By Jared Lankes
The story of the 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates is a story of doing just enough to stick around in the race of the surprisingly weak National League Central but not doing quite enough to seize an opportunity to make a serious run as of yet. Every time you think they are sneaking into the race, they fall out a bit, and you think they are done. But then, surely enough, a week later, they are somehow right back in it and hanging on for dear life, getting us at the cusp of believing again.
At the All-Star break, the Pirates sit at a seemingly lowly 42-47 but are only seven games below the shocking first place Milwaukee Brewers. However, there is enough to believe this team can at least make an effort at sticking around all summer. For one, the division has no clear team readying to run away with it as the Brewers are, more or less, overachieving, the Cubs don’t look prepared to hit their stride, and the Cardinals are just as mediocre this season as the Pirates have been, and of course the Reds are your friendly neighborhood cellar dweller again. Secondly, Pirates play a lot of games in the second half against the division, particularly the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds, but still have some games to go against the Cubs as well. The best way to get ahead in the standings in the division is to, naturally, beat the teams in it, and the Pirates will have plenty of chances to do just that, and, if they capitalize, it could pay huge dividends. Thirdly, on July 18, barring any postponements of games, the Pirates will welcome back their best player, Starling Marte, from his suspension. Adding that sort of star power is akin to making a blockbuster move at the trade deadline and should provide this team with a major boost shortly after the break.
But there is an obstacle that will change the Pirates season outlook drastically one way or another, and that is the aforementioned trade deadline. Pirates have until July 31st (though they will discuss all sorts of things and lay groundwork on many potential deals before then) to decide whether they will trade off expiring pieces and maybe some others and regroup for next season or if they should bet on this season a bit. Until that big day at the end of this month, the Pirates will play 16 games, seven against the division at home and a nine-game west coast trip which includes six games against two of the worst three teams in the national league. This 16-game stretch will undoubtedly define the season.
To be solidified contenders and buy at the deadline, the Pirates have to realistically get to .500 or better at the least but probably have to close the gap on first place to three or four games and get to at least third place in the division. In order to achieve this between now and the 31st, the Pirates would have to go 11-5 and gain three or four games on the division lead and pass at least the Cardinals or Cubs in the standings. This makes those seven with the Cardinals and Brewers to begin the second half ever important. They probably have to go 5-2, maybe even 6-1, in that stretch to have a real shot. Even if they manage that, they then have to not lay an egg after that on the nine-game road trip that sandwiches the surprising Rockies between the lowly Giants and Padres. Pirates would probably have to manage at least 6-3 in that stretch, maybe even 7-2, but it might not even matter if they can’t beat the Cardinals and Brewers prior to that anyways, which makes those seven games against the two division foes probably the make-or-break point in the season even more so than the trip out west with the trade deadline looming and the decision to buy or sell looming as deadline day fast approaches.
Can the Pirates make a run in the second half of the season? Sure they can! Is it realistic that they do? Now, that is a more debatable topic. A lot has to go right for the Pirates to make a serious run at this thing, and in a season where not much has gone right for this team, who can confidentially say things will start going right suddenly. But hey, maybe the bad luck in the first half of the season will even out into insanely great luck in the second half. That might be wishful thinking, but it is the hope all Pirates fans hold onto right now. In any case, the trajectory of the Pirates season will become clear very soon as their play on the field to begin the second half will tip the scales either way.