The Cincinnati Reds are 14-2 since the All-Star break and now have a three game lead over the Pirates in the NL Central division race. Although the Pirates are a respectable 10-6 since the All-Star break, there is plenty of improvement that needs to take place in order for the Pirates to keep pace with the Reds.
Below are five crucial players and aspects which are imperative to continued success in 2012 for the Pirates.
1) James McDonald– McDonald had an All-Star-like first half in 2012, posting a 9-3 record with a 2.37 ERA. McDonald recorded 100 strikeouts and walked 31 batters through his first 17 starts with a 8.2 k/9 ratio.
Since the break, McDonald has reverted back to one of the most confusing pitchers in league. In four starts since the break, McDonald has given up 20 earned runs, walked 19 batters and only recorded 15 strikeouts. Through his first 17 starts, McDonald gave up a total of 29 earned runs.
JMac was the ‘c0-ace’ of this Pittsburgh up until now and with his emergence as a dominant starter, it separated the Pirates from other teams. Now with only one dominant starter (A.J. Burnett), the Pirates rotation is more manageable for opposing teams.
If James McDonald does not figure things out quickly, it seems likely a trip to the disabled list with “fatigue” or a stint in the bullpen is on the horizon. The Pirates cannot afford to have a such an unpredictable starter in the rotation during a pennant race.
The Pirates will not make the playoffs if McDonald or someone else on this staff does not emerge as another dominant starter to compliment A.J. Burnett.
2) Erik Bedard– Coming into the season, many predicted Bedard to be the true ace of this Pirates staff. The crafty southpaw started the season out great, giving up only 10 earned runs through his first seven starts. Since then, Bedard has seen his ERA rise from 2.57 to 4.80.
As of late, Bedard has figured things out again, pitching into the seventh inning in his last two starts, giving up one earned run in each. In his last start against the Cubs, Bedard recorded 11 strikeouts. Bedard must pitch deeper into games for the Pirates, as he’s only pitched past the sixth inning four times in 2012.
Pitching is the name of the game for winning ball clubs and if the Pirates truly have their sights set on making the playoffs in 2012, Bedard must pitch like he is capable. Bedard is good enough to be this teams second best pitcher and even if McDonald does not return back to form, the Pirates would be just fine with a dominant Bedard as their second starter.
3) Alex Presley/Leadoff Spot- Jose Tabata failed at it. Drew Sutton eventually failed at it. Alex Presley continues to fail at it. Rookie outfielder Starling Marte should not be expected to carry the burden of it just yet.
The Pirates offense is in desperate need of someone, anyone that can be productive in the leadoff spot. Alex Presley’s .275 OBP, 14 BB’s and 56 k’s are just not going to cut it for a playoff team.
With absolutely stellar pitching, maybe the Pirates could squeak into the playoffs without having a productive leadoff man, but that seems unlikely. It has been known the Pirates have been looking to add another bat at the deadline, but as of Monday afternoon no trade seems imminent.
Without finding production at the top of the lineup, this team will not overtake the Reds for first place.
4) Alvarez/Jones– Pedro Alvarez has 21 home runs. Garrett Jones has 16 home runs. These power numbers must remain constant throughout the rest of the 2012 season. Besides MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, it does not seem likely that power will be supplied from any other players on this roster.
Overall, Casey McGehee has been disappointing for the Pirates in 2012, batting .231 with eight home runs and 35 rbi. Jones and his 16 home runs have been a pleasant surprise and the Pirates need to expect more of the same out of Jones down the stretch.
Jones has even started to hit left-hand-pitching as of late and it should be considered to make Jones a full-time starter at first base if the Pirates upgrade the outfield at the deadline.
5) Cincy Must Lose– When first baseman Joey Votto was lost for several weeks due to injury, it seemed as if the opportunity was there for the Pirates to put distance between themselves and the Reds. Not so fast, as the Reds have not looked back, winning 14 of their last 16 and are currently on a 10 game losing streak.
It does not seem possible for the Reds to keep winning at this pace, but if they were to win at such a rapid clip throughout the rest of the season, the Pirates will not have any hopes at catching them. The Pirates have three more series against the Reds, two of them being on the road. The Pirates must beat the Reds when the two teams play, if not, the Pirates will not be winning a division race in 2012.