Saunders: Pirates Need Stars to Overcome Adversity

The Pirates had a pretty strong run to start the 2018 season, but a recent slide has brought them quickly back to Earth.

The club has lost nine of its last 11 games and has fallen to six games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central, dropping three games over the course of a week.

The downturn in fortunes as a team has coincided with a number of individual misfortunes as the Pirates have tumbled in late May. That’s not something new, as the Pirates got off to their great start without many pieces of their puzzle clicking at 100 percent.

But it appears that in the past week, they reached their saturation point. Every team has things go wrong throughout the course of a season, and the Pirates have had more than their fair share so far.

Expected No. 5 starter Joe Musgrove has made one appearance due to injury. Starling Marte spent 10 days on the disabled list. Josh Harrison missed five weeks. Ivan Nova will miss at least one start and probably more.

Beyond the injuries, there’s been poor individual performances. Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco and Jameson Taillon have not contributed to the level that could be expected for them for much of this season. The bullpen started with an inconsistent front and middle and now the back end of Michael Feliz and Felipe Vazquez has imploded.

I wrote in this space last week that the Pirates depth has been excellent when called upon, and that remains true. You can safely add Tyler Glasnow to the list of players performing beyond expectations as someone who might help the back end of the bullpen out, as well.

But it seems that the aggregate total of starting line losses and depth performances has turned against the Pirates’ favor.

More simply put, they need some things to start going their way, pronto.

While Polanco’s struggles have gotten headlines, he’s just a two-week slump removed from actually being far ahead of his career numbers.

Revisiting my piece published on the eve of the season, I wrote that Taillon needed to be a breakout star and Josh Bell either improved his power or average.

Neither of those things has happened so far, and while others I called necessary have (Glasnow has found a role, Francisco Cervelli has turned back the clock and Colin Moran looks like a fit), those two are the biggest potential for a turnaround this season the Pirates have.

Injuries are going to happen, and the Pirates, probably more so than most clubs, spend a lot of time and effort in preventing them and minimizing their impact. It’s not the like Pirates can do anything to be injured less.

What they can do is get Bell and Taillon, a pair of players that has the potential to be All-Star, franchise-leading talent, to a place where they’re leading the team instead of holding it back.

Taillon looks like he may be onto something with his new slider. Bell looks as lost at the plate as I’ve seen him in his time in Pittsburgh. Those two players’ futures are vitally important to not just the rest of the 2018, but beyond.

If the Pirates have a pair of studs at first and at the top of the rotation to go along with the other pieces they’ve acquired, 2019 and 2020 are looking like more years of contention, with prospects like Mitch Keller and Cole Tucker set to join the big league club and add to it.

But if those players never reach their potential, the Pirates might not have a sustainable path to competition going forward.

It’s still May. It’s hard to make anything that happens in May out to be more than it is. But the development of those young players — who aren’t really all that young anymore — is so important to the future of the team, that is bears significant interest going forward.