When Will the Pirates Be Contenders?

At what point do the Pittsburgh Pirates become contenders?

Is it enough now that they’re tied for first place, and have legitimately been in the NL Central race for most of the month?

Do they need to take two out of three games this weekend against the St. Louis Cardinals, followed by strong performances next week against the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies on the road?

Maybe they need to make a big splash or two at the trade deadline, adding a big bat to show that they’re serious about winning.

I don’t think that any Pirates fan is overlooking the importance of this weekend’s series against the Cardinals.  I don’t think anyone is downplaying the Braves and Phillies next week.  However, with the trade deadline coming up, the most important talk among Pirates fans is what the team will do, and who they will add at the deadline.  It’s to the point where the general feeling is that the Pirates won’t be contenders without the addition of a big bat, a strong 8th inning reliever, or an extra starting pitcher.

The trade deadline creates an interesting situation.  It puts a false deadline on the ability to acquire outside help.  It provides tons of rumors filled with top players, giving the idea that the only way to upgrade the team is to add one of those top players.  Then there’s the feeling that a team needs to make upgrades at all, regardless of where they sit in the standings.

I questioned whether the Pirates need to make an upgrade earlier in the week.  I also pointed out that the Tampa Bay Rays didn’t upgrade in 2008, and while they didn’t win a World Series, they made it to the World Series, which is a tremendous accomplishment for a team that was the worst team in the league the year before.

The Pirates are currently tied for first place.  They have ten games before the deadline, going up against the Cardinals, who sit a game back in the Central, the Phillies, who hold a four game lead in the NL East, and the Braves, who hold a five game lead in the Wild Card race.  The Pirates took two of three against the Cardinals early in the year, on the road.  They took two of three against the Phillies in June.  They’ve lost their only two games against the Braves this year, but have gone 29-19 since that short series.  It wouldn’t be far fetched to believe that the Pirates can hold their own in the next week, and if that happens, it would be hard to argue that they needed to make a move to justify themselves as contenders.

But let’s look at how the trade deadline affects our analysis about teams.  First of all, there is no urgency.  The trade deadline isn’t the last chance for teams to make moves.  Teams can add through the waiver process, and can even make trades through the waiver system in August.  It was just a year ago that the Pirates made two big additions to their bullpen in August, adding Chris Resop and Chan Ho Park, who both provided strong performances for the final two months of the season.

Then there’s the idea that you can’t upgrade unless you go out and trade for a Hunter Pence, or a Carlos Beltran.  That’s totally ignoring what the Pirates have done this year.  The Pirates lost their top starter from the 2009 and 2010 seasons at the beginning of the year.  They lost their top three catchers.  The strength of the 2011 team was supposed to be the offense, led by Pedro Alvarez, who has had a disastrous season.  We came in to the season thinking that everything would need to fall in to place just to get to this point that we’re currently at, where we question whether the Pirates are real contenders.  As it turns out, that wasn’t true.

Karstens has been a huge contributor for the Pirates this year.

The Pirates are contending with Jeff Karstens replacing Ross Ohlendorf.  Last winter, there were questions about whether Karstens should have been tendered a contract.  Now he’s got the best numbers in the rotation.  They added Michael McKenry in a minor trade to try and help their catching depth.  He’s played so well that he’s arguably earned split playing time once Ryan Doumit returns in August.  The Pirates had Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz struggling, and had Jose Tabata go to the disabled list.  They brought up Alex Presley, who has carried over his AAA success to the majors.

In each case, the Pirates made minor moves, all of which helped to put them in the spot they are currently in: first place.  The minor moves won’t end with Karstens, McKenry, and Presley.  In the next few weeks, the Pirates will start to see a lot of players returning from the disabled list.  Those returns raise the question I’ve already raised: do the Pirates need to make a move?  I asked Neal Huntington about how the returning players will affect their approach at the trade deadline.

“As we go forward, I’ve said before, our best additions may be our guys getting healthy, and/or we get (Pedro Alvarez) back on track,” Huntington said.

The Pirates have Ryan Doumit rehabbing in Bradenton, due back in early August.  Ross Ohlendorf is due back at the same time.  Evan Meek could return by the end of August.  Steve Pearce and Ronny Cedeno are set to return today.  Pedro Alvarez is starting to heat up in Indianapolis, with a .343/.439/.514 line in his last 10 games.  Jose Tabata suffered a setback in his rehab work, but should return in August.

“Those are some pretty good additions to a major league club that’s battling for a playoff spot right now,” Huntington said.

Just think about how those additions already upgrade the team.  Today, the infield defense will see a big upgrade, with Ronny Cedeno returning to take over the shortstop role.  Steve Pearce will also return, and could see some time at third base.  The moves will strengthen the bench, with Brandon Wood and Chase d’Arnaud moving out of starting roles.

When Doumit returns, the Pirates will add an upgrade to their catching situation, going from a guy with a .565 OPS this year, to a guy with a .774 OPS before he was injured.  When Ohlendorf returns, the Pirates can add a sixth starter, bringing in a guy who put up a 3.98 ERA in 285 innings between 2009 and 2010, even if there are some concerns that he was a bit lucky with those overall numbers.

Alvarez and Cedeno could provide big upgrades in the final two months.

Tabata and Alvarez returning would be huge for the team.  If Alvarez can repeat his final two months of the 2010 season (.280/.348/.493 with 9 homers in 207 at-bats), that would be bigger than any addition the Pirates could make on the trade market.  Getting Tabata back would also provide a strong, speedy outfield when paired with Alex Presley and Andrew McCutchen.

As for the bullpen, Meek could return by the end of August, although it might be more likely that his return is delayed until rosters expand in September.  His addition in September, plus the return to the majors of guys like Daniel Moskos, Tim Wood, and Michael Crotta will be a huge help.  We might even see Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris get the call, which would only add to the already strong bullpen.

This isn’t saying that the Pirates won’t add to the club.  It’s just pointing out that, even without making a trade, they’ll be adding upgrades all over the field in the next few weeks.

“We’d love to add to the club,” Huntington said. “Is it an arm?  Is it a position player?  Maybe both.  Maybe neither.  We’ve got to make the right move for the right reasons, but we’ve certainly got a nice round of reinforcements coming just as we get healthy.”

So the question exists: do the Pirates need to make that big splash?  The argument in favor of a big splash says that this team has played well, and deserves the support of the General Manager.  The problem with that approach is that it assumes that the team just magically appeared, with no input from Huntington at all.  That obviously isn’t the case.  Huntington built this team, and this team is contending.  At what point do we stop moving the goal posts and say that the team is a contender?  A few small additions? One big addition?  More than one big addition?  Or what about just the return of all of the injured players, which is absolutely an upgrade to the team?

I’ve talked about the comfort factor before when it involves players, specifically in the closer’s role.  I think that same factor exists with the Pirates in general this year.  No one can be comfortable assuming this team is a legit contender.  Not when they’re coming off a 105 loss season.  Not when people expected 105 losses to be the baseline for this year, and felt that the team could only improve 5-10 games a year, putting them at least three years away from contending.  I think a lot of people are still stuck with that mindset.  It’s unfathomable to think that a team can just go from worst to first, largely with the same roster in place.  Because of that feeling, we get the feeling that the current team isn’t legit, and that the only way to maintain the current progress is to add top players who would make the current team legit.

The fact is that the current team is legit enough to be contending for the NL Central, currently sitting in first place.  They’ve done this, despite losing a lot of their expected key performers.  A lot of those players are set to return, which will obviously upgrade a team that is already in first place, and has already taken series victories against Philadelphia and St. Louis this year.  So at what point do we start calling this team a contender, rather than suggesting they can only win if they add one of the top names on the trade market?

News and Notes

  • I don’t think these games with the Cards are make or break in any way, the worst they could be is 3 games out of first place and that is not much. Their are teams that they don’t match up well against, the Cards and the Brewers are two of them.

  • My rule has always been you have to be in it when August rolls around to have legitimately “been in” the race but I will make a special exception since it has been so long since the Pirates have been close.

  • The bucs will win it all, when the pitching stays this good, and the hitting gets much better, and scores more runs per game….