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Monday Mop-Up Duty: what’s most surprising about 10-16?

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SOUTH HILLS – One of the questions on Final Word last night was the following: What is most surprising about the Pirates’ struggles to date this season?

To review, the Pirates are just a game ahead of the last-place Cubs and 8 1/2 games behind the surprising Brewers. The Pirates were never 8 1/2 games out of first place at any point last season. The Pirates have lost 13 of 17 games.  The Pirates’ poor play has come at a costly time as the first 26 games of the season were all intra-division. The Pirates’ first out-of-division game is tomorrow in Baltimore. 

Some of the early-season struggles are not surprising.

*We knew the bullpen was in for some regression. Jason Grilli didn’t blow a save opp until June 19th last season. He’s already blown three. He’s 37 and he’s somewhere many 37-year-old pitchers spend time: the disabled list.

*Francisco Liriano has never strung together back-to-back quality seasons. Even if you didn’t believe he’d revert back to his 2011-12 self, it was asking a lot for him to repeat 16-8 and 3.02 and Cy Young votes.

*We knew the offense was unlikely to suddenly become a dominant, consistent force with no offseason upgrades. The Pirates have more home runs than they did ago at this point, they’ve scored in  bunches at times, but they’ve also scored two or fewer runs in 14 of 26 games. (The Pirates have been hurt by some really bad BABIP luck, more on that later).

*We knew Starling Marte had swing-and-miss in his game, we knew Pedro Alvarez was capable of patience-testing streaks, and we knew many would eagerly be anticipating the callup of Gregory Polanco to solve the right-field situation.

Now the severity is unexpected in some areas, but I don’t think any of the above issues were unforeseen or unexpected.

I’d say one of the most unexpected area of struggles is at shortstop. The Pirates turned the position over to Jordy Mercer because of his promising bat and work against left-handed pitching last season. While Mercer’s defense has been acceptable, his bat has been empty. It’s been the most unexpected empty spot in a lineup with too many inconsistent at bats.  Mercer’s plate discipline has been stable compared to his 2013 rates and milb production. He hasn’t shown the pop he displayed a year ago and has driven the ball into the ground at a high rate (2.27 GB-to-FB ratio). He’s going to be better,  but his performance to date has been somewhat surprising. (Though you might remember someone here looking for a Stephen Drew platoon partner for Mercer this offseason).

What’s do you think is the most unexpected area of struggle?

The good news? It’s April 28th. There’s plenty of baseball to be played and plenty of time for Pirates to right themselves. Most every team has rough stretch like this at some point during the season… but the Pirates cannot afford another one.

STARTING NINE THOUGHTS …

9. It’s time to call up Gregory Polanco.

With Polanco it’s no longer about gaining an extra year of service time, which is the most important element in delaying a prospect’s arrival.  The Pirates have passed that threshold. Polanco will be under club control through 2012 whether he’s called up tomorrow or on June 16.

This is about Super 2 status, which is about saving several million dollars by avoiding a fourth year of arbitration owed to a player. I get it. Most teams would be following the same course, and if the Pirates were 16-10, it would make complete sense to wait.

But the Pirates have already eroded much of their margin for error. They need more run production. They need more table-setters for Andrew McCutchen.

Polanco is appears to be ready. It’s not just the dominant 90 plate appearances in Triple-A. It’s the dominant showing in winter ball and the precocious approach in Double-A last season. Polanco is ready.

He could provide a Wil Myers-like boost the Rays enjoyed last season. Not the same player, but an impact, in-house player nonetheless.

8. I think the Pirates can weather two weeks without Grilli. As for two weeks without Russell Martin … that’s  a big blow.

7.  Do you give the lion’s share of playing time to Chris Stewart or Tony Sanchez in Martin’s absence? Do you trade defense for offense? Perhaps the platoon should be in part based upon the speed of the other team. I’d also like to get a better understanding of where Sanchez’s pitch-framing and pitch-sequencing abilities are. I’m not sure we have enough sample to really have much of an understanding at present.

6.  How about some silver linings?

I thought Brandon Cumpton looked better than the brief bit of Cumpton we saw last season. Cumpton’s fastball sat 92-93 mph against the Reds last Thursday, up from his 91.4 mph average last season. He had good command of the pitch and wasn’t afraid to pitch inside. Moreover, his slider also generated some swings or misses. He earned another start and perhaps he or Jeff Locke will soon be displacing Wandy Rodriguez regardless

5. Speaking of Locke, I wonder if the lefty is adding a new skill: the strikeout.

Lost in Locke’s second half last season was that his strikeout rate spiked to above league-average at 8.1 k/9. His strikeout percentage jumped two points, too. Of course his command eroded.

In 23 minor league innings this April, Locke has a 26-to-5, strikeout-to-walk ratio. Sure, they’re minor league hitters but the numbers mean something and they’re better than any of his previous milb rates.

4. When is Neil Walker going to catch a break? .217 BABIP?

3. Speaking of BABIP, one reason things are going to get better for the Pirates is they have simply been victims of bad luck .  They’re 29th in baseball with a .259 BABIP. League average is just under .300. More hits will fall — or the Pirates will be the least fortunate team ever.

Remember, the Pirates rank sixth in home runs (28) in all of baseball and 11th in walk rate (8.4) those are important skill improvements. There’s more offensive production ahead. I’m not saying they’ll be the ’27 Yankees. But they’ll be better.

 

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What kind of sacrifice must the Pirates make at the altar of the BABIP gods?

 

2. I still believe Pedro Alvarez is an improved player. The walk rate is way up (12.1 percent), the strikeout rates is way down (23.4 percent). His BABIP is silly, low at .161. I’m still buying.

1. The last question on the Final Word last night was this: were the Pirates a fluke last year?

Were they going to repeat that bullpen performance? Those 94 wins? And their record in 1-run games? Of course not. They needed to do more this offseason to strengthen their roster they were due for the dreaded “R” word. But this is still a competitive team that has been hurt by some bad luck both BABIP and health wise. I’m not sure if they’ll be a playoff team again, perhaps unlikely in a really tough NL Central, but I do know better days are ahead in 2014. And some really good days are ahead beyond 2014 teams if the edges of the roster are well managed.

 

STAT OF THE WEEK: 37

NL-worst strikeouts by Marte. Time for a move down the lineup?

 

HE SAID IT

“When they told me Liriano was light-headed, I got light-headed, too,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

Liriano should be OK.

 

NON-BASEBALL RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK

Emerald-brand paint by Sherwin Williams.

I moved into a new South Hills residence this weekend and did about 24 hours of painting prior to the move in. I don’t have master brushstrokes but the matte-style Emerald paint has a really nice finish and makes a hack like myself even look quasi professional. It’s more expensive but it’s worth the extra dollars.

– TS

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