The Red-Hot Pittsburgh Pirates Continue Their Strong Start
The red-hot Pittsburgh Pirates continue their surprising start. On Wednesday, they clubbed the Colorado Rockies 10-2, improving their record to 12-6, the best record in the National League’s Central Division and the sixth-best mark in the majors.
The victory came after the Bucs lost back-to-back games for the first time this year. After trading Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole and signing no free agents, many expected the Bucs to struggle this year. There seemed no way possible they could improve on their 75 wins and fourth place finish last year in the NL Central. But led by some sizzling bats, the Pirates have gotten off to one of their best starts in years.
And while questions remain about the Bucs, especially their young and inexperienced pitching staff, there are some signs that the Pirates could contend for a playoff slot this year.
NL Central may be weak this year
One thing that could help the Pirates is that other teams in the Central Division have struggled out of the gate and face problems that could linger this season. Given that teams play 76 games in their division, that’s an extremely important factor that can’t be overlooked.
Just three years ago, the NL Central was the toughest division as its top three teams had the best records in MLB. The Cardinals led the way with 100 wins, followed by the Pirates at 98 and the Cubs at 97. Two years ago, the Cubs had the best record in MLB, winning 103 games and their first World Series title since 1908. Last year, the Cubs only won 92 games but still won the NL Central before bowing out in the playoffs.
However, the last two years, the NL Central has fielded only one playoff teams with the Cardinals and Brewers, falling a game short of making the playoffs in the last two years, respectively. All that was expected to change this year as the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers made significant moves in the off-season which they felt would improve their chances not only of winning the division but the World Series.
The Cubs tried to improve their pitching staff by forking out $126 million for six years to Yu Darvish and $38 million for three years to Tyler Chatwood. The Cardinals dealt several prospects to the Miami Marlins for Marcell Ozuna, one of the best outfielders in the National League last year, and signed free-agent reliever Greg Holland, who leads the NL with 41 saves last year. The Brewers traded for Christian Yelich, who starred in the outfield with Ozuna for the Marlins, and signed free-agent centerfielder Lorenzo Cain.
Moves not working out
However, none of the moves had quite worked as expected and all three teams have also had to deal with some major injury issues.
Darvish has a six earned run average after three starts while Chatwood has a 4.60 ERA after three starts. First baseman Anthony Rizzo has spent time on the disabled list, batting only .097 with three hits in 31 at bats. Holland has been awful this season, walking seven in two and one-third innings with an 11.57 ERA. Ozuna is batting with 271 with two homers and 11 runs batted in. But St. Louis has to be concerned by the dismal start of Matt Carpenter, who has been bothered by back and shoulder injuries. He’s off to one of the slowest starts of his career batting only .185.
Meanwhile, Yelich has spent time on the disabled list, playing in only seven games with 28 at bats. However, he is batting 393 in his limited playing time. Cain is batting 274 with one homer and five runs batted in. Also on the disabled list for the Brewers are All-Star reliever Corey Knebel and ace starter Jimmy Nelson, who suffered a strained rotator cuff last September.
The Pirates, of course, have their own problems. While the team leads the National League with a .265 batting average, they are 12th with a team ERA of 4.23. There’s no doubt that batting average will come down as the season progresses, but the key to the team’s success will be how much lower that ERA gets.
While it’s still extremely early in the season, the Bucs are rolling and could be a factor in the wildcard chase if the other teams in the division continue to struggle.
The Cubs have had five games postponed, which could lead to some doubleheaders and fewer off days for the team later this year. The Bucs have only one game to make up, with the Cubs of course.
The Bucs continued to have some severe attendance problems. After their first nine home games, they’re averaging only 13,733 fans per game. That’s 29th in MLB only behind the Miami Marlins, who are averaging 13,171. Some of the attendance problems are due to the frigid weather, which has plagued teams in the Northeast this spring. However, there were numerous reports of Bucco fans upset with the trades of McCutchen and Cole and not renewing their season tickets. It will be interesting to see if fans turn out when the temperatures warm up. You have to think that attendance will pick up if the Bucs continue their hot play, but there’s no guarantee the Pirates will keep up their torrid pace.
The Bucs did make a wise waiver claim in picking up Enny Romero from the Washington Nationals. Romero, 27, posted a 3.56 ERA with 65 strikeouts and 23 walks in 55 2/3 innings over 53 appearances for the Nationals last season. With five seasons in MLB, Romero brings a veteran presence to a young and inexperienced bullpen. He should be a big help as a middle reliever. That’s been the team’s biggest weak point so far.
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