Bob Smizik: Pirates' strengths, needs

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It’s July, which means speculation on deadline trades shifts to a more serious level, although most actual deals won’t be done until much later in the month. The earliest the Pirates have dealt in July in the Neal Huntington era is July 24, 2012, when they acquired pitcher Wandy Rodriguez from Houston. Otherwise, their important deals have been in the final days of July or August.

This is a position-by-position rundown of the Pirates‘‍ strength and needs as the deadline approaches.

Catcher: A strength of the team as long as Russell Martin stays healthy. Chris Stewart has not been overly impressive as a backup, but he started 98 games last year for the Yankees, a team that won 85 times.

First base: The team’s biggest weakness because it is getting little production from Ike Davis, who gets most of the starts as the left-handed hitter in a platoon situation. Davis has shown the ability to get on base but not to hit with power. With a .904 OPS, Gaby Sanchez is more than holding up his end against left-handed pitching, which the Pirates seldom see.

Huntington has a history of acquiring first basemen at the deadline or later -- Derrek Lee in 2011, Sanchez in 2012, Justin Morneau in 2013. But he will be hard-pressed to continue that streak.

The Milwaukee Brewers -- whose first basemen are 15th in the National League, one slot ahead of the Pirates' -- have a strong need at the position, but not much hope of an upgrade. Brewers General Manager Bob Melvin told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the first base tandem of Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay, has ''done a nice job for us’’ and ''there’s not a big offensive first baseman available anyway.’’

Huntington doesn’t get enough credit for his deadline deals. He’s been resourceful and successful in acquiring quality bats without sacrificing too much. But his streak of adding a first baseman who can help figures to end this year.

Second base: Neil Walker is having an All-Star-caliber season and so is his backup, Josh Harrison.

Shortstop: Jordy Mercer remains a work in progress and one the Pirates seem almost totally committed to. He got off to a poor offensive start and was batting .199 on May 31. But he was second only to Andrew McCutchen in June for home runs and RBIs with five and 15. He is steady but hardly spectacular in the field. Unless he has a major collapse, the Pirates are prepared to go ahead with him as their shortstop.

Third base: Although the power was not there -- three home runs -- Pedro Alvarez had his best overall offensive month in June as evidence by this batting line: .299/.396/.483 -- .879. Only McCutchen had a higher slugging percentage and OPS in June. Alvarez is third in home runs and sixth in RBIs among MLB third basemen. The Pirates are not going to find anyone better.

Left field: After a terrible first month, Starling Marte has been fairly consistent with an OPS close to .800 for May and June.

Center field: Andrew McCutchen -- nuf sed.

Right field: After a sensational start, Gregory Polanco has stumbled appreciably -- a .662 OPS over the past 14 days. He’s hitless in his past three games and four of his past five. The Pirates will give him all kinds of rope, and that will include some judicious resting. Harrison is an option if Polanco continues to struggle. Other than first base, this is the one field position where the Pirates might make a deal.

Starting pitching: The current rotation of Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton, Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley looks solid. But the last three names have large question marks attached to them. There’s plenty of depth -- Francisco Liriano, Brandon Cumpton, Nick Kingham. The way Kingham is dominating Class AAA, he might be the best of the group and could well be with the team in September, if not earlier.

A trade for a starter is a possibility. Names like A.J. Burnett, Ian Kennedy and Brandon McCarthy already have been suggested. But since the Pirates are not likely to be willing to pay a large price in terms of prospects, chances are they’ll stick with this group.

Bullpen: As matters stand now, the back end of the bullpen is Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson or Jared Hughes. Behind them are Ernesto Frieri, Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel. There’s room for improvement and there is usually an abundance of relievers, at no great cost, available. The Pirates already have made one move, Frieri, and could well make at least one more.

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