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.
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.