Hours of discussion and pages of analysis on the 2014 Pirates could be boiled down to these four words: Not quite good enough.
If it were not for the success of 2013, there would be nothing unusual about the fact the Pirates are 9-14. That they are 3-11 in their past 14 games would be viewed pretty much as business as usual. Their third straight loss to Cincinnati, 2-1, yesterday would stir no surprise.
But 2013 raised expectations, as did the returning cast. It hasn’t been good enough.
Where to start?
Pedro Alvarez can carry a team. Just not often enough. He has six home runs and 13 RBIs but also a .176 batting average. He’s batting .143 with runners in scoring position and his lack of consistency has led to teams walking Andrew McCutchen and being willing to face the NL home run champion. No one expects Alvarez to bat .280, but .220 would help.
Jordy Mercer is 0-for-11 since returning to the lineup from injury and is batting .183 for the season. Clint Barmes, who is better defensively, can do that. The Pirates need more from Mercer. His bat, not his glove, will determine his future.
The combined batting line for the Pirates two right fielders, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata, is .209/.273/.275 -- .547. They have two home runs in 91 at-bats. The point has been made here that there is no guarantee Gregory Polanco could be promoted to the Pirates roster and immediately be an offensive force. But it could almost be guaranteed he would do better than Snider and Tabata.
Only McCutchen, Neil Walker and Russell Martin have played up to expectations.
Still, the offense might be good enough if the starting pitching had been up to 2013 standards. It has not. In 2013, Pirates starters had a 3.50 ERA, which was fourth best in the National League. The 2014 ERA is 4.18, which is 11th best.
And even that would have been close to good enough if Jason Grilli had not blown three saves this month. If Grilli pitched as he did most of last season, the Pirates would be 12-11, which is the same record as St. Louis, the NL Central favorite.
It was interesting to contrast the Pirates with Cincinnati this week. The Reds are without Mat Latos, one of their best starters, and closer Aroldis Chapman. But they are 2½ games in front of the Pirates. With their lineup, it’s not hard to understand. Their batting order 2 through 6 is Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier and Ryan Ludwick. The heart of the Pirates lineup pales next to that. And the Reds have a better starting rotation.
There are places where the Pirates can improve.
The addition to the rotation of Brandon Cumpton, who gave Cincinnati two runs in seven innings yesterday, figures to be an upgrade over what the team was getting from Wandy Rodriguez. There’s been no word from the Pirates as to whether Cumpton will stay in the rotation but based on how he pitched yesterday and how well he did in spot starts last year, it’s hard to imagine him not continuing.
Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton have not been up to expectations. But nor have they been anything approaching outright awful. There are reasons to believe they can be effective starters and, at times, be dominant.
There’s no disputing the Pirates need more offensive help. Any team on which Martin regularly bats fifth, is offensively deficient. But until Polanco is promoted there does not appear much the Pirates can do -- other than internal improvement -- with the offense.
The Pirates are not as bad as they’ve played over the past 14 games. But they don’t appear to be as good as they were in 2013. And what really is a downer for the immediate future of the team is the May schedule is brutal with a steady dose of contending teams throughout the month. Unless the Pirates get better in a hurry, this could get ugly.