Front and center


PITTSBURGH INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT – Howdy, folks. I’m awaiting my flight to Chicago and then rental car-ing it to Milwaukee and that little house of horrors known as Miller Park, where you might be aware the Pirates have struggled in recent years. The Pirates can’t afford for that trend to continue if they want to remain in the race.

The Pirates and Brewers have one key shared characteristic that has led to the Brewers’ success this year and the Pirates’ winning baseball over the last 1 1/2 seasons: they are both exceptionally strong up the middle as David Golebewieski noted in his series advance preview in today’s Trib.

The Pirates are third in baseball and first in the NL in WAR (11.8 this season) produced by their up the middle positions – center field, second base, shortstop and catcher. The Brewers’ center-of-the-field group (11.5 WAR) are one spot behind the Pirates.

Andrew McCutchen, Russell Martin, Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer represent impressive up-the-middle core, as is Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and Jean Segura for the Brewers.

Both teams are strong at positions that are hard to fill and weaker at positions, like first base, which are supposed to be easier to fill.

There’s one key long-term difference, though. The Brewers have one key up-the-middle piece locked up long term where the Pirate do not.

Lucroy is one of the game’s most valuable and under-appreciated stars and he’s locked up through 2017. He’s the Brewers’ Martin, an excellent pitcher-framer and all-around defensive catcher who is also enjoying a breakout offensive seasons. Lucroy is under contract for three more years to an extremely club-friendly deal. Martin is of course a free agent after the season.

Gomez and Segura are also locked up for multiple seasons as are McCutchen, Mercer and Walker for the Pirates, though Walker is only under contract for two more seasons and the club will soon have to make a decision on how important they view Walker.

There’s another important difference: the Brewers have a $103 million payroll in 2014, nearly $30 million more than the Pirates. To keep their strength together, to keep this impressive collection of up-the-middle-talent the Pirates will have to significantly bump their payroll as there is no immediate impact help in the minors at catcher. If the Brewers can spend $100 million on payroll then the Pirates can play in that neighborhood, too.

So enjoy this clash of impressive center-of-the-field cores while it lasts. If the Pirates lose Martin, the Brewers will gain a sizeable advantage going forward. It’s another reason keeping Martin is paramount.

– TS