July has come and gone and the Pirates continue to be right in the hunt. If the season ended today, the Pirates would make the playoffs as a wild card team. They hold a 3.5 game lead over St. Louis for the final spot. That is wonderful news. It makes me happy.
Yet, I also can’t help but think that this team isn’t as good as it has been playing. I hate thinking that way. But I can’t help it. While the offense took the first two months of the season to get going, the pitching was outstanding, finishing third in April in the league in ERA and following that up with a 6th place finish in May.
The pitching regressed to middle of the pack (9th in both June and July), while the offense woke up and finished first and third in the league in runs scored over the same time period
The path to get the current record is weird. I like the end results. But it makes me question the sustainability of the performance. What happens if/when the pitching remains middle of the pack and the offense falters? Can this team stay in the race? I think it can, but some things need to change. More on that in a second. Looking back at what I needed in July:
1. Clint Barmes starts fewer than five games in the month. That’s a miss. The Pirates played 26 games in July. Barmes started 22 of them. He should have started no more than four.
2. Pedro Alvarez posts a .950 OPS. He had a pretty good month, posting an .820 OPS. I think he will homer on Sunday in Cincinnati. He hasn’t homered since July 22nd. Hopefully the day game Sunday will set him off on a hot streak that carries the club. This is also a miss.
3. Jose Tabata posts an .800 OPS. Tabata is in Indy. With Starling Marte and Travis Snider, Tabata might not ever be a regular in Pittsburgh again. Pirate left fielders come into today’s game with the worst OPS in baseball. They are 18th in MLB in OPS among right fielders. I think it is reasonable to expect Marte and Snider to help. Hopefully that help will come in 2012. I count this one even.
4. No regression from the pitching staff. Pirate starters have had their ERA increase each month. It was 2.69 in April. Then it was 4.16 in May. In June it was 4.59. I said before I didn’t want it the ERA to climb over 4.75. It was a solid 4.41. That’s a mark in the positive column.
5. No injuries to Cutch. Thank goodness he hasn’t been injured. The fastball that Aroldis Chapman bounced off him was nearly enough to start a riot. Today’s game will be interesting. Cutch staying healthy in July is also in the positive column.
Two things that the Pirates should consider for August. Neither of these is all that surprising or original.
1. Bench Clint Barmes. It is simple. He is terrible. He has an OPS+ of 48. He has an OPS of .529. That OPS value would make him the worst offensive player in a full season since Alfredo Griffin’s .512 OPS in 1990. He should be part of the Sunday lineup and maybe a late inning defensive replacement. If they don’t release him, he should be a bench player in 2013. Let’s see what Jordy Mercer can do.
2. Bench Rod Barajas. It is simple. He is terrible and there is a better option sitting on the bench in Michael McKenry. Barajas has hit above .200 in just one month of the season. Since June 10th, he is hitting .129. He should be part of the Sunday lineup. His option should not be picked up for 2013.
The Pirates are essentially giving away six or seven outs every game that these two guys play. If you toss in another two or three outs from the ninth spot, then you have about 1/3 of the game given away. Count me shocked that the offense was as great as it was in June and July with these two guys taking part in the majority of the games.
The argument for veteran presence doesn’t hold water for me. These guys are all big boys and should be able to play without having to be guided by an aging, scrappy vet. Don’t tell me that Barajas has deftly handled the pitching staff. Both of those arguments are the kind of nonsense that sportswriters think make good copy and team PR departments blather on about to justify a pair of awful free agent signings.
If the Pirates miss the post-season by a couple of games in 2012, it’ll be awful. Two simple and obvious changes can be made that will almost certainly aid the cause. Will Clint Hurdle bench Barmes and Barajas? My guess is that he will not. But he definitely should.