Believe in Neal Huntington – Pittsburgh Pirates Mid-Season Review

After losing 14 of 20 games that included two separate 5-game losing streaks, the Pittsburgh Pirates seem to be back on track having won 9 of their last 11. That late surge helped the Pirates post a 46-43 record at the break, which is good for 3rd in the NL Central and are now just half a game back from the Cardinals, and seven back from the struggling Chicago Cubs.

Eliminate the awful month of June where the Pirates went 6-20 and it’s a whole new ball game. As a result of that record the Pirates were, at one point, as many as 15-games back of the NL Central-leading Cubs and were faced with being passed by the Milwaukee Brewers. Unfortunately, we can’t erase an entire month of the year, so what needs to be fixed?

Having only been shutout one time in 89 games, aside from a few slumps, the bats are not the main focal point in both the ups and downs of this short sampling of baseball; it’s the pitching, and every one knows it.

Blame could be put on, General Manager, Neal Huntington for not spending the money to solidify the 5-man rotation, but rather waiting for the young guns in Triple-A to make an impact. With the return of Gerrit Cole (I leave Liriano out of this for a reason, read on) the rotation may be looking up as the Pirates have gotten great, late, contributions from Tyler Glasnow, Jameson Taillon, Steven Brault, and Chad Kuhl. Combine that with the incredible baseball being played by top prospects Adam Frazier and Josh Bell (I’m still hyped after his Grand Slam), and we, as fans, have no reason to not believe in Neal Huntington’s process.

As I wrote earlier in the year, I was uncertain of the workload being put on Ray Searage. He’s a magician, there’s no doubt about that, but sand doesn’t always turn into pearls. With the acquisitions of Jonathon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, and Juan Nicasio among others, Ray Searage had his hands full already working with Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and Jeff Locke as well as awaiting the arrival of the Triple-A talent. To add the icing on the cake, as we all expected, Jeff Locke has become the coincidental “Ace” of this staff with all the uncertainty of who the ball will be given to next. That just explains the whirlwind of a pitching staff that has seen 23 different pitchers take the mound, including catcher Erik Kratz.

Combine Locke’s temporary Ace status with his recent performance, after a rocky start, and I’m not as mad about it as I normally would be. After losing three of his first four decisions, Jeff Locke has turned his season around and has won seven of his last nine decisions. Four of his last five starts have come against the Dodgers, Giants, Cardinals, and Cubs who are all threatening a playoff push. The only loss in that five game stretch was to the Cubs, not at the fault of Locke, in a no decision one-run game to end the first half. Locke even tallied the only complete game for the Pirates this season on May 30th against the Miami Marlins.

For the Pirates to save their season, I propose dealing or DFA-ing both Francisco Liriano and Jon Niese. Liriano is struggling, and I hate to say it but, he will end up being just another hole in the rotation. It wouldn’t surprise me if a team took a shot at Liriano given the high potential if he fixes his mechanics; just look how Edinson Volquez ended up with the Royals. Shopping Liriano would be the least likely of the two, as I don’t expect Niese to ever pitch in a Pirates uniform again… It’s that simple. Solidify the rotation in expectation of at least Glasnow and Taillon to make regular appearances.

Juan Nicasio has been a key addition to the bullpen as of late. Since the move on June 24th, the Pirates have won six of seven games that he has appeared in. Great move, and may be the move that keeps this season alive. Alongside Mark Melancon’s 27 saves, which is tied for second in the MLB, the Pirates bullpen could be dangerous during the second half.

Getting some experience under the five main prospects’ (Glasnow, Taillon, Kuhl, Frazier, and Bell) belt before the All-Star break was key, as they now know what to expect for the second-half playoff push. Just take a step back and believe in Neal Huntington; I see nothing worrisome about these five that isn’t any worse than what the Pirates are dealing with now.

Jon Jaso and David Freese have proven to be great, not to mention cost-effective, additions both on the field and at the plate. Jordy Mercer is on pace to have his best season yet, Josh Harrison and Jung Ho Kang haven’t skipped a beat, and the outfield, when playing well, is still the best in baseball. Marte is in the All-Star game, and Gregory Polanco’s deal that he signed in the beginning of April has proven to take a load off of his shoulders. He can now just go play baseball the way he’s used to; in just 82 games he’s already put up his best numbers (.287/.362/.500, 12 Home Runs, 50 RBI’s) to date. Francisco Cervelli should be back shortly after the break and will continue his winning ways. I don’t see anything that should be changed about the position players… “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

It’ll be interesting to see what turns up with these Jung Ho Kang allegations, but I don’t believe anything will happen until after the season, if at all.

That being said, let’s discuss Andrew McCutchen: Batting an abysmal .226 and .202 in March/April and June respectively, McCutchen was the center of trade talks and banter from the same mouths that wanted Sidney Crosby traded in December of 2015 before winning the city a Stanley Cup. In the words of Green Bay Packers’ Quarterback, Aaron Rodgers: “R-E-L-A-X”. McCutchen seems to have hit an expected hot streak in the brief baseball played in July so far, posting a .314 batting average, 11 hits (4 for extra bases), and 6 RBI’s in just 9 games. The All-Star break will give him time to rest and recover; conversely, let’s hope the break won’t cool him off. I want nothing more than for Andrew McCutchen to be in Pittsburgh for his whole career, and you shouldn’t either. There’s a reason he was once the MVP of baseball.

MIAMI, FL - AUGUST 26: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a three run home run during a game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on August 26, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

MIAMI, FL – AUGUST 26: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a three run home run during a game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on August 26, 2015 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

In summary: Relax. There is a ton of baseball to be played, the future looks bright, and Andrew McCutchen is getting hot at the right time. We saw the same magic happen before the All-Star break last year and it was a magical run to 98-wins. This team is different than that of 2015; this group of guys can hit the big-time pitchers, having already bested Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, and Jake Arrieta. Believe in Neal Huntington, and let him work the same magic that busted the Pirates out of a 20-year slump.

Writers note: you can reach me on twitter @fuzznacht to discuss anything I have written here. Or you can e-mail me: mfass.sports@gmail.com