At the 2011 All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Pirates held a record of 47-43; they finished at 72-90.
In 2012, they improved to 48-37 at the break, but still finished below .500 at 79-83.
It’s 2013 and the Pirates have exceeded all expectations, sitting at 56-37 at the All-Star break. How will it end up? Is another collapse in store? Or will the streak finally end – maybe even… playoffs?
Here are 15 questions for the second half…
1. Can the pitching hold up?
The Pirates’ staff helped provide one of the best storylines in the first half of Major League Baseball. Without the superb pitching, the Bucs wouldn’t be anywhere near a record of 56-37. Among all 30 teams, the Pirates rank 1st in ERA, 1st in opponent batting average, and 2nd in WHIP. However, they must keep it up if they’re serious about contending. The 2011 and 2012 teams both saw their pitching staffs run out of gas down the stretch.
2. Can the offense improve?
While the Pirates rank highly in most pitching categories, the club ranks low in the hitting department. At the break, they’re 26th in batting average and 26th in runs scored. Assuming the pitching staff regresses a bit, the Bucco bats will have to pick up the slack and win some ballgames.
3. What will happen at the trade deadline?
In 2011, Neal Huntington acquired two veteran bats, Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, on deadline day. While the team was already falling off at that point, it was still nice to see the franchise in “buyer” mode for the first time since 1997, when the Freak Show picked up Shawon Dunston. In 2012, NH traded for Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider, and Gaby Sanchez in late July. With more confidence than the previous year, most fans and even some players were looking for an impact player to come to Pittsburgh at the deadline – but he never came. Now in 2013, it’s hard to say what will happen. It seems like the players are worried about the team’s chemistry and don’t want to change a thing. It’ll be interesting to see what unfolds in the next two weeks.
4. Will there be another 19 inning game?
Hopefully this question will be a resounding NO when it’s all said and done. Two years ago, it was the infamous Jerry Meals game – a devastating 4-3 loss against the Braves. Last year, it was a big 6-3 win against the Cardinals. Say what you will, but the numbers don’t lie: the Pirates went 19-43 after the 19 inning game in 2011 and 13-29 after the 19 inning game in 2012.
5. Can Andrew McCutchen finally have a good second half?
Back in February, we wondered if Cutch could avoid a second half breakdown this year. His play fell off after the All-Star break the past two seasons, so he’ll be a player to watch for the next couple months. McCutchen had a nice first half (.302/.376/.471) – hopefully he can build upon that.
6. Will we see Wandy Rodriguez again?
Wandy, 34, has dealt with a few injuries this year, slowing him down a bit. He’s posted a 3.66 ERA in his 25 career games with the Bucs, and they could certainly use his experience in the final months. His current injury status could determine whether or not the Pirates will pursue another arm at the deadline. If they feel he won’t be back in quite some time – if at all – another veteran pitcher could be brought to Pittsburgh.
7. Can Gerrit Cole contribute for the full stretch run?
Another determining factor for whether or not a pitcher will be acquired could be the team’s stance on Cole. They’ve said that they don’t plan on limiting his workload, but you never know what will happen. Plus, some fans are questioning whether or not the young stud is actually MLB ready – the .307 opponent batting average is particularly concerning. It’ll be interesting to see if Cole 45 can settle into a role and contribute through September.
8. Will Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano continue to dominate?
The two southpaws have been two of the biggest surprises in 2013. Locke (8-2, 2.15) was sent to the All-Star Game for his excellent first half, while Liriano (9-3, 2.00) was lights-out since making his Bucco debut in May. Locke & Liriano will be two huge keys to keep the rotation afloat in the second half.
9. Will the bullpen remain unstoppable?
Led by Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon, the Shark Tank has been a bright spot for the 2013 Pirates. They rank 2nd in ERA, 2nd in opponent batting average, and 1st in WHIP among all Major League bullpens. Just like the starting rotation, the Pirates’ ‘pen will need to continue their success if the club is serious about contending.
10. Can Michael McKenry figure things out?
Pittsburgh fans have quickly turned on The Fort, who’s been subpar throughout the 2013 campaign. Offensively, he’s hitting just .182 with a .549 OPS; defensively, he’s thrown out just 5 of 40 attempted base stealers. You can’t even put too much blame on the pitchers anymore, since Russell Martin has managed to throw out 22 of 46. Even though he’s just a backup, McKenry could be more important than you think in the second half. Every game will be important, and Martin won’t be capable of catching them all without seriously wearing down. The Fort needs to step up at the plate and behind it, or else the Bucs may need to give Tony Sanchez a try.
11. Who, if any one, will contribute from Class AAA?
This question particularly pertains to the month of September, when the rosters expand to allow 40 players. However, the Pirates could potentially dig into their farm system sooner than that, with a bit of depth at Triple-A Indianapolis. As we just noted, Tony Sanchez is available behind the plate, hitting .282 with an .866 OPS on the year. In the infield, Ivan De Jesus has had a really nice season at the dish (.332/.390/.481). Andrew Lambo has hit .280 with a .927 OPS since moving up to Indy, and some fans have already boarded the #FreeAndrewLambo train. On the mound, Andy Oliver, Brandon Cumpton, Duke Welker, and Vic Black are all 40-man rosters players who could be called up at anytime.
12. Will the Cardinals slow down?
It’s hard to believe that the Pirates could be on pace for 98 wins, yet still be in stuck in second place. Entering the second half, the St. Louis Cardinals own baseball’s best record at 57-36. Will they ever slow down? The Bucs will have their chances to shut down the Red Birds, starting with a crucial five-game series (five games in four days!) at the end of July. They’ll face each other another nine teams before the season’s end. Those 14 games could seriously dictate the Pirates’ playoff chances.
13. Can they hold off the Reds?
The Cincinnati Reds cooled off as they entered the break, but chances are pretty good that they’ll fight their way back. They’re currently 5.0 games out of first place and 4.0 games behind the Pirates, though that could all change as soon as this weekend – the Bucs will travel to Cincinnati for an important three-game set. They’ll see the Redlegs again for six games in September. That’s 23 games between the Reds and Cards, exactly one-third of the Pirates’ second half schedule. Buckle up.
14. Who will sneak up in the Wild Card race?
If the Cardinals keep a firm hold on the division lead, then the Pirates would have to settle for a Wild Card spot at best. They currently have a four-game lead over Cincy for the first WC, and Cincinnati has a five-game lead over Washington for the second. It’s a pretty big lead… for now. Keep an eye on the Nationals, Phillies, and Dodgers, who are all hovering around .500 and could make a run at the Wild Card.
15. Is this the year?
This is the main question that will be answered by the end of September. It seems like a vague question, but there’s so much meaning in those four words. Really, the Pirates have three options: 1) Collapse III, 2) Break .500 for the first time since 1992 but miss the playoffs, 3) Easily eclipse .500 and qualify for a postseason berth. At this point, any three of those three are possible. Another collapse doesn’t seem likely, but like we’ve seen the past two years, you can’t predict baseball. Hopefully the third time is a charm, and the Pirates finally have a great second half and finish over .500. The streak would be over then, but will that satisfy the team and its fans? Everyone wants more with the postseason in sight. As Mark Melancon said at the All-Star Game, “If we don’t get (to the playoffs), that would be devastating.”
It should be a fun, interesting, and crazy second half.
Enjoy these next 69 games – it may be one heck of a ride. The first taste of winning baseball in Pittsburgh since ’92? Yes, please.
You gotta believe.