To paraphrase Chuck Noll talking about Sidney Thornton: The Pirates, who dropped to 23-29 with their 5-0 loss to the Mets Wednesday, have problems and they are many. The question is: Do they have solutions? A look at some of the team’s many problems and how they might be fixed.
Shortstop: Jordy Mercer earned a chance to start this season based on his promising offensive showing last year when he batted .285 with a .771 OPS. Among National League shortstops with 350 or more plate appearances those numbers ranked third and fourth. There were concerns about his defense, which caused the Pirates to start Clint Barmes in most of the important late-season games. But, hey, his bat might overcome whatever deficiencies he had in the field. Not quite. Mercer is hitless in his past 21 at-bats. He is batting .190 with a .488 OPS.
Solution: It was more than kind of funny to hear a serious discussion on talk radio Wednesday about moving Josh Harrison to shortstop. This is the Harrison who has five hits in his past 25 at-bats and a lifetime OPS of .667. More to the point, despite his reputation as a non-power hitter, he came to MLB primarily as a third baseman, a position where power is usually a prerequisite. You think maybe that had something to do with him not excelling at middle infield positions while in the minors? Harrison is not an answer at shortstop and neither is Barmes.
Robert Andino, playing shortstop at Indianapolis, has MLB experience. But it’s mostly at second base and he’s hitting .178 for Indy. Alen Hanson is the hope for the future and he’s developing nicely, but at Altoona.
The answer: Reluctantly stick with Mercer.
Third base: It has gone almost unnoticed, but Pedro Alvarez is batting a respectable .255 this month. That’s all most people have ever hoped for from him. The problem is that he has one home run since May 5. And his slugging percentage for the season is .382, which is abysmal for a supposed power hitter. But the most damning statistic on Alvarez is not his slick-fielding-shortstop slugging percentage or his .220 batting average. It’s this: Four doubles -- all season.
Solution: Keep playing Alvarez
Right field: The team got a nice lift from Harrison, who batted .302 with a .488 slugging percentage and made amazing defensive plays for about two weeks this month. But, as stated, his production has declined and if his history is an indicator it won’t soon surge. Jose Tabata and Travis Snider, handed the job out of spring training, are not the answers. Despite Harrison’s fine play, the OPS for Pirates right fielders this season is .642, which is 111 points below the league average.
Solution: Mix and match Harrison, Tabata and Snider until Gregory Polanco finally, uh, works out the minor flaws in his game, which should happen around the middle of next month.
Starting pitching: After their loss to the Mets, the ERA of the Pirates rotation was 4.39, 14th in the National League. With Wandy Rodriguez no longer in the mix, the only major disappointment in the rotation is Francisco Liriano, whose ERA has spiraled from 3.02 to 5.06. Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and Edinson Volquez have pitched fairly close to expectations. There’s hope for improvement now that Brandon Cumpton has taken over the Rodriguez slot.
Solution: There’s not a lot of options here. Cumpton, the best, is off the table. Jeff Locke, an All-Star last season, has had mixed results at Class AAA Indianapolis, as his 3.60 ERA, 1.36 WHIP and .243 BAA would attest. What jumps out are his control issues. He has allowed 20 walks in 45 innings, 10 in his past 12. Vance Worley, 11-3 with a 3.01 ERA for Philadelphia in 2011, had a dazzling start for Indianapolis Wednesday -- 8 innings, two runs, four hits, one walk, 10 strikeouts. Casey Sadler is 6-1 with a 2.66 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP for Indy.
Short of a Volquez implosion, not out of the question, there’s little the Pirates can do in the way of change. Liriano's 2013 work has earned him more opportunities. But even if changes are made, based on the options available, there’s no guarantee the pitching will get better.