Can the Pirates Compete in the Playoffs?

The Pirates currently sit 1.5 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and are in the first Wild Card spot. It would take a pretty monumental collapse from the Pirates to miss out on the playoffs. According to Baseball Prospectus, the Pirates odds to make the playoffs stand at 97.8%. Their odds to win the World Series sit at 4.9%, which is lower than any other team whose odds to make the playoffs are over 80%. For example, the Cincinnati Reds have a 92% chance to make the playoffs and a 5.6% chance to win the World Series. The World Series numbers are based on the BP’s Expected Win % metric which takes into account the team’s Playoff Percentage and Expected Win Percentage. The Expected Win Percentage looks at the make up of the team and explains why the Pirates World Series odds are so low. Their Expected Win Percentage is .530 which is, again, the lowest of any team with playoff odds over 80%.

As much as I’m rooting for the Pirates to go deep into the playoffs, I just don’t see it. Their team isn’t very good. Sure they have a MVP quality center fielder in Andrew McCutchen, and a power hitting third baseman in Pedro Alvarez. Other than that their offense is pretty thin. They currently have 3 guys in their starting lineup with an OPS over .750. Their team OPS is .705 which is 11 points off of the MLB average .716 and one point higher than the NL average of .704. The Cardinals have the highest team OPS in the National League with .742.

The Pirates have relied heavily on their pitching this season. They have the 2nd best team ERA (tied with the Dodgers at 3.24) in the National League and third with an ERA+ of 111 (with 100 being league average). One of the surprises of the season was the emergence of Jason Grilli as the Pirates closer. Before landing on the disabled list in late July with forearm tightness, Grilli saved 30 games and maintained a 2.34 ERA and 0.921 WHIP while striking out 39% of the batters he faced. Since Grilli went on the shelf, Mark Melancon has moved into the closer role and racked up 8 saves and a 0.78 ERA. Grilli is expected to return sometime in early September. The Pirates pen is probably the strongest area of their team.

Another surprise for the Pirates pitching has been the dominance of Francisco Lirano. Liriano’s previous best season was in his 2006 rookie season in Minnesota when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA. Unfortunately he missed all of 2007 recovering from Tommy John surgery and hasn’t been the same since. Post surgery coming into this year Liriano’s ERA was 4.75 over 695.1 innings of work. This season his numbers look great. His ERA is down to 2.74 with a WHIP at 1.232 over 125 innings this season. He has anchored the Pirates staff this season. AJ Burnett has had a good season as well, even though his record doesn’t show it. His 3.18 ERA is the lowest of his career. Jeff Locke came out of the gate strong but has really faltered lately.¬†Add to that the emergence of rookie Gerrit Cole and the Pirates have a decent playoff rotation. Not the strongest rotation in the National League by any stretch, but if these guys continue pitching as they have thus far, it’s decent.

The problem comes when you look at the teams they will likely be facing. Let’s assume that they get the first wildcard spot in the NL. That would put them in a 1 game playoff with the Reds. The Reds would likely throw out Mat Latos to start that game. Their other options would be Homer Bailey or Bronson Arroyo (add in the potential come back of Johnny Cueto). I think I like all of those guys, in a playoff scenario, more than anyone in the Pirates rotation. Yes, Liriano has been brilliant at times, he’s also allowed 4+ earned runs on 5 occasions. And in his start at Colorado on August 9th, he gave up 10 earned runs in 2.1 innings.

The Pirates have added to their team recently, the biggest piece being adding Marlon Byrd from the Mets. Byrd is having a career year with 21 home runs and a .285/.330/.518 slash line. The question for me, is this enough? Does the addition of Marlon Byrd make up for having breakout left fielder Starling Marte on the shelf with a busted up hand? Seems like a bit of a wash unless Marte can come back healthy and contribute. There are rumors that the Pirates are in hot pursuit of a first basemen, possibly Justin Morneau. They need some help. There is a significant drop off in talent after you get past the first few guys in the Pirates lineup. The addition of Byrd helps that, but without more reinforcements, I don’t see the Pirates doing any damage in the playoffs.

I commend them for making a push and acquiring guys, but I have to question if they are mortgaging their future by trading away organizational depth to push for the playoffs. It doesn’t make sense to me. I applaud them for rebuilding an organization that has failed to make the playoffs, or have a winning record since 1992 (which happens to be Barry Bonds last year in Pittsburgh). I worry that instead of building an organization that can sustain success, they’re throwing all of their eggs into the 2013 basket. I just don’t see success for them in 2013. The other teams in the NL are stronger than the Pirates, not to mention whatever team that represents the American League in the World Series.

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