Things can change quickly. The Pirates entered Sunday seven games back of the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals with both Jeff Locke and A.J. Burnett struggling in their most recent outings. With only 65 games remaining on the schedule, the Bucs appeared destined for their third straight wild card appearance.
And that may still happen, but a lot has gone the Pirates way in four days. Gerrit Cole came through with another sterling outing on Sunday as the Pirates finished their series with the Nationals taking three of four. They then pounded out 18 runs in Minneapolis, the most in back-to-back games all season, and swept the two-game series from the Twins. At the same time, the Cards have struggled. They've gone 1-3, getting shutout in their past two, while only registering four hits in each. On top of that outfielder Matt Holliday who already missed 31 games with a quad strain earlier in the season, suffered another leg injury that most certainly will send him to the DL. Now 24 hours from the trade deadline the Pirates are only 4.5 games behind St. Louis with nine head-to-head meetings still on the docket.
So what does Neal Huntington do, if anything, to increase the Pirates chances of winning the NL Central?
And this is where things get a little more complicated than they might initially appear. Barring a blockbuster trade or trading a player currently on the 25-man roster, the Pirates really only have one, maybe two roster spots to play with.
Let's start with the position players of which there are 13. Last week's acquisition of Aramis Ramirez filled a short-term need following the injuries to Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer. With Ramirez at third, Jung Ho Kang at short and Pedro Alvarez at first, the eight starting position players are set. Also sometime in the next month both Harrison and Mercer are due back. I'm guessing Harrison gets back for the first series with the Cards that starts August 11 and Mercer probably two weeks after that. Pedro Florimon and Travis Ishikawa are the two players likely to be sent out when they come back. That puts the roster at 10 position players. Add catcher Chris Stewart and you have 11 guys who are locks.
If you follow my twitter feed @DTonPirates you know how I feel about Sean Rodriguez. Great teammate, great backstory, versatile defender who should not see another at bat the rest of the season. Rodriguez's .201/.227/.302 .529 OPS speaks for itself, but, my god, since May 11, yes arbitrary end points, he's .145/.174/.239 .413 in 124 plate appearances. I'm not much for exclamation points, but damn! Read that again! So the question is do you keep SRod on the roster as Pedro Alvarez's caddy and late-inning defensive replacement? He does have legitimate value in the role. Sunday in the eighth inning against the Nats he made a great play that saved some runs and helped secure the victory. I wrote earlier in the week why trading Alvarez would be a mistake. Apparently the Pirates now feel the same. So, if the Pirates are going to keep Pedro, they almost have to keep Rodriguez for his defense. Reluctantly, that makes twelve.
You'll notice that regardless of how they mix and match Kang, Mercer, Ramirez and Harrison, the bench now consists of four right-handed bats. So this is really the only roster spot that Huntington has available to upgrade. Jaff Decker currently is holding down the spot, and while he's hasn't been anything special in 17 plate appearances, he did draw two huge walks. He worked Max Scherzer for one Friday night as a pinch hitter in front of Gregory Polanco's season-best 12-pitch at bat, I'm-gonna-take-the-breaking-ball-deep home run off Scherzer that followed. And he drew another two-out walk, off of a lefty no less, on Tuesday night in front of Polanco's three-run double that broke things open against the Twins. Decker has been an OBP-machine in AAA and is a solid defender.
So the reality is, there really isn't much for Neal to do. How much do you want to give up for a left-handed bench upgrade that is only likely to get 30-40 at bats (depending on the severity of Polanco's injury)? Probably not much.
On to the staff. The starting rotation of Cole-Liriano-Burnett-Morton-Locke has been fantastic. Certainly some bumps in the road for the last three and if Tyson Ross becomes available Huntington should do everything possible to acquire him. But barring that I'm not sure there is an easy upgrade that makes sense.
The bullpen is where the Bucs need help. Melancon, Watson and Hughes have been great. Worley is the long-man. That gets us to nine. Antonio Bastardo is everybody's favorite whipping boy du jour, but he was excellent in June and is the second lefty in the pen. He's not going anywhere. Arquimedes Caminero was lights out the first two months of the season and has been a disaster since. He had his first clean inning in a month yesterday. But there is no way the Pirates are doing anything with Caminero. He regularly touches 100 mph, he just turned 28 and the Pirates have five more years of control. That gets us to 11.
Last night the Bucs acquired Joe Blanton from the Royals for a bag of balls & a bat. The Pirates saw Blanton up close last week as he threw 3.2 scoreless innings against them and that no doubt impacted their decision-making. Blanton's been effective out of the bullpen, striking out 23 batters, walking just three in 23 innings. He's Just A Guy, but he's a small upgrade over Deolis Guerra who will be DFA'd later today.
(EDIT: 3:30 Thursday. To my surprise the Pirates DFA'd Vance Worley, not Guerra. Obviously they like Blanton more than Worley. It will be interesting now to see how Blanton is used.)
So where does that leave Huntington?
My guess is Neal is done. Sure, he could trade guys off the 25-man roster, but I don't see him DFA'ing anyone other than Blanton. So unless the Pirates do something bold and completely out-of-the-blue, this is it.