Bucs Bits: Pirates News & Notes 1/9/15

Well, pitchers & catchers report to Bradenton in 40 days… Here are some Bucco notes to hold us over.

– Jung-Ho Kang is coming… As the January 20th deadline approaches, the Pirates are “close to a pact” with the 27-year-old Korean infielder, according to Jon Heyman.

[quote_simple]Kang had been thought to be seeking a four-year for about $5 million a year, and it appears the Pirates are amenable to the length of the deal as their interest is strong. They are also committed to the $5,002,015 bid fee already, presuming the deal gets done.

Kang’s agent Alan Nero recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “At this point, I feel confident we’ll come to an agreement. The process has been very positive.” [/quote_simple]

He could be a Pittsburgh Pirate at some point in the next week:

There are still a lot of question marks here, especially figuring out exactly where Kang fits. But it seems to be a good thing for now, if only for the fact that it can greatly improve the bottom of the team’s roster. A bench consisting of Kang, Corey Hart (1B), Sean Rodriguez (everywhere), Travis Snider (OF), and Chris Stewart (C) — to go along with an already solid lineup — sounds pretty good.

– Dejan Kovacevic has a nice bit in his Friday Insider about the transformation of the Pirates’ front office…

[quote_simple]“The change between then (2012) and now … it’s just amazing,” one U.S.-based scout was telling me Thursday. “You had battles between departments, people looking out for themselves, everyone heading their own way … it’s just not like that now. Now … you can just feel it … scouting and development are together, the way we analyze and evaluate and discuss things … everything’s out in the open. It’s been just a tremendous environment.”[/quote_simple]

– The Pirates signed two pitchers to minor league deals today with invites to spring training: Wilfredo Boscan (RHP) and Charlie Leesman (LHP).

– The team also invited a handful of their prospects to big league camp: Tyler Glasnow, Adrian Sampson, Stetson Allie, Mel Rojas Jr., Gift Ngoepe, and Keon Broxton.

– There were rumblings about this a few weeks ago, but Gaby Sanchez is officially playing in Japan this season. He’ll earn $2.5 million with the Rakuten Eagles.

– Speaking of 2014 Bucs no longer with the club, Jon Heyman says “things heating up” for free agent John Axford.

– In case you missed it, here’s how some of the Pittsburgh writers voted for the Hall of Fame.

87 days until Opening Day…

Go Bucs

Transaction Analysis: Pirates acquire Sean Rodriguez

After adding the likes of Justin Sellers, Jake Elmore, and Pedro Florimon earlier in the offseason, the Pirates acquired another utility man in Sean Rodriguez on Monday. Rodriguez was DFA’d by the Rays last week to make room for their latest signing, Ernesto Frieri (LOL). In exchange, the Bucs will send a player to be named later or cash to Tampa.

To fit S-Rod onto the 40-man roster, they designated Gaby Sanchez for assignment. More on that in a minute, but first let’s take a look at the newest Pirate.

Player Profile
Name: Sean John Rodriguez
Age: 29
Position: Utility
Height: 6’0″
Weight: 200 lbs.
Bats: Right
Throws: Right

2008 23 LAA 59 187 167 18 34 8 1 3 10 .204 .276 .317 .593 56
2009 24 LAA 12 29 25 4 5 0 0 2 4 .200 .276 .440 .716 85
2010 25 TBR 118 378 343 53 86 19 2 9 40 .251 .308 .397 .705 95
2011 26 TBR 131 436 373 45 83 20 3 8 36 .223 .323 .357 .679 93
2012 27 TBR 112 342 301 36 64 14 1 6 32 .213 .281 .326 .607 70
2013 28 TBR 96 222 195 21 48 10 1 5 23 .246 .320 .385 .704 97
2014 29 TBR 96 259 237 30 50 13 3 12 41 .211 .258 .443 .701 97
7 Yrs 624 1853 1641 207 370 84 11 45 186 .225 .297 .372 .670 86
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 12/1/2014.

Rodriguez posted strong minor league numbers (career .282/.381/.503), although they haven’t exactly translated to the majors. His stats certainly aren’t flashy, but he’s pretty much been a league-average hitter the past two years (by wRC+ and OPS+), which is decent enough for the backup utility man. Rodriguez’s minor league power showed up a bit last year as he popped 12 homers in 237 at-bats. NH said today, “There’s a little bit of thump off the bench there.”

sean rodriguez swing

On the defensive side of things, Rodriguez plays everywhere. The only positions he hasn’t tried in MLB: pitcher and catcher. The majority of his time has been spent in the infield, though he’s seen a decent amount of outfield action as well. He doesn’t have huge sample sizes, but the defensive metrics show he can be an average or formidable option at pretty much any spot.

sean rodriguez defense

He hasn’t had any major injury issues. The only time he spent on the disabled list was in 2012, after fracturing his hand punching a locker in Triple-A Durham.

Rodriguez is arbitration eligible for the final time in 2015, set to become a free agent after the season. He’s projected to make $2 million this winter.

So, what does it all mean…

It seems as though Rodriguez will be taking Josh Harrison‘s old role of super utility man, now that J-Hay is penciled in as the starter at 3B. S-Rod can give pretty much any player a day off at any given time, which is what Harrison was able to do last year before playing full-time. He probably won’t “wow” anyone with the bat, but he’s certainly a better option than the Michael Martinez/Jayson Nix types. The Pirates will still need one of those, though, to fill the final bench spot. It’s looking like Clint Barmes‘ days in the Burgh may be over, but I’d still probably re-sign him over the Florimon/Sellers/Elmore group.

The more interesting side of this is the DFA of Gaby Sanchez. He was a non-tender candidate (deadline on Tuesday), but it was starting to look like they were going to keep him as a right-handed complement to Pedro Alvarez at first base. He was pretty terrible after May last year and is now on the wrong side of 30, though he can still handle left-handed pitching. This could mean one of two things: 1) the Pirates are confident they will find a right-handed bat to spell Pedro at first vs. LHP or 2) they will roll with Pedro as the full-time starter. They didn’t platoon him at third base, but he’s inept against southpaws (career .196/.267/.321). Tony Sanchez isn’t an option: it seems pretty obvious what the Pirates think of him, he hated playing 1B for Indy and complained about it being “extremely boring”, and is only playing catcher right now in winter ball (even though it’s clear they’re going with Chris Stewart and Francisco Cervelli).

The roster is starting to take shape here. S-Rod is pretty much a lock for the bench, joining Stewart and Travis Snider. The last two spots will be interesting, but I’d expect a right-handed hitting first baseman and another backup infielder (rather than a fifth outfielder/Tabata).

You probably heard the report over the weekend: Frank Coonelly said the Pirates’ payroll should top $90 million. That’s classic PR talk, but the team should be held accountable here… There is a ton of money in the industry, and you’re kidding yourself if you don’t think the Pirates have money to spend. The counter argument is always “more spending doesn’t equal more wins,” but there is obviously a middle ground where spending can be both savvy and valuable in the win column…

In my opinion, they’re at a pretty critical point here. The NL Central won’t get easier: the Cardinals aren’t going away, the Brewers and Reds can still be tough, the Cubs are on the upswing. The Bucs have made the postseason two years in a row, but need to take the extra step towards becoming a championship-caliber team. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are at the prime of their careers, Starling Marte is coming into his own, Gregory Polanco and Josh Harrison will have the chance to prove themselves… the time to go for it is now.

The payroll is sitting around $70 mil right now when you add MLB Trade Rumors’ projected arb. numbers to the handful of guaranteed contracts. They certainly have room to grow, and hopefully that’s spent on pitching. Still waiting for a bigger move, but there’s plenty of offseason left. Maybe things will pick up as the Winter Meetings begin one week from today.

Go Bucs


The Best & Worst of July

Best & Worst of: April | May | June

Wow, August already … As we flip the calendar once again, the Pirates are officially 2/3 of the way through the 2014 campaign: 108 games down, 54 to go — four months down, two to go. The final-third of the year will be a big one, but before that, let’s look back at some of the best & worst for the Bucs in July…


Neil Walker

The Pittsburgh Kid probably wishes the month wasn’t coming to an end — he tore up July, hitting .316 with a .941 OPS. He crushed five home runs and knocked in 13, boasting a 166 wRC+ — best mark on the Pirates for the month and seventh best in the National League. Walker was one of 11 NL players to be worth 1+ wins above replacement in July. On the year, Walker’s 16 homers rank second among second basemen, and here’s how he compares to the rest of the field in wRC+

1. Robinson Cano, 135
2. Walker, 134
3. Jose Altuve, 130
4. Ben Zobrist, 125
5. Daniel Murphy, 118
6. Chase Utley, 118
7. Dee Gordon, 112
8. Brian Dozier, 112
9. Howie Kendrick, 110
10. Ian Kinsler, 106

Jordy Mercer

Walker’s middle infield partner, Jordy Mercer, also had a great month at the plate. His power was down after a surge in June, but he managed to slash .319/.385/.440 while appearing in all 26 July games. His role has increased even more since Clint Barmes strained his groin, leaving Michael Martinez on the bench behind him. Mercer’s looked a lot better on both sides of the ball recently — heating up with the bat after a very slow start, and making plays with the glove despite being given a bad rep for his defense in the past.

Russell Martin

Another good month for the Bucco backstop — he hit .306 with a .409 on-base percentage in 22 games. That .409 OBP was second best among catchers in July, behind only Kurt Suzuki (who signed a two-year extension with Minnesota yesterday, leaving Martin as the only legit option on the free agent market for 2015). Russ threw out 48% of base stealers in July (10 of 21), improving his caught stealing rate to 38% on the year.

Travis Snider

Credit where credit is due. He only started four times in July and made just 31 trips to the plate, but hit .393/.452/.750. Snider went deep in three straight games he appeared in: almost clearing everything at PNC Park last Wednesday vs. LA, a big pinch-hit homer on Sunday at Coors Field, and then a shot at AT&T Park on Tuesday vs. Tim Hudson. Snider’s become a useful left-handed bat off the bench, hitting .279/.367/.465 in 49 pinch-hit appearances this season.

Francisco Liriano

He was shaky in his return game from the DL, but has been really solid since. Overall, just five earned runs in 23 innings (1.96 ERA), pulling his earned run average under 4.00 for the year and providing some hope for the stretch run.

Jared Hughes

Hughes was a horse in July, working in 13 of 26 games. And the best part? He surrendered only one run. His low strikeout and BABIP rates suggest he might falter sooner or later, but for now, Hughes has been a reliable arm out of the pen.

The All-Stars

Congrats to Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison, and Tony Watson on making the NL All-Star team. Clint Hurdle coached alongside Mike Matheny, Cutch started the game, J-Hay came off the bench, and Watson retired the only batter he faced (Jose Abreu), so the Bucs were well represented at the Midsummer Classic.

The Volquez Complete Game

Edinson Volquez was “the stopper” on July 10th, as he prevented the Bucs from being swept in St. Louis. He hurled a 114-pitch complete game, allowing one run on six hits. The performance was worth a Game Score of 74, his best in nearly two years.

The July 1st Comeback

After being shut down by Wade Miley through the first eight innings, the Bucs stormed back to score three runs in the ninth and top the D-backs by a score of 3-2. Click here to refresh your memory.

The Sweeps

Entering July without a sweep on the year, the Pirates took care of that twice, sweeping the Phillies and Rockies at PNC Park.


Gregory Polanco

His first month in the big leagues? Great. His second? Not so much. July was a forgettable one for the rook, as he batted just .214 with a .596 OPS. His walk rate went down and the strikeout rate shot up, as he buried himself in multiple slumps. Polanco is now slashing just .247/.317/.348 on the year.

Gaby Sanchez

The right-handed half of the first base platoon hasn’t found a groove this season. Besides a .328 OBP that was aided by a 17% walk rate, Sanchez hit just .174 and slugged .217 in July. He hasn’t hit a home run since May 26th. He’s hitting .179 since the beginning of June.

Ernesto Frieri

LOL. A meltdown against the D-backs, the Kolten Wong walk-off homer, … just when you thought he was settling in, he got lit up in Colorado. Ten earned runs in 7.2 innings. The walks are up, the strikeouts are a bit down; 10.38 ERA since joining the Pirates.

Stolmy Pimentel

Stolmy rarely pitches, so small sample size here. He gave up four runs over six July innings, but the concerns are deeper — he struck out as many batters as he walked, his ground ball was & is very low, meaning more line drives and fly balls — batters have hit a fly ball against him almost 50% of the time in 2014. Eventually those ones get over the wall like we saw last night (and there were two others that fell just short of the wall).

Justin Wilson

Another rough month for Wilson. More runs (4.82 ERA, 6.45 FIP), more walks (5.8 BB/9), more homers (2, including a Matt Adams walk-off), and a .286/.405/.514 opponent slash line.

The STL/Cincy Roadtrip

After starting the month with a 5-1 homestand, the Bucs hit the road for a huge trip to St. Louis and Cincinnati before the All-Star break. It wasn’t good — a 2-5 final result featuring multiple blown games, two tough series losses that would’ve made an impact on the Central standings.

Trade Deadline

The Bucs swung and missed at the deadline yesterday. Landing an ace, like Jon Lester or David Price, would’ve been special. They were rumored to be in on both of them, but … whatever. It doesn’t really surprise me that they didn’t acquire one of them. When have they made a splash like that? At least adding a reliever, probably the most likely of their potential upgrades, would have been nice… All you have to do is re-read the Frieri, Pimentel, and Wilson sections above, remember that Jeanmar Gomez is nothing more than a long-man, and know that Watson and Mark Melancon can’t do it all themselves to think another relief arm would’ve been nice. But there was nothing. There’s still a chance to add players via trade in August as we saw last year, but I’m not expecting any hugely impactful players to sneak through waivers.

The Pirates played some solid ball in July and are in a good spot — they’re five games over .500, 2.5 games out of first place, and only 0.5 out of the second Wild Card. The next two months will be huge, not just for the Buccos but also for the other six or seven National League contenders … it’s a tight race and looks like it’ll go right up till the end. They need to cash in against Arizona, Miami, and San Diego over the next week because it’s gonna get tough after that — vs. Tigers, at Nationals, vs. Braves, at Brewers, vs. Cardinals, vs. Reds to close out the month. Should be a fun ride.

Go Bucs

Saturday Stat Sheet 7/19/14

– Francisco Liriano worked out of a few jams, struggled with his control at times, but ultimately put in a decent five innings of work on Friday. He struck out eight Rockies while limiting the damage to one unearned run and three hits. The outing produced a Game Score of 64, his best since May 30th and fourth best of the season.

Andrew McCutchen went 0-for-3 yesterday, just his sixth hitless game since the beginning of June.

Gaby Sanchez collected two hits on Friday night, his first multi-hit game since June 19th. Gaby’s double in the second inning was his first extra base hit of July.

Russell Martin carried an 0fer last night — the first time this season that he didn’t reach base at PNC Park (28 games).

– Should be noted that Martin’s hitless game came out of the cleanup spot, which has been a black hole for Pirate hitters this year. The 4-spot has produced worse average/OBP/SLG etc. than any spot in the lineup besides 9th:


– A few misplayed balls aside last night, Jordy Mercer has been one of the better shortstops in baseball this month (.367/.418/.449).

– Another game, another throwing error for Pedro Alvarez. His 21st E of the year — incredibly, 20 have been of the throwing variety, and only one has been a fielding error.

Batting numbers through 96 games:

1 C Russell Martin 57 241 24 53 8 0 5 31 3 .273 .400 .392 .792 126
2 1B Ike Davis* 75 250 25 50 10 0 4 23 0 .237 .352 .341 .693 98
3 2B Neil Walker# 82 347 39 84 12 1 13 43 2 .272 .344 .443 .787 122
4 SS Jordy Mercer 88 319 35 74 14 0 6 28 1 .250 .288 .358 .646 82
5 3B Pedro Alvarez* 94 372 41 78 10 1 15 47 6 .237 .325 .410 .736 107
6 LF Starling Marte 84 343 40 80 16 5 5 34 21 .258 .329 .390 .720 104
7 CF Andrew McCutchen 94 423 57 115 28 5 17 61 15 .321 .418 .570 .988 177
8 RF Gregory Polanco* 33 151 24 35 2 0 3 14 6 .265 .353 .348 .702 101
9 UT Josh Harrison 80 267 34 74 15 4 5 29 9 .296 .331 .448 .779 119
10 RF Travis Snider* 81 172 13 37 3 1 4 15 0 .242 .322 .353 .675 92
11 1B Gaby Sanchez 69 169 18 37 12 1 5 15 2 .236 .290 .420 .710 99
14 C Chris Stewart 28 98 6 20 1 0 0 4 0 .238 .330 .250 .580 68
17 2B Michael Martinez# 5 7 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .286 .000 .286 -10
Team Totals 96 3731 395 846 141 20 85 380 67 .257 .332 .389 .721 104
Rank in 15 NL teams 5 5 14 6 5 3 2 1 5 4
Non-Pitcher Totals 96 3535 388 826 141 20 85 377 67 .264 .340 .403 .743 110
Pitcher Totals 96 196 7 20 0 0 0 3 0 .123 .159 .123 .282 -19
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/19/2014.


1 SP Charlie Morton 5 9 3.32 19 0 119.1 100 44 8 42 100 3.79 1.190 3.2 7.5
2 SP Edinson Volquez 8 6 3.65 19 0 111.0 97 45 12 37 73 4.36 1.207 3.0 5.9
3 SP Gerrit Cole (15-day dl) 7 4 3.78 14 0 85.2 83 36 8 29 78 3.76 1.307 3.0 8.2
4 SP Francisco Liriano* 1 7 4.43 16 0 81.1 75 40 9 45 89 4.12 1.475 5.0 9.8
6 SP Jeff Locke* 2 1 2.89 8 0 56.0 49 18 3 6 35 2.96 0.982 1.0 5.6
7 CL Mark Melancon 1 2 2.32 45 17 42.2 33 11 2 6 38 2.53 0.914 1.3 8.0
8 RP Tony Watson* 6 1 1.39 46 0 45.1 38 7 2 10 51 2.39 1.059 2.0 10.1
9 RP Jeanmar Gomez 1 2 3.45 28 1 44.1 46 17 6 13 31 4.51 1.331 2.6 6.3
10 RP Jared Hughes 4 2 1.83 36 0 39.1 34 8 2 10 19 3.67 1.119 2.3 4.3
11 RP Justin Wilson* 3 1 4.75 41 0 36.0 31 19 2 20 39 3.44 1.417 5.0 9.8
12 Vance Worley 2 1 3.38 6 0 34.2 34 13 4 5 22 3.89 1.125 1.3 5.7
15 Stolmy Pimentel 2 1 4.63 12 0 23.1 25 12 3 13 26 4.38 1.629 5.0 10.0
19 Ernesto Frieri 1 1 13.50 7 0 4.0 9 6 1 2 2 6.89 2.750 4.5 4.5
20 Travis Snider* 0 0 18.00 1 0 1.0 1 2 0 2 1 7.14 3.000 18.0 9.0
Team Totals 50 46 3.73 96 29 869.2 822 360 83 295 705 3.95 1.284 3.1 7.3
Rank in 15 NL teams 8 8 9 4 5 10 9 9 11 14
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/19/2014.

Go Bucs

15 Questions for the Pirates’ Second Half

Where the Pirates stand: 49-46 record (.516 winning percentage), 3.5 games back in NL Central (4th place), 3 games back in NL Wild Card.

Just as we did last year at the All-Star break, let’s take a look at some questions for the second half of 2014…

1. Can they avoid a second half slump?

In each of the first three seasons under manager Clint Hurdle, the Bucs have played better ball in the first half than the second:

2011: .522 / .347

2012: .565 / .403

2013: .602 / .551

Considering their current .516 winning percentage is actually the lowest of the Hurdle era, it’d be nice to see them “buc” the trend and have a better second half. A below .500 winning percentage in the remaining 67 games would lead to a final record at or below 82 wins…

On the other hand — the Pirates have played 67 games since May 2nd, winning 39 of those. If they kept that pace over the next 67, they’d finish with 88 wins. Maybe enough to sneak into the Wild Card (the Giants, who currently hold the second WC spot, are on pace for 89 wins). But the Bucs will have to avoid any sort of second half slump.

2. Can the pitching improve?

Last year, we had these next two questions flipped — the pitching was solid, the offense wasn’t spectacular. The staff has posted a 3.76 team ERA (ninth in the National League); it’s lowered in the past few weeks as they beat up on some bad teams. Their 3.98 FIP suggests that the team ERA could be closer to 4, and they’ve also been the least valuable staff in baseball by WAR. There are a couple starting pitchers that could help right the ship, or perhaps the front office will turn to the trade market (more on that in a bit).

3. Can the offense stay steady?

Compared to this time last season, the Bucco offense has been better:

2013 First Half: .243/.309/.388

2014 First Half: .257/.332/.389

That .332 OBP is best in the National League, third in baseball behind the Angels and Tigers. Excluding pitchers, the Pirates have a .340 on-base percentage — that’s tops in MLB. They’ve had trouble converting them into runs at times, but I think that’ll come. They have the second best wRC+ in the NL behind LA. The lineup is actually pretty solid from top to bottom, and Josh Harrison has emerged as a useful utility man at any spot. The bats should be okay; their pitching will be the key.

4. What’ll happen at the deadline?

The Bucs stood pat at the non-waiver July 31st trade deadline last year, staying quiet until late August when they added Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. The focus this year looks to be on pitching, either starting or relief.

There was talk in the offseason about how the Pirates looked like a mid-80 win team and that bringing in a quality player (they were looking for a starting pitcher, first baseman, etc. at that point) could help add a couple important wins. At this point, it looks like they could end up with a win total in the mid-80’s — like people were predicting — likely leaving them a few wins short of October. Could they add a player at the deadline to push them over the top, something they didn’t do in the offseason? Or are they confident with what they have?

5. What’s in store for the MVP?

Andrew McCutchen. How much can you say about the guy? He’s looking like the midseason MVP right now, and could very well be the end of season MVP for the second consecutive year.

Last season, he was really good in the first half — .302/.376/.471. This season, he’s been really great — .324/.420/.575. If those numbers hold up, they’d easily be his best to date (and impressively better than those from his MVP season). Cutch currently leads the NL in hits, walks, OPS+, wRC+, total bases; 2nd in RBI, WAR; etc…

One of our second half questions last year was “Can Andrew McCutchen finally have a good second half?” In previous seasons, Cutch had broken down towards the end of the year. Last season, however, Cutch absolutely killed it in the second half — he hit .339 with a 1.001 OPS down the stretch en route to a playoff berth and eventual MVP award.

While it’ll be tough to get much better than the .324 average and .995 OPS he’s rolling with right now, it’d be huge if Cutch could near replicate his second half from a year ago.

6. Can we get an El Toro breakout?

Throwing errors, a power outage, and the emergence of Josh Harrison (even the team beat writer is saying “Josh Harrison, grab a bat. Pedro Alvarez, grab some bench.”) have led to a lot of criticism for the Bucs’ third baseman. But Pedro Alvarez has quietly hit .276/.370/.457 since June 1st, and he’s striking out less/walking more than at any point in his career. We’ve seen this guy go on big time hot streaks before, and maybe it’s only a matter of time until the power kicks into another gear. It only takes a few swings to get the Big Bull going, and this second half would be a great time to see it.

7. How about some first base productivity?

While Pedro’s offense has been trending up since June 1st, the first base platoon has done the opposite. The Ike DavisGaby Sanchez combo looked very good when Ike was acquired from the Mets in mid-April, but they’ve both struggled mightily since the calendar flipped to June:

Davis — .172/.322/.245

Sanchez — .169/.234/.220

A combined .172/.292/.236 line, .528 OPS with only 8 extra base hits and 13 RBI. Ike still boasted a decent OBP thanks to a walk rate north of 15%, but has shown next to no power. Gaby hasn’t shown anything at all. How about some production out of these two in the second half? Davis has historically been better in the second half (career .869 OPS in second vs. .698 OPS in first), so let’s hope that holds true in 2014. 

8. Which Francisco Liriano will show up?

The Bucs got Liriano back from the DL last Sunday, though he looked the same as he did for most of the first half — little control, lots of walks, some hard hit balls. His walk rate has returned to nearly 5 per 9 innings, and he’s allowed more homers per fly ball than at any point in his career — with a 4.72 ERA as a result.

If they choose not to acquire a solid starting pitcher at the deadline, Liriano holds a huge key in the rotation. Good Frankie, like we saw almost every time out in 2013, could lead the Pirates back to October. Bad Frankie, like we’ve seen far too often this season, could kill the Pirates’ hopes for good. He’ll get the ball to open the second half on Friday night.

9. Can Gerrit Cole come back strong?

Cole has been very up and down this year, and it’s not good to see him go down with two different injuries in a short span. It’s looking like he won’t be back until August, but when he does return, they need some really good stuff out of him. Ace kind of stuff. First overall pick stuff. Along with Liriano, a good Gerrit Cole could take the Bucs a long, long way.

10. Is that the real Jeff Locke?

The 26-year-old lefty has caught pretty much everyone off guard. Between a 2013 second half meltdown and an uninspiring start to this season at Triple-A Indy (4.14 ERA in nine starts), Locke wasn’t getting much attention. But he came back to Burgh when Cole got hurt in early June and has done nothing but succeed since then. Locke’s posted a 2.13 ERA in seven starts in that time, lowering his ERA on the year to 2.89 (he gave up six runs in a spot start on May 5th).

Another fluke? His 2.96 FIP suggests it might not be. He’s done an incredible job with his control — he’s averaging less than one walk per nine innings. His loss of command was a factor in his downfall last season, so hopefully he can keep it up this time around.

11. Can they beat the Central teams?

Losing to divisional opponents — the ones directly ahead of them in the standings — has been one of the Bucs’ biggest problems this season. Considering they’re only 13-26 against the Brewers, Reds, and Cardinals, it’s remarkable that the Pirates are even within 3.5 games in the Central.

They have 18 games left against those three teams — exactly six games each, three at home and three on the road for all. Those are 18 huge games. There is still time.

12. Will the Brewers turn it around after a miserable end to the first half?

Milwaukee finished the month of June on a high note, with a 6.5 game lead in the Central. That lead evaporated in just two weeks — they suffered a seven-game losing streak at one point, and won just 2 of their 13 games heading into the break. The Cardinals sit only a game out of first place as we speak. Can the Brewers hold on to the top spot?

13. How will the Cardinals fare without Yadier Molina?

Molina’s thumb injury will put him out of action until early September at the earliest. Needless to say, he’s a player that the Cardinals can’t really afford to lose. It’s unclear how much it’ll hurt the team, but some math shows that it could cost St. Louis as many as four wins (which is pretty substantial in a very tight pennant race).

14. Can the Reds make some noise without a few of their key players?

Like Molina & the Cardinals, the Reds also have a couple very important players on the disabled list in Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips. Cincy is knocking on the door right now (1.5 out of first, 1 out of Wild Card), but can they keep close without two of their impact players?

15. Playoffs?!

A few games to make up in the standings; 67 games to make it happen. Good baseball in the second half can get you back to October. This isn’t over.

Go Bucs