Just a few weeks ago the Pittsburgh Pirates were sitting 15 games out of first place. Their bullpen was a disaster, the starters couldn’t get to the 6th inning and they stopped scoring runs. Between May 28th to June 23rd the Pirates went 6-20 and fell as much as 15 games behind the Chicago Cubs. Some writers began speculating that the Pirates might go into sell mode (including myself, I always panic too early) but then the Pirates took 3 of 4 from the Dodgers and then won 9 of 11 before the break, thus the Pirates go into the second half with hope. It’s highly unlikely the Cubs will continue their skid; they are far too talented, but if the Pirates are to catch the Cubs they will have to play consistent winning baseball down the stretch and pass the Cubs at the finish line.
The groundwork is there for the Pirates to have a big second half. The Pirates should be much healthier with Gerrit Cole coming back this weekend and battery mate Francisco Cervelli not far behind. Their young talent is already making an impact which we recently saw with Josh Bell’s 3 impressive at bats in the series versus the Cubs. They also have a favorable schedule ahead of them which includes a stretch where they play 18 out of 20 games against teams currently below .500. The recipe is there for the Buccos to make this race interesting but in order to catch the Cubs, the Pirates absolutely must have a few veterans play big in the second half and here we will look at the 5 most imporant players for the Pirates in the second half.
5. David Freese– One of the biggest surprises in the Pirates lineup this year has been Freese. The Pirates brought him in as a depth guy but Freese has far exceeded expectations this season. His numbers this year (1.9 WAR at the break) are virtually identical to his 2012 season in which he made the All-Star team with the Cardinals (3.8 WAR). There is some cause for concern though as his BABIP is 40 points higher than his career average and he is actually striking out at a higher rate this year than in previous years, Regardless, with Jung Ho Kang’s status up in the air due to the sexual assault allegations levied against him, Freese will be more important than ever to the Pirates success.
4. Andrew McCutchen– Yes I know, it would seem like Cutch will need to have a 2nd half for the ages for the Pirates to win the division, and he does need to play better but the Pirates have plenty of other guys that can pick up the slack offensively. McCutchen doesn’t need to be the MVP guy from 2013, he just needs to play better. He has shown signs of finding his stride. He had 6 hits in the series versus the Cubs including a double and two Home Runs. He has some momentum to take into the second half and one has to assume he will put up better numbers.
3. Francisco Liriano– Nobody on the Pirates pitching staff has been a bigger disappointment than Liriano. He entered the All-Star break with a 5.15 ERA (1.62 WHIP), has made it to the 6th inning just once in his last 7 starts and has walked 3 or more in 8 of his last 9 starts. On the bright side though, this first half struggle isn’t new for Liriano. In 2014, he entered the All-Star Break with a 4.72 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP but pitched lights out and finished with a 2.20 ERA in the second half. The Pirates will need a similar turnaround from Liriano in 2016 in order to chase down the Cubs
2. Tony Watson/Neftali Feliz– It might seem strange to put Watson/Feliz in this spot but when you look at the best stretches of baseball for the Pirates, the catalyst has often been a stable bullpen. During the rough stretch in May/June, the Pirates blew 5 games where they had a lead in the 5th inning or later and also dropped 2 games that were tied late. When the Pirates started winning games again, it was their bullpen that pitched a remarkable 35 innings of scoreless baseball. With a young, inconsistent rotation, the Pirates must win the games where they have the lead and Watson/Feliz are the catalysts to hold those leads.
1. Gerrit Cole– Regardless of how anyone else performs, if Gerrit Cole does not come back from his recent DL stint and pitch well, nothing will matter. The Pirates rotation is made up of unreliable veterans and young pitchers who can’t be counted on to go deep into ball games. The one thing the Pirates lacked during their 8 game skid was a stopper at pitcher. Who can they count on to end a 2 or 3 game skid the rest of the way? It has to be Cole. Who can they count on to go 7 innings when the bullpen is taxed from having to clean up after Jeff Locke or Francisco Liriano? It has to be Cole. He is the ace in the rotation and unless he is healthy and pitching at his best, there is no way the Pirates grab a playoff spot.