The Pirates, after a quick burst, tripped a little as they headed into the final 2-1/2 months of the season. The Bucs are at 49-46, their worst record at the 95-game mark since 2010 - in the past three seasons, they've rung up 56, 54 and 51 wins over the 95-game span.
The good news is that since May 28th, the Pirates have gone 26-17, winning at a .605 clip. That would translate into 40 or 41 more wins after the break and an 89-90 win season, which should at least keep them in contention through the dog days. But that's an awful hot pace to continue, especially with holes that need filled. Here are the question marks that haven't been answered 95 games into the season:
Corner infield: The middle is solid; Neil Walker and Jordy Miller are both performing pretty well. The only bump is that light hitting Michael Martinez will be the spare wheel until Clint Barmes returns from a pretty severe groin injury, though Josh will sop up any loose innings.
But those corners... After a promising start, Gaby and Ike are cold as a witch's...well, pretty cold. This month, they've put up a .125 BA with a .409 OPS and their ice age has lasted six weeks, with their BA at .172 and OPS at .508 over that time. That doesn't cut it off the bench, much less a premium offensive position like first base.
What to do? Not much. There is no first basemen available, at least not yet, and Indy trots out Matt Hague, Chris McGuiness and Andrew Lambo, who is just coming off a thumb injury and rehabbing in A ball, but could challenge Ike (and Travis Snider) for time in September. It's also fueling (along with an errant toss or 19) the long-time cry to move Pedro to first.
Pedro has been an absolute contradiction this year. He's made 20 errors, but only one fielding a ball. El Toro is second on the team in homers and RBI behind Cutch, but hits just .211 with RISP because he can't get over the Mendoza Line against southpaws. But that's his MO, even with improving peripherals, and Pittsburgh will have to live with it as long as he pulls on a Pirate jersey.
Corner outfield: The reigning MVP has the middle in about as good of hands as it could be in. Starling Marte and Greg Polanco can go fetch a ball and fly around the bases (which is sometimes not a good thing). Both need to become much more effective at bat. Marte has to take a disciplined approach to the plate every at-bat, not every other game. El Coffee is now involved in the cat-and-mouse game every rookie endures. It hasn't affected his eye too badly, but he'll have to shorten that swing. How quickly they can do that will determine when and if they become the long anticipated dream outfield of the future.
Starting pitching: Charlie, Eddie and Jeff Locke are as solid a trio as there is for the back end of a rotation. The question is whether Frankie and Gerrit Cole can fill in the top two slots. Right now, with a team ERA of 3.93 and a 4.00 FIP, the staff performance is decidedly average. The cavalry of Vance Worley and Brandon Cumpton can hold their own at the bottom and Nick Kingham is working his way into a possible call, but Liriano and Cole are the only arms that can fill the top two spots, and the Pirates need some ace-type work from their Big Two.
Bullpen: The Pirates are in a bind here of their own making. Mark the Shark is certainly a capable closer and Tony Watson a spectacular set-up guy, with Jared Hughes and Justin Wilson usually good enough as bridge relievers. Jeanmar Gomez doesn't hurt the team as a long man that can slip in to higher leverage spots on occasion. But Ernesto Freiri and Stolmy Pimentel are projects, and that's at least one too many for a contender to carry.
Both players have to be on the active roster or be DFA'ed. Frieri has gotten more movement on his fastball since arriving, but until he masters a change, he's a one trick pony whose one trick isn't good enough, especially in a high-leverage situation. The Pirates got Pimentel last year based on his upside and knowing his options were almost up. He's only worked a dozen times, and it may be that the Pirates are torn between making him a late-inning or starting pitcher. But the results are that he's not getting work in either spot and wasting a season of development.
The Bucs have Vin Mazzaro and Drew Oliver as relief options at Indy. Both are doing well, but neither is on the 40-man roster. They have a couple of expendable guys on the protected list, but as a matter of policy are leery of shuffling. There are back-end people available, and the Pirates may dive into that pool though we wouldn't expect a big, costly name but another arm with a sabermetric calling card.
Clint likes to assign roles to the pen and start the eighth and ninth with his relievers rather than bringing them in the middle. It may provide a comfort zone, but it also piles up innings - the Pirate bullpen is just 22nd in appearances with 266, but eighth in IP with 299. So he may want to consider a little more mix-and-match or perhaps giving his starters a little longer leash, which he appears to be doing lately.
So there are the questions waiting for a second half answer - the corners all around, a return to grace for Liairano and Cole, and a more manageable bullpen situation. The final 11 weeks will hinge on how they're answered.