In the last assessment at the quarter season mark, I noted that things seemed pretty steady state with the Bucs. They were still two games under .500, holding their own through solid pitching and McCutchen, but besides a few signs of life from the offense, not much else to report.
Well, times have changed.
The Pirates are now in first place. They are five games over .500. They are executing a more balanced offensive attack, though still heavily reliant on McCutchen - dangerously so. It remains a mystery to me why opposing teams aren't simply pitching around him but for whatever reason, they aren't.
What this means is not less pressure to get a bat or two into the lineup, but more. It would be easy to say that the fine performance of the team indicates that no new bat is needed, that it's best to leave the chemistry in place. Presley is back from the stint in the minors and doing well; even Barmes is hitting some. The team is more expeienced last year, the pitching staff augmented with a couple dogs that throw strikes and have been through pennant races, and Jerry Meals announced his retirement. OK, last part not true, but I can see that point of view.
On the other hand, I think it's valid to ask whether the current level of play is sustainable for the entire remainder of the year without some help. Unless "someone" (read: Alvarez or even Jones) steps us as a credible 4-hole threat, it's only a matter of time before the league starts to pitch around McCutchen. We don't have the dogs in the minors to get the job done. Hague has been helpful; Mercer pretty much relegated to the bench. Neither are providing much impact. In fact there are only two players at AAA that could be considered as possibly having an impact. One - Marte - isn't quite ready (or so we're told); the other is Jeff Clement. He may get his shot this week in interleague play - I hope so - and if he makes the most of it, maybe he'll stick.
I'm not sure a winning strategy for the Pirates is to hang their hopes on Jeff Clement. Just thinking that gets me nervous. That said, he deserves his shot. Why not? But I'm not sure that'd prove to be enough.
So, the one thing that hasn't changed from the prior assessment is that the pressure is still on Neal Huntington to come through and bring us a reliable, quality power hitter. Or two. We know he's trying, or at least credible rumors indicate as such. We also know it's a seller's market as a lot of teams are looking for help, especially with the new playoff system giving everyone dreams of contending. Like us! But the point is, we need help sooner than the deadline, and it's not going to be easy to get.
That's where our GM needs to earn his stripes. He neglected acquiring sufficient offense in the offseason; now he's boxed in. Luckily, we seem to have sufficient pitching depth that something can be done. Let's see what happens.
The other big thing that's happened since the last Assessment was the annual baseball draft. Mark Appel - a guy that many considered to be a logical number one overall choice - fell to the Bucs at eight and to Neal's credit, he snatched him up. It'll be interesting to see how the negotiations over Appel play out in under the new draft system, where teams are severely penalized for going over recommended slots.
There's a case to be made for just holding fast, signing a bunch of other guys, and getting the 9th pick next year. I'd be ok with that, as Appel's first impressions, at least to me, were not positive and his agent Scott Boras needs to accept that the flexibility teams like the Pirates had in the past is no longer there.
On the other hand, Appel may realize that waiting a year may not get him much. He may not get drafted much earlier if he's seen as a "bad Appel" by teams, he may get injured, and all he'll achieve is to push back his professional career. The best path for him is to sign, get his career underway, excel, and get that big payday in a few years.
But you know kids these days, they're just so impatient...