Starting pitching: Gerrit Cole improves every season; once he gets a little more efficient and deeper into games, he'll be the real deal. Frankie has some red flags (control, homers) that need watched; him turning into a mid-level guy hurts a rotation that's short of upper-end arms. AJ has replaced Eddie Volquez more than adequately. The bottom end hasn't held up; Charlie Morton is due back Monday, and Jeff Locke best check his rear view mirror to make sure Clayton Richard, Adrian Sampson and/or Casey Sadler aren't gaining ground. But none of the ready-for-the-show minor league guys appear to be more than back-enders.
Bullpen: Tony Watson is superman, Jared Hughes has been consistent and the jury is still out on Mark the Shark. Rob Scahill has been a find so far, but the other guys have been up-and-down. Indy's Bobby LaFromboise & Blake Wood could help from the left side if called on.
Infield: Jung-Ho looks like he's an everyday guy already. Josh is heating up, tho his glove has been surprisingly iron-clad of late. The Kid is consistent, and except for an odd homer by Pedro, first base is still a hot mess; Corey Hart hasn't shown any of the old pizazz. Maybe the surprising Deibinson Romero will get a call sometime. Alen Hanson is getting his AAA time in, but is a man without a spot right now.
Outfield: Cutch is slowly coming on and Starling is raking. Gregory Polanco has found the pine, and the Pirates don't really have anyone to adequately fill in. Jose Tabata is the latest guy on audition after DL'ed Andrew Lambo and Hart fizzled, and there's not a lot of step-in help; the best are Gorkys Hernandez and Jaff Decker in reserve.
Catcher: Get over Russ; he's gone. Fran Cervelli is league average with stolen bases, skilled enough at receiving and framing, and hits, though without any power. Stew is off to a great start as the #2. The biggest downside is that 40 games into the season, not one catcher has dropped a ball over the fence yet, and neither Fran nor Stew have exhibited any long-ball muscle in the past. Tony Sanchez is waiting at Indy with Elias Diaz in training.
Bench: Stew has been solid, as has been Sean Rodriguez. Jordy looks more and more like a younger Clint Barmes, while Hart and the fourth OF spot remain problematic.
|40 down, 122 to go...|
The Bucs are right where they were last year. In 2014, they posted a 17-23 slate and were 8-1/2 behind the Brewers; today they're 18-22 and nine games away from the Cards. The hitting is beginning to come around, but they still whiff more than they should and have a hard time converting runners into runs.
The pitching will be critical; Frankie has to shake his recent slump and AJ not regress too badly. The back end needs to carry its load better. The bullpen is fine at the late inning end, and as most relief corps, inconsistent in the long and bridge arms.
One thing that would help would be a leather revival. The Bucco D has saved just three runs per Fangraphs this season; they saved 39 last season. That's a three-win swing.
And a little nod by the baseball gods wouldn't hurt. Pittsburgh has lost all six of its extra inning games; they were 8-7 last year. They've outscored their opponents 154-145 in 2015 and their Pythagorean record is 21-19, so the club is underachieving at a pretty high rate thanks mostly to that overtime futility.
It's no time to throw in the towel, but the Bucs again have dug themselves a hole. There's not a lot of MLB-ready help in the pipeline for this year, so short of a deal, Pittsburgh will have to tango with who brung 'em and hope that a couple of underperformers shape up during the summer. They don't have much organizational margin for error, and probably need 70-75 wins in the coming months to make it a three-peat.