel Cabrera-lite. It seems hard to say through the hazy of fog of only vague anecdotal information.

    The bottom line I think is that if there’s an opportunity to add a player who could make an immediate impact at half the salary someone with his potential talent might command on the free agent market, the Pirates would be wise to pursue it aggressively, if there evaluation of him concurs with that description. Not only would that be huge on the field. But it would be a game changer in terms of how the Pirates are perceived, both in Pittsburgh and around the country, that shouldn’t be the main concern but it has undeniable value as well.

  11. jdk47 says:

    Start Barmes over Mercer? Are you nuts? Mercer is hitting .275 and has been just as good defensively as Barmes. And he’s been much better in the clutch. There’s no reason to sit Mercer now.

    And part of this team’s problem is exemplified by McCutchen’s quote about the loss. The only player on this team that hates to lose is AJ Burnett. Somebody needs to instill a sense of urgency in this team and make them realize there is no “tomorrow”. They can’t all sit around waiting for “somebody else” to pick them up at the plate and get a hit with RISP. Tomorrow is now and there needs to be some passion in the dugout.

 
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