The simplest way to dissect these Pirates’ needs leading up to Major League Baseball’s trading deadline is to point to the pitching: If one or both of Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole is at peak form, then there’s no need — emphasis on need — to acquire a starter.
To look at Liriano in Wednesday’s 6-1 slapdown of the Dodgers at PNC Park, it’s eminently clear he’s at least close. One run, four hits over seven innings tell part of the tale. Vastly improved fastball command, the result of Ray Searage stressing keeping his shoulder from flying open, tells a lot more of it.
To listen to Liriano, it’s equally clear he feels the rotation is set:
Relief is different. Help there is a must, no matter current facades. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson can’t keep up their pace.
But what of the offense?
Really, what to make of this group?
If anyone cares to recall that awful April, it was founded on a .222-batting lineup that ranked 13th in the 15-team National League. The other numbers were just as bad: .297 on-base percentage (13th), .648 OPS (13th) and, of course, 95 runs (12th).
That, of course, was also back when Gregory Polanco represented the salvation of the franchise.
Fast forward, including the 18 runs hammered out the past two nights to take this series from the Dodgers, and the Pirates have catapulted to the top of the league with a .334 OBP and to fourth with 423 runs. And it hardly has a fluky feel. Andrew McCutchen is an MVP sequel in the making. Neil Walker, Russell Martin, Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer show no signs of abating. Starling Marte was coming around before this concussion. And yeah, Polanco has gone from savior to just another promising piece, which is all he should have been all along.
As Neal Huntington put it when I asked about his everyday group, “We feel good about it. We feel good that we’re in the middle of the race, and we’ve still got some guys with some room to go. That doesn’t mean there aren’t starting pitchers, relievers, role players, even position players who can help us. We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t check into those. But overall, right here, we don’t have a lot of guys having career years. We have guys who can get better.”
By my count, there currently are two guys left in the lurch.
Pedro Alvarez will be … ugh, another column for another day. Suffice it to say trading him is fraught with risk, replacing him internally would be ridiculous, and his bum knee now only complicates it. Better to deal with this riddle in the winter.
And first base?
Gaby Sanchez has pretty much fared as expected: He hits lefties at a .274 clip, and he’s been “more unlucky than anyone on our roster,” per Clint Hurdle. But the position as a whole has been the second-least productive in the league — only the Petco-bound Padres are worse — and that’s squarely on Ike Davis.
I like Ike. He’s been wound a bit tightly of late, and my interview with him Tuesday afternoon was no exception. He was edgy, defensive and probably would rather have been swallowing acid-dipped nails than standing there. But for the most part, he’s been OK.
Except at the plate.
“It’s a conversation that’s been ongoing,” Hurdle was telling me that same afternoon. “When he first got here, the results were a little soft, but then he found a comfort zone where he started hitting the ball and hitting it hard. A lot of good things were happening, and then, for whatever reason, it changed.”
Did it ever: Even after a 3-for-5 Tuesday and a sac fly Wednesday, even with an on-base percentage that’s 109 points above his batting average and points to a lot of good stuff going on, Davis is stuck at .239 with five home runs and 26 RBIs in 79 games since coming to Pittsburgh. That’s not much of a half-season of ball, especially not at the prime power position, especially not since he’s already being pampered with a true platoon.
This guy shouldn’t be surviving out there. He should be mashing.
That was the thrust of a lengthy talk between Hurdle and Davis early Tuesday afternoon. And when Hurdle brought up the topic of adjustments, notably a movement of the lower hand on the bat, Davis responded with, “It seems like all I’m doing is making adjustments. What do I need to do?”
Hurdle seized the eureka moment: “Swing the bat. Like you mean it.”
“Maybe that’s the key,” Davis said when I mentioned that later. “Just stop thinking and swing.”
And so Davis did that night in his first at-bat. Home run to straightaway center, and a lightning bolt to boot.
“Just cleared my head, man,” he explained with a soft smile afterward.
He paused and added, “I think I’m still figuring out what kind of hitter I want to be. I came into the season wanting to have better at-bats. I just haven’t driven the ball as well as I want to.”
If only it were that simple. This might surprise, but Davis actually has a line-drive rate of 24.7 percent since coming to the Pirates, according to FanGraphs. That’s the best of his career and even a tick better than 2012, when he slugged 32 home runs at Citi Field. The league average is 20.5 percent.
What’s more, he’s shown a sharp eye, with 38 walks and 45 strikeouts in his 213 at-bats.
“I’ve been getting on base all year,” Davis said. “Overall, I feel like I’ve had good at-bats, like I’m seeing the ball well, drawing walks.”
“But I get to a 3-1 count, and I’m walking for whatever reason.”
Exactly. And those pitches, when in the zone, often are the best to hit hard. Now, put all that together, then add in an absurdly low 7.9 percent rate of fly balls to home runs, and you’re warming.
“Like I said, he just needs to swing the bat,” Hurdle said with a smile. “Get after it.”
It’s silly to suggest, based on what we’ve seen this summer, that Davis will be part of the Pirates’ solution this year. But it’s also not unthinkable. He has a history of second-half surges — “Always, for some reason,” he said — and the above indicators powerfully underscore that this is hardly someone lost at the plate.
What’s more, Davis plays a real part in what some Pirates believe is their underlying offensive strength: They make opposing starters work.
Here’s Harrison on that topic Wednesday night:
Doesn’t sound like the bats should be a priority.
How about some arms, Neal?