It was the tale of two cities in Pittsburgh this weekend. On Sunday, the local hockey team won the Stanley Cup, reaching the highest heights an NHL team can manage, adding another championship to the cities storied legacy. But at the same time the Penguins were setting in motion plans for a parade, the Pirates were getting swept by their division-rival from St. Louis. At home, no less. And that wasn’t even the worst part of the weekend.
During Friday’s contest with the Cardinals, team-ace Gerrit Cole had to be lifted after two innings on the mound, leaving with what has only been called “triceps tightness” to this point, but is likely to force Cole to miss at least one start, if not land on the disabled list. Catcher Francisco Cervelli then left the game in the fourth inning after suffering a broken hamate bone; he’s out at least a month, and hamate injuries are known to sap power from hitters even after they return to the field. These were blows the team couldn’t really afford to suffer, especially given how the rest of the weekend went.
The three consecutive losses pushed the the Pirates record to 3-10 over their last 13 games, and since they play in the division with baseball’s behemoth, they now find themselves 12 games behind the Cubs in the NL Central race. It’s not fair to say that the Pirates chances to win the division have been completely destroyed by mid-June, but, well, there is this.
Our forecast gave the Pirates a 6% chance to win the NL Central on Opening Day, and that spiked up to 12% after the first week of the season. Since then, though, it’s been a steady decline downwards, as the Cubs have established themselves as a team likely to win 100 games or more, and the Pirates now find themselves just a game over .500 a little more than half the season to go. It’s not impossible for the Pirates to stage a miraculous comeback, but given where things stand now, our forecasts project them to finish 29 games out first place in their division. It’s probably fair for the Pirates to stop dreaming of stealing the division away from the Cubs this year.
And the sweep at the hands of the Cardinals did some pretty significant damage to their Wild Card chances as well. Sure, it’s just three games in June, but look what the weekend did to the respective Wild Card odds for STL and PIT.
The Pirates entered the weekend with a 25% shot at taking one of the two wild card spots; they leave the weekend with just a 14% chance, according to our forecasts. Getting swept by one of the teams you’re trying to beat out for a wild card spot is problematic, even in mid-summer, because it gives you three losses at the same time it gives your rival three wins. And, unfortunately for the Pirates, they don’t just have the Cardinals to run down.
Over in the NL East, the Nationals look like they’re well on their way to bouncing back from last year’s disappointing finish, so it looks likely that one of the two wild card berths will come from the NL East, as the Mets are likely still a 90 win team with upside beyond that, and won’t be easy to keep out of the postseason. Over in the NL West, the Giants are also off to a very strong start, and now project to win finish with 91 ones, which pushes the Dodgers into the Wild Card mix, and given their resources, it’s not too difficult to see them adding some big pieces to upgrade their roster for the stretch run. Toss in the Cardinals, and there are now three pretty tough Wild Card competitors ahead of Pittsburgh at the moment, not including the three division leaders who all look like good bets to make the postseason right now.
That puts the Pirates in the seventh position in a race for five spots, with the final two of those five postseason berths being significantly less valuable than the first three, and the team effectively out of the mix for one of the better playoff positions. And, at the same time they’ve fallen back from the pack, they’ve now lost their only reliable starting pitcher and their starting catcher, a guy who is at least partially responsible for the team’s recent success in making lemonade out of the team’s pitching acquisitions.
The injuries might even prove to be a bigger deal than the weekend losses. The Pirates rotation was already performing at some pretty low levels, and the long-standing hope for the season was that youngsters Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow could provide a summer boost by replacing the veteran placeholders and upgrading the talent level of the arms for the second half of the season. But now Taillon looks like he’s going to be replacing Cole for at least one turn through the rotation, and if his injury forces him to the DL, Taillon’s promotion will instead be a downgrade, not an upgrade.
Toss in Glasnow’s continuing command problems — his 13% walk rate in Triple-A makes it hard to project him to give the team’s rotation a big boost — and the team can’t really summon the cavalry to overhaul what has been one of the worst rotations in baseball to this point. With Francisco Liriano losing the strike zone and the team’s reclamation projects looking more rotten than just in need of some polish, it’s not that easy to see this Pirates rotation pitching the team back into the postseason mix. This would have to be a postseason run fueled by a high-octane offense.
And while the offense has been quite good, there are some concerns about how sustainable that is as well. Starling Marte is running a .415 BABIP, well beyond the reasonable range for even a speedy line-drive hitter. David Freese is at .397, and even as a guy with a track record for running high-BABIPs, that won’t last. The team has also gotten shockingly good production from Matt Joyce and Sean Rodriguez, and probably can’t expect those two to keep hitting like they have to this point. Sure, Andrew McCutchen should be better down the stretch and that improvement will help, but there are more guys likely to regress a bit than there are to improve, and so the offense is probably going to take a bit of a step back in the second half of the season.
Given the team’s current record and the recently developed health problems, the Pirates enter the summer trading season as a team on the bubble. On the one hand, there’s enough talent in place to see a Wild Card run as still easily attainable, and none of the three teams ahead of them in that race are running away with a playoff spot. But as the Pirates are too well aware of now, the value of reaching the Wild Card game is minimal compared to winning a division, as gaining entrance to an elimination game doesn’t put you in a great spot to make a deep postseason run. And if they ended up playing the Dodgers or Mets, they might be looking at a season-on-the-line affair where they had to beat Clayton Kershaw or Noah Syndergaard, so they probably wouldn’t be favored to advance past the play-in game anyway.
So given the disastrous weekend the Pirates just had, they should probably start laying the groundwork for what it would look like if they acted as sellers at the trade deadline. No, they don’t need to blow things up and rebuild, but they do have some pieces that would look like natural trade chips if they decided another playoff run wasn’t in the cards this year. Mark Melancon is a free agent at year’s end, and while his strikeout and groundball rates have gone the wrong way this year, his ERA is still shiny and he’s racking up the saves, so there will be a market for his services. Neftali Feliz would also be of use to team’s looking for bullpen upgrades, and like Melancon, the Pirates don’t control his rights beyond this season, so moving him is a pretty easy decision if they decide to pivot. The same goes for Freese and Rodriguez, who both could be nice role players for a team with a better shot at October.
With six weeks to go before they have to make the buy-or-sell decision, the Pirates don’t need to panic and rush into anything. But they just had about as bad a weekend as could be, and if Cole’s injury turns out to be serious, the ramifications of the losses on and off the field could end up pushing the team out of contention this year. They have time to turn things around, but the Pirates are going to have to get hot soon, or else they may be looking at shifting their perspective to 2017 in the not too distant future.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.