Five Players Who Could Help the Pirates Win the NL Central

The MLB regular season is designed for the best teams to come out ahead over a 162 game schedule. It’s hard to luck into a winning record or a playoff spot with that many games played.¬†When it comes to the playoffs, the best team doesn’t always win. Most of the time the winning team is the team that gets hot at the right time. Anything can happen in a best of five, best of seven, or a one game playoff series.

For the Pirates, the playoffs have started early. They’re currently one game back in the NL Central. They’re one game up over the Cincinnati Reds for the top Wild Card spot. Today they start the final stretch of the season, which features six of the final nine games against the Reds. The Pirates need to win as many as possible to finish as high as possible. Ideally that would involve winning the division, but priority number two would be finishing ahead of the Reds to get home field in the Wild Card game.

The Pirates will need some players to step up in order to provide the best possible chance of winning the division. Going beyond that, these same players could make an impact with a hot streak once the playoffs roll around. Here is a look at the top five players who could help the Pirates win the NL Central by going on a hot streak in the next nine games.

Jeff Locke Pittsburgh Pirates
Jeff Locke is in line to make his final two starts against the Reds. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

A.J. Burnett/Jeff Locke – Burnett and Locke are both scheduled to make two starts against the Reds. Burnett has struggled lately with the big inning, while Locke has just struggled. If the Pirates win the four starts by Burnett and Locke, then all it would take is two additional Pirates wins or Reds losses for the Pirates to clinch the top Wild Card spot or better. The flip side here is that if Burnett continues to struggle with the big inning, and Locke continues his general struggling, that would put the Pirates in a difficult position.

Pedro Alvarez – No one can impact the offense more than Pedro Alvarez when he’s on a hot streak. Hopefully the home run yesterday was a sign of a new hot streak starting. The Pirates need it, as Alvarez has been hitting for a .533 OPS this month, even with that home run. Getting impact production from the middle of the order would be a huge boost over these final nine games.

Justin Morneau – The Pirates added Morneau hoping to see him boost the offense. So far he has a .676 OPS with the Pirates, and that’s not entirely because he’s getting too many at-bats against lefties. Morneau only has a .711 OPS against right-handers as a member of the Pirates. He’s hitting for average (.282) and getting on base (.378), but the power isn’t there (.333). The first two are good, but the Pirates need the power from Morneau.

Neil Walker – He’s having his worst month of the season at the worst possible time. Walker has a .400 OPS in 58 at-bats. He’s had some bad months this year. Actually, he’s had just two months with an OPS over .800, and only one other month with an OPS over .700. But this month has been a different story. Walker is starting to get platooned more often, which is good. The bad thing is that he’s not doing his part against right-handers.

Why I Didn’t Include Them

I know that this type of list will get constant “what about…” questions. So here is a quick summary of why I felt the need to highlight the above players, and not the rest of the team.

Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Marlon Byrd, Francisco Liriano – At this point the team is already relying on these guys. The production from the guys above would be in addition to the production from this group of consistent performers.

Russell Martin, Jordy Mercer, Clint Barmes – Martin has struggled offensively this month, so you might put him there. But his biggest value is his defense, and his offense doesn’t have to be great to provide good overall value. Same with Mercer and Barmes at shortstop. Martin does have to do better than he is currently doing, but the impact Martin could possibly make isn’t as big as Morneau, Alvarez, or even Walker.

Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton – Cole only makes one more start, and Morton has one of his starts against the Cubs. Both will be important if the Pirates make the division series of the playoffs, but not as important leading up to that point.

Anyone in the Bullpen – I think the bullpen will perform as it has performed all year, which is fine. You could take the whole expanded group and add them to the McCutchen/Marte/Byrd/Liriano group above.

Bench Guys – This should be obvious, but bench guys don’t make a big impact to begin with, so they’re not going to be featured on a list about potential impact players.

  • If Locke touches another ball this season I want Hurdle fired.

  • I know this is going to sound nuts, but do you think they may start Cole on the road in a wild card game? It looks like the Pirates will be away once all is said in done. If I narrowed my choices down, it would be larino or Cole. Aj is a guy I don’t trust right now in a win or go home type game. Cole has my support because it will save larino, aj, and Morton for the first 3 games after the wild card. It also gives Cole a big confidence boost bring out there in a big game like that of Padres final game. I hate to throw a wild card out there like that, but logically it sounds good

  • On the other hand, Locke hasn’t pitched against the Reds since mid-July, so I’m not sure his stats two months ago – when he was pitching well – are particularly relevant now.

    If he pitches badly vs the Reds on Sunday, that should be his last start of the year. With an off-day on Thursday, it would be easy to skip his Saturday start and finish with Burnett, Morton, and Cole in the final series. All of them would be pitching on normal rest.

  • Why should Jeff Locke get another start at all let alone 2(!) more against the Reds? Morton has looked good against the Reds earlier in the year and Cole is looking like 2011 Verlander of late, seems fairly obvious that 1 of them should be getting the ball when they’re most needed.

    • Locke has been poor of late but his record against the Reds is dominant. They just have not touched him at all in all in any of his starts this year. I listened to their broadcasters talk about it and they just can’t understand why the Reds can’t figure him out. Long story short Locke is in their heads. Until proven otherwise he definitely should go out against the Reds as often as possible.

  • Just out of curiosity , not advocating anything:
    What do you think Pedro would bring back in a trade in the off season?
    I guess I asking this just to gauge how other teams would regard him.

  • Five more players who could help the Pirates win the division: Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, and Jason Werth.

  • I think its stupid that Morneau keeps hitting cleanup. Pedro has the most RBI’s and power on the team. Should be his spot. I could also understand arguments for Byrd. But get Morneau outta there.

    • Yea I don’t understand that either…. Only reason i can think of is that Pedro has been struggling of late where Morneau has been hitting for average

    • Are you serious? Pedro’s Hr yesterday was his only hit in his last 20 ABs. Since Aug. 27, he is 10 for 54 (.185). Well below the Mendoza line.

  • If you watch the Nationals, they have about 4 guys that are red hot, that is what it takes to put long winning streaks in place, the Pirates just don’t have anyone like that, McCutchen has been consistent. if they got two guys red hot, they probably win the division, because the Cards only have one guy that is red hot right now and the Reds have the secret weapon-Billy Hamilton.
    I don’t think what players it is as long as it is two or more and they are not platoon players. Tabata is playing very well, Marte is in ST right now you only have a few games left, Tabata is the guy they need to keep in the lineup right now and I am a big Marte guy.

    • Agree in principal about Tabata…the problem is that you need Marte to be ready for playoff time. Marte brings a lot more to the table then Tabata does and he isn’t going to regain his swing sitting and watching. He needs to see live pitching. Not to mention his defense is far superior to that of Tabata. That being said, Tabby is really swinging the bat well and hustling in the field and on the bases which is good to see….

  • I think the most important factor right now is how Hurdle sets up the rotation. Neither AJ nor Frankie has proven themselves at GABP (and both are rather lousy road pitchers), and I don’t think AJ is instilling much fear in anyone these days. Much as Locke has struggled, his game is perhaps more dependent on how that day’s home plate ump is calling strikes than anyone else in MLB. It’s a risk, but Locke already has had a great outing at GABP this year, and he’s a lefty, which is problematic for Reds. Morton needs to start in Cincy. And I’d juggle the rotation to give Cole a start in Cincy instead of in Chicago. Use Pimintel or Cumpton at one of the Wrigley games. Reds have never seen Cole, and let’s face it, right now he’s the best Bucs have got.