It's 10 days and counting to the most fascinating and newsworthy date on the baseball calendar: July 31, which is the non-waiver trading deadline. On that date and on the days leading up to it, there is a frenzy of trading activity in MLB. Weak teams become sellers, strong teams become buyers. A spot in the playoffs, a division title and even a World Series appearance can be gained with shrewd and even not-so-shrewd trades.
The question in Pittsburgh is not whether the Pirates will be buyers or sellers. It is this: How ardent of a buyer will they be?
With their 5-3 win over Colorado on Sunday, the Pirates are 52-46 and in third place in the NL Central, 1 1/2 games out of first. Since losing to the Cubs on June 20, they are 17-8, which is a 110-win pace. But during that stretch they are 15-3 against teams that today are a combined 71 games under .500 and 2-5 against teams that are a combined 14 games over .500.
And for those who have forgotten: The goal is not to reach the postseason. The goal is to win the postseason.
The conventional wisdom of recent days has been that the Pirates‘ greatest needs are at first base and in the bullpen. That thinking needs some modification. First base, when Ike Davis is manning it, remains a weak spot. The bullpen has stepped up in recent days, although another experienced arm for the late innings would be nice. The big change is this:
Do the Pirates need help in right field?
It’s beginning to look that way. The early brilliance of Gregory Polanco has been replaced by rookie incompetence. The raves of June have gone silent. The sure-thing has turned into a maybe.
Here’s the sordid history: After going 2-for-3 on June 26, Polanco had this batting line for his first 16 MLB games: .338/.416/.441 -- 857. He had an RBI every seven at-bats, excellent for a leadoff hitter, and his strikeout rate was 13 percent.
Since that date, 19 games, this is his batting line: .162/.253/.216 -- .469. He has an RBI every 20 at-bats and his strikeout rate is 27 percent.
This is not to suggest Polanco is still not a five-star talent. Nor does it mean the Pirates should pull the plug on him tonight. It is to propose this question: Can the Pirates afford to continue to play him on a daily basis?
And, please, no psychological babble about how a demotion -- to the bench or the minors -- would affect his future success. This is about the Pirates, not Polanco. This is about the Pirates getting to the postseason and advancing as far as they can. Beyond that, if there is a flaw in Polanco’s emotional makeup -- and there is no suggestion that is the case -- now would be a good time to find out.
If the Pirates decide to sit Polanco, briefly or longer, they have four in-house options: Josh Harrison, Jose Tabata, Andrew Lambo and Travis Snider.
• The people’s choice would be Harrison, who is having a remarkable season. He made the All-Star team and has been a major force in the Pirates’ return to a winning team. But for more than a month, since June 18, he is batting .255 (25-98) with an OPS under .650.
• Tabata performed extremely well in the heat of a pennant race last season, compiling an OPS of close to .850 over the final two months. But he was sent to the minors in June and has performed at a less-than-adequate level at Indianapolis -- .220/.286/.280 -- .566
• After about 10 weeks on the disabled list at Indianapolis, Lambo has returned and continues to hit at a high level. He had two home runs Saturday night. But he was such a flop in spring training, the Pirates might be hesitant to thrust him into such a situation.
• Nothing in Snider’s resume indicates he could do well in such a circumstance or even that he deserves the chance.
There’s a long list of corner outfielders who might be available led by Marlon Byrd, Josh Willingham and Alex Rios.
In addition to Polanco’s struggles, the Pirates have a gaping hole at first base when Davis is in the lineup. Since June 1, this is his batting line: .172/.320/.242 -- .562.
The Pirates‘ lineup is not talented enough to succeed long-term with a lack of production from two power positions. Expecting Davis and/or Polanco to turn it around could be gambling with the success of the season.