The Pirates went into the final day of the trading-deadline period in an unusual position: They were a team playing very well, but one that had significant weaknesses.
It’s hard to match up an 8-4 record since the All-Star break and a 47-30 (99-win pace) since May 5 with the team on the field. That team includes:
• A home-run champion slumping so badly at the plate and in the field that he’s recently been benched.
• A closer who faltered so badly he lost his job and then was traded.
• A left fielder on the DL and in the midst of a disappointing season.
• A rookie right fielder baffled by MLB pitching.
• A first-base base tandem with next to no power.
• A staff ace who was largely ineffective in the first half of the season.
• A potential ace on the disabled list for more than a month.
Give credit where it is due: Players like Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Russell Martin, Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer have had their moments in creating an offense that is in the top third in the league or better.
On the pitching side, surprisingly strong performances from starters Edinson Volquez, Jeff Locke and Vance Worley and excellent relief work from Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and Jared Hughes have helped balance the poor performances of others.
But can that continue? That depends almost as much on the caliber of play from the Pirates rivals for playoff spots as it does from individual contributions from within the team.
In the NL Central, Milwaukee, which had a two-game lead on the Pirates and St. Louis, added only reserve outfielder Gerardo Parra. The Brewers still look like the best team in the division, with easily the No. 1 lineup and a solid if unspectacular rotation. If the Brewers have a weakness, it’s in their bullpen. Closer Francisco Rodriguez has a 6.48 ERA in July -- after a 5.73 May -- and there’s not a strong right-handed arm to set up for him.
St. Louis added starter John Lackey, who was good but hardly overwhelming with Boston, but in doing so weakened its offense by sending Allen Craig to the Red Sox. The Cardinals were 14th in the league in runs and bogged down by disappointing seasons by many key players. They also added starter Justin Masterson, who had a 5.51 ERA with Cleveland.
The teams, beyond Milwaukee or St. Louis, most likely to compete with the Pirates for a wild-card spot are San Francisco, assuming it doesn’t have the talent to catch Los Angeles, and either Washington or Atlanta.
The Giants, hit hard by injuries, did not look like a contender in losing two of three to the Pirates this week. Atlanta and Washington both present formidable teams, although the Pirates were even in the standings with Atlanta and two games behind Washington.
Into this scenario, it would have been nice to see the Pirates add better bullpen arms and/or, at least, a strong bat off the bench. That general manager Neal Huntington did nothing to strengthen the team is keenly disappointing but not necessarily season-wrecking.
It’s easy for fans to sit back and shred Huntington for his inactivity but none of us knows the parameters of the trade discussions that took place. Everyone expected help in the bullpen but not nearly as many relievers were traded yesterday as was expected. Baltimore had to uses its No. 3 prospect to acquire relief help.
Two other contenders, the Dodgers and the reeling Giants, losers of six of seven, also did nothing. San Francisco GM Brian Sabean is one of the best in the business.
As much as some people might think otherwise, merely adding players is no guarantee of improvement. The 2011 and 2012 Pirates were active at the deadline and regressed after it.
It was clear that sellers were in high-demand mode yesterday and there was no better case of that than the Philadelphia Phillies. They were the quintessential seller -- a hugely disappointing high-payroll team with plenty of worthy players to shed. They traded no one.
Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro said this about his stand-pat stance: ''I’m more surprised that there wasn’t more aggressive action from the other end. We have some pretty good baseball players here. Our goal all along was to try to improve the club and there really wasn’t a deal to be made that would help us do that.’’
Huntington, by contrast, would say the sellers were asking too much. The truth is somewhere in between.
Disappointment understandably reigns with fans of the team. There's a division title to be won and the best road to that goal is improved personnel. The Pirates remain positioned for success but that doesn't take the edge out of the disappointment of the day.
First Published July 31, 2014 12:00 AM