Bob Smizik: Who’s on first?

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With 41 games remaining in the season, the Pirates are in third place in the NL Central, one-half game behind St. Louis and 2 1/2 games behind first-place Milwaukee. They currently hold the second-wild card spot, behind the Cardinals. They are one-half game ahead of San Francisco and three in front of Atlanta.

Much can change in the 44 days remaining in the season and those changes could well be impacted by how the Pirates answer the following questions:

 • Who plays first base against right-handed pitching -- Ike Davis or Pedro Alvarez?

Statistically, it’s not even close. Since the All-Star Game, in 61 plate appearances, Davis is batting .255 with an OPS of .854. His on-base percentage is .344 and his slugging percentage .510. He has three home runs and 10 RBIs.

In that same time frame, Alvarez, in 43 plate appearances, is batting .171 with a .429 OPS. His on-base percentage is .209, his slugging percentage .220. He has no home runs and two RBIs.

But absent from those numbers is the immense power potential of Alvarez, who tied for the National League lead with 36 home runs last year. He hit 30 in 2012. His best home run month this year was April when he had six. His best overall batting month was June when he had an .879 OPS, but only three home runs. Since the end of June, he’s had two home runs in 77 at bats.

But the spectre of a torrid Alvarez batting behind Josh Harrison, Gregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen could be enough for manager Clint Hurdle to give Alvarez one more opportunity.

Then there's this: Since the All-Star break, Davis has a higher OPS than McCutchen, Russell Martin, Jordy Mercer and Gregory Polanco.

The probable answer: Hurdle will stick with Davis.

When will McCutchen return?

This is the true key to the rest of the season. McCutchen is far and away the Pirates best player. The sooner he returns, the greater their playoff chances.

Initial reports had him missing four weeks or longer. Subsequent reports cut that in half and prompted the Pirates to delay putting him on the disabled list. That was a pipe dream and while he’s due to come off Tuesday, it seems unlikely he’ll be ready on that date. Since it looks like the Pirates have not asked Neil Walker to take a rehab assignment -- reportedly he’ll start tomorrow night against Washington -- it’s unlikely McCutchen will be asked.

Probable answer: He won’t be back on Tuesday, but should return before the following week.

Will the bullpen be up to the task?

As the Pirates learned this week, the back end of the bullpen can be almost as important as the front end. Detroit broke open two games in which the Pirates trailed but that were still there for the taking due to poor relief pitching.

John Axford, acquired from Cleveland yesterday, should help in that regard and be mostly used when the Pirates are behind but close, sort of a latter day Bryan Morris. With Jeanmar Gomez in the sixth slot and Brandon Cumpton the current long man, the back end is better but hardly flawless -- nor should that status be expected of it. The Pirates can do better than Cumpton. Huntington needs to keep working.

In the front end, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson are proven and strong. Jared Hughes is having an excellent year and Justin Wilson’s recent improvement gives this group a formidable look.

Answer: The bullpen is good, not great.

Where’s Vin Mazzaro?

He’s a fan favorite based on good work last year and briefly this year. But based on these comments, he doesn’t have that status with Hurdle.

“He's one guy we've had conversations about. We're looking for guys whose stuff is crisp. That's always the challenge in evaluating Triple-A performance versus anticipated major league performance.

The conversations I have with (Indy's) coaching staff and (manager) Dean (Treanor) weigh more than the numbers. We can grab all the Triple-A numbers we want, but when you plug guys in up here, it just doesn't match up. In my opinion, there's never been a bigger gap than Triple-A competition and major league competition.”

Probable answer: If he arrives at all in Pittsburgh, it will be after Sept. 1 when the rosters expand.

Who plays shortstop if Mercer, who left yesterday’s game with a strained forearm, in unavailable?

The fact Mercer had played every inning at shortstop since June 19 -- 49 games -- speaks eloquently to the lack of confidence the Pirates have in Harrison and Michael Martinez at the position. Until Clint Barmes comes off the DL, the Pirates do not have a legit backup shortstop.

The real story if Mercer is sidelined is if the Pirates use Harrison at shortstop, do they go back to Alvarez at third base. He threw himself out of the job, but, really, do the Pirates want to go with Jayson Nix or Martinez?

Probable answer: Harrison has stepped up tremendously to every defensive challenge this year. There’s reason to believe he can be satisfactory.

Who replaces Martinez and/or Nix?

Martinez has been with the team since late June. Presumably, Huntington has been looking and not found anything better. The fact he was willing to take on high salaries in Ernesto Frieri and now Axford would indicate money has not been an overriding issues. There simply are not a lot of good infielders available, and that’s obvious by checking the benches of other teams.

What is somewhat inexplicable, though, is the fact the Pirates are going to be dragging out Barmes’ rehab through the end of August. That makes no sense. He played shortstop and had three at bats with Altoona last night. How can he not be ready to replace Martinez or Nix before the end of the month?

Probable answer: The Pirates will come to their senses and speed up the rehab of Barmes.

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