Ron Cook: NL Central is there for the taking

It’s normal to focus on the flaws of the team in your town. We have spent hours fretting about the Pirates’ black hole at first base, Francisco Liriano’s ineffectiveness, Gerrit Cole’s injuries, Pedro Alvarez’s throwing misfortunes and the bullpen’s 15 blown saves. But the other teams in the National League Central Division also have issues. In St. Louis, they are concerned about injuries to Yadier Molina, Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia and an offense that has scored fewer runs than every team in the NL except the San Diego Padres. In Cincinnati, they are troubled by Jay Bruce’s lack of power production and injuries to Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips. In Milwaukee, they are worried about what’s next for their team after it went 2-11 right before the All-Star break.

The point is the Pirates, though far from perfect, have as much chance as the other clubs of winning the division.

The Pirates are in a surprisingly good spot despite Liriano’s one win, Cole’s two trips to the disabled list, the demotion and trading of 2013 All-Star closer Jason Grilli and a 13-26 record against the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers. They take a 49-46 record into the second half, which starts tonight with a home game against the Colorado Rockies. That’s hardly impressive — it was dulled by a 2-5 trip to St. Louis and Cincinnati last week — but it’s good enough to have the team just 3½ games behind first-place Milwaukee and three games out of a wild-card slot.

In order to compete in the second half, the Pirates will need more of the same from Andrew McCutchen, who is on his way to a second consecutive NL MVP award. They will need more of the same from Neil Walker, who would have made the All-Star team if not for an emergency appendectomy; from Russell Martin, who can be become a free agent after the season and might be down to his final 2½ months with the club; and from Josh Harrison, whose feel-good story in the first half was highlighted by his stunning selection to the All-Star Game. They will need continued consistency from Jordy Mercer, who has hit .279 since May 3 with six home runs and 26 RBIs, and from Starling Marte, who has batted .309 since being benched for four games in early June. They will need more from Gregory Polanco, who has to punch back at the pitchers, who have held him to a .213 batting average and .613 OPS in July.

All of those things seem reasonable, but the Pirates still will need much more to make it to the postseason for a second consecutive year. The key names are Cole, Liriano, Alvarez and the first-base combination of Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez.

The hitting has been good since May. The team ranks fifth in the NL in runs and fourth in home runs and OPS. Imagine how much better the offense would be if Davis and Sanchez did something, anything. Pirates first basemen rank 12th in the league in batting average and 13th in home runs and OPS. Davis and Sanchez have combined to hit .172 since the start of June with just one home run. There is at least some hope for Davis; his career OPS in the second half is .869. Imagine how much better the offense would be if Alvarez goes off on one of his “white-hot streaks,” to use general manager Neal Huntington’s words. Alvarez’s walks are up and his strikeouts down from last season, but his power numbers are well off. He has 15 home runs, 47 RBIs and a .742 OPS. At the All-Star break last season, he had 24 home runs, 62 RBIs and an .827 OPS. There also is the matter of Alvarez’s 20 errors. He has to get a better grip on his throws — literally and figuratively — or someone is going to get seriously hurt in the 20th row behind first base.

As nice as more production from Alvarez, Davis and Sanchez would be, Cole and Liriano figure to be more important to any second-half success. Jeff Locke, Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton came up from the minors to give the club a huge lift. Edinson Volquez, with his team-leading eight wins, is right there with Harrison as the biggest surprise of the season. But the Pirates still need a front-end starter, one they can count on to keep them in every game. Cole has the stuff to be that guy. Unfortunately, he probably won’t be back until August because of a back problem. Liriano was that guy last season when he went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. But his fall this season has been brutal. It’s not just his 1-7 record, 4.72 ERA and 1.49 WHIP. Left-handed hitters are batting .310 against him with three home runs and an .892 OPS in 58 at-bats after hitting .131 with no home runs and a .321 OPS last season. He’s 0-3 at PNC Park with a 5.98 ERA and 1.65 WHIP after going 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA and 0.96 WHIP there last season. Liriano needs to turn that home thing around quickly; he gets the start tonight against the Rockies. It’s nice to think it will go better than his start Sunday in Cincinnati, a 6-3 loss, in his first game back after missing a month with a left oblique strain.

The Pirates now might not be the same team after the July 31 trade deadline, although it’s hard to imagine them making a major deal. Huntington has said he is unlikely to give up any of his prized prospects. A first baseman would be nice to acquire. So would another starter. No team ever has enough pitching. The bullpen, despite the 15 blown saves, isn’t nearly as bad as many people think. I have faith in Mark Melancon and Tony Watson late in games. I certainly wouldn’t include prized prospect Josh Bell in a package for San Diego closer Huston Street.

Enjoy the next 2½ months of baseball and, perhaps, beyond. The Pirates are in the postseason race. Believe it. They have a legitimate chance to win the division.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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