Bob Smizik: Time to panic?

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The Pirates have lost two in a row to the lowly San Diego Padres and scored three runs in the process. In the three-game series they scored only five runs. The problem is this: A team cannot lose due to injury to the reigning Most Valuable Player and the top offensive second baseman in the National League and replace them with, at best, fringe major-leaguers.

Jayson Nix and Michael Martinez do not equal Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. In fact, together they equal neither McCutchen nor Walker. The result of this lopsided exchange is that one of the top offenses in the NL is staggering.

And it’s a bad time to be staggering with the Detroit Tigers coming to town. As is well known, the Pirates are entering the meat-grinder phase of their schedule: Four with Detroit, three with Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati and again with St. Louis.

With the return to the lineup of McCutchen, who hasn't played since Aug. 3, and Walker unknown and with the disabled list a possibility for both, the Pirates season could well unravel between now and Sept. 5, when they end the meat-grinder phase and open a series with the Chicago Cubs.

The Pirates have displayed a remarkable perseverance in the face of considerable adversity. But they’ve never had such odds to overcome.

It’s easy to blame general manager Neal Huntington, but not many teams could withstand the loss of two such valuable players at such a critical time of the season. Still, Huntington has done next to nothing to bolster his sagging roster.

He maintains he’s closely monitoring the waiver wire and doing the due diligence required in such a situation. Despite having what experts would consider a treasure chest of prize prospects, Huntington made no move at the deadline and has done nothing to upgrade the offense with McCutchen and Walker down, short of the exchanging Brent Morel for Nix.

Huntington has never tended well to his bench. It seems unfathomable that when Clint Barmes was injured in late June and expected to miss at least six weeks, he did nothing but make the most convenient move and recall Martinez from Indianapolis. Promoting Morel and then going with the Nix speaks to a GM who who either does not have enough confidence in this team to make a significant move or, as bizarre as this sounds, is hemmed in by budgetary constraints.

More puzzling has been the decision to stay with Morel/Nix, both infielders, and not an outfielder. The team has that luxury because Josh Harrison can play the infield or the outfield. Both Jose Tabata or Andrew Lambo were available and either is an upgrade over Morel/Nix. As it is, manager Clint Hurdle has had to play Gregory Polanco against left-handed pitching. Polanco hasn’t been totally overmatched, but is batting .179 against left-handers.

It has been suggested the team has soured on Tabata. That might be true, but Tabata was one of the Pirates best players in August and September last year and would have been more of an asset than an infielder.

The other issue surrounding the offense is at first base, where Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez, continue to play at several levels below awful. Davis had a brief flurry of success after the All-Star Game, but since July 30 he is batting .125 (3-for-24). Sanchez is batting .156 (5-for-32) since July 21.

When the Pirates began practicing Pedro Alvarez at first base, it ignited a call from fans for him to replace Davis. Somewhat overlooked in that outcry is the fact Alvarez also is having a terrible year. He had one good month, June. Since July 1, he is batting .197 (14-for-71) with two homers and seven RBIs. Davis has two homers and 10 RBIs in that same span. Davis also has a better career batting line against right-handed pitching than Alvarez.

The actual answer is this: Neither Davis, nor Sanchez, nor Alvarez look to be the answer at first base. The fact Alvarez has no experience at the position, combined with his poor hitting, understandably makes the Pirates reluctant to use him.

An upgrade at first would be nice, but the Pirates have done well offensively this season with small contributions from Davis and Sanchez. What the Pirates need is not so much a better first basemen and not so much an upgrade on the bench but a return to the lineup of a fully healthy McCutchen and Walker.


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