Whether you’re a Pirates front office apologist or hater, the brand of baseball put forth by the team has been intolerable of late. After heading into the All-Star Break just two games back of the Chicago Cubs for the National League Central division lead, they’ve gone an uncanny 5-24. That puts them 15 games back of the Cubs as of Aug. 13.
However, despite the poor play, there are still worthwhile storylines to follow. Here’s five that standout heading into the final month an a half of the season.
1. Bryan ROYnolds?
There are plenty of worthy NL Rookie of the Year candidates. However, the frontrunner just might be Pittsburgh’s Bryan Reynolds.
Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Los Angeles Angels, Reynolds led the NL with a .335 batting average. If he’s able to hold on and win the batting crown, he’d be the first rookie to complete the feat.
What stands out most in regards to his candidacy is where he started the year. Reynolds never made it past Double-A baseball before the 2019 season. He only scratched the surface at Triple-A eventually, as the 24-year-old outfielder played 13 games before getting the call to replace an injured Starling Marte.
Despite never receiving the hype of the New York Mets’ Pete Alonso or any other rookie heading into 2019, the Pirates outfielder continues to carve his own path.
He’d be the first Pirates winner of the NL Rookie of the Year since Jason Bay in 2004.
2. Watching Keller evolve
We’ve been down this road once, a Pirates pitching prospects falters in his cup of coffee and the fanbase erupts. All you have to do is ask Tyler Glasnow — you’ll have to reach him at his new Tampa Bay area code, however.
Let’s not let it happen again in 2019.
Regardless of his two lackluster starts, Mitch Keller showed strong strides of coming into his own last night against the Los Angeles Angels.
The 23-year-old righthander leads the International League in strikeouts and earned run average. With an abundance of prospects and borderline MLB guys in AAA, I’m positive we’ll see a translation in the show down the stretch.
3. Outside of Vazquez, who steps up?
Felipe Vazquez is out of this world.
Want to hear something unheard of? 72 strikeouts in 45.1 innings.
The Pirates truly pulled an ace out of their sleeve when they flipped then-closer Mark Melancon for Vazquez and minor leaguer Taylor Hearn. With perhaps the best closer in baseball on your team, who joins him at the backend. Pretty much every pitcher in the Pirates bullpen has shown flashes of greatness at one point of another.
In his last 10 games, righty Michael Feliz has been dominating. Through 15.2 innings, he’s struck out 19 batters and has a 1.72 ERA — mimicking Vazquez’ 1.79 season ERA on a smaller scale.
Who will it be complimenting Vazquez? Feliz? Kyle Crick? Richard Rodriguez?
This question will be answered — or at least give us a hint — during the rest of August and all of September.
Will Josh Bell’s funk end?
Over the past couple years, there seems to be a common trend in Pittsburgh — certain hitters carry the team offensively for weeks but then get cold.
Josh Bell fits that bill in 2019.
You don’t have to dig to deep to find that out either. The Pirates have won five games since the All-Star Break and Bell hit under the Mendoza line with three total home runs.
The team surged heading into the break and so did Bell. He hit five homers with a .308 average in 26 at bats, leading the team back into the division race.
It’s shades of Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez during the playoff streak. The only difference is that those guys could cool off and someone else would pick up the slack. However, Bell doesn’t have that luxury.
Bell’s play down the stretch can go a long way into writing the narrative heading into 2020.
Can the Pirates string some games together?
Essentially, this last point strings every aspect mentioned above together.
There’s no debate here, the Pirates were a good team in the first half. If they didn’t use an MLB-leading 48 players this year with no depth to speak of, I’m confident they’d still be in the hunt.
And even though they’re no longer in the race for a division title or Wild Card hunt, winning games changes the mindset of an athlete. It can build confidence, carrying over into spring training and the regular season next year.
Nevertheless, the guy who needs to spark this so-called fire under the Pirates is Clint Hurdle. Even with a contract that spans until the aftermath of the 2021 season, no job is safe when a team falters.
We all know who gets the blame when a team suffers — the manager.
So Hurdle needs to rally his troops and inspire them to compete as if meaningful baseball is going on.
The importance of winning can never go unnoticed.
PHOTO: Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bryan Reynolds, right, celebrates in the dugout after hitting a three-run home run off Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Nick Ramirez during the sixth inning in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. Photo courtesy of Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press.
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