With the ceremonial halfway point of the Major League Baseball season here, one has to ask this question of the Pittsburgh Pirates: What in the world is going on with this team?
The Pirates came into the season with a solid starting pitching staff, a bullpen that was strong at the back end and a lineup that might lack power, but had some rising stars.
They limped into the break five games below .500 at 42-47 and seven games out of first place. The Pirates have a losing record at home (21-22) and on the road (21-25) and are on their way to a 76-win season.
The starting pitching staff has been shaky, the bullpen weak and the lineup woefully short on power and clutch hitting.
How did this all happen?
Many want to blame the Nutting Family, owner of the Pirates, for not spending more money. But the criticism is misplaced. This team is a sub-.500 team because of underperformance by several players.
Let’s take a look at the five – in descending order – who have crippled this squad and damaged chances of becoming a postseason team in what turned out to be a mediocre NL Central Division this season.
5. Gerrit Cole, starting pitcher
Cole is having the worst season of his career with a 7-7 record and a career-worst 4.43 ERA in 18 starts. He has allowed a whopping 19 home runs, one more than the last two seasons combined. One does not know whether the good Gerrit Cole or the bad Gerrit Cole is going to show up on a given night.
Cole allowed 21 runs over 15 innings in three June starts, in which he looked dazed and confused. He also has six starts of no more than one run allowed. An argument can be made that either Jameson Taillon (5-2, 2.73 ERA) or Ivan Nova (9-6, 3.21 ERA) deserve to be the No. 1 starter. If the Pirates are to make a second-half run, Cole needs to be more consistent.
4. Tony Watson, former closer
Watson’s fall from the closer position has been as stunning as it was unexpected. Watson’s six blown saves and career-worst 3.86 ERA sent him out of that role, replaced by Felipe Rivero. It also sent an already shaky bullpen into a tailspin. If Watson converts those save opportunities, the Pirates are one game back of the first-place Brewers now.
3. Jung Ho Kang, third base
Alcohol problems led to arrests for driving under the influence, which led to a conviction, which led to visa problems blocking him from entering the United States. Suddenly, a blossoming power hitter who is playing on the cheap – $3.2 million – has his future in the majors in doubt.
His alcohol problems obviously supersede his baseball career, but it’s undeniable the Pirates feel his loss in the field and at the plate. The Pirates have the fourth-worst slugging percentage.
They tried to replace Kang and his 36 homes runs and 120 RBI over the past two seasons by using a few players, mostly Josh Harrison and David Freese.
2. Starling Marte, outfielder
When the 80-game suspension was handed down because of Marte testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, a major piece to the Pirates’ puzzle was gone. There is no excuse for this, a selfish act that robbed the Pirates of a player who hit .311 and stole 47 bases last season.
The other problem with Marte is deciding whether last year’s number were a reflection of his PED use. Will he hit the same, field the same, run the same now that he will be tested again? There is a lot for the Pirates to worry about.
1. Gregory Polanco, outfielder
If there is one player who reflects the plight of the Pirates this year, it’s Polanco. The Pirates thought they had a budding star after Polanco hit 22 home runs, knocked in 86 runs and stole 17 bases last year. Expectations were a 30-100-20 season.
But Polanco has been awful, and it’s a bit of a mystery as to why. Some believe his swing technique is poor, but it appears to be the same as last year. Polanco enters the second part of the season with eight home runs, 24 RBI and eight stolen bases. Polanco’s hitting has been so bad that he was moved out of the No. 3 spot and is still struggling.
Imagine a batting order of, in order, Harrison, Marte, Polanco, Andrew McCutchen and Kang. Didn’t sound so bad last season, huh?
Assistant sports editor Joe Tuscano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org