Usually, the start of a home stand is a good thing … especially after the Pirates were blistered last month in Cincinnati, where they had lost 12 straight games since 2020 and the Reds outscored the Bucs 61-17 this season.
Overall, the Bucs had lost 14 of their past 19 games and were now 41-71.
“The Reds put some really good swings on balls,” Ke’Bryan Hayes said after that final loss at Great American Ballpark. “We were leaving some pitches elevated in the zone and out over the plate, and they were capitalizing on them. It will be good just to get home and get back in front of that home crowd against St. Louis and Milwaukee.”
Coming straight from The Official Baseball Public Relations Quote-for-Every-Situation manual and delivered with rehearsed rookie sincerity, Hayes needed to search deeper for a more appropriate response considering that the Pirates were 3-6 against the Cardinals and 4-12 against the Brewers (that’s 7-18 for we math challenged fans).
And beginning with that home stand, the next 21 games featured 10 games against the Cardinals, three each against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona, and Milwaukee and a pair against the Chicago White Sox. Whew!
At that point, there were 50 games left, and the Pirates needed to go 22-28 to avoid a 100-loss season. But losing 11 of 18 games before returning home for Labor Day, the Pirates need to go 15-10 to avoid 100 losses as of today.
But at this point their season’s final record is irrelevant; what matters is how the team plans to use its final games.
Management’s main objective must be to determine the quickest journey back to respectability for future Pirate teams.
And that means purging the roster of players who have no chance of being around when the major league team fiddles with contending, or of helping them get to that point. The cleansing began in mid-August when the Bucs designated Erik Gonzalez for assignment, released outfielder Dustin Fowler, shipped T.J. Rivera to the Phillies, and optioned Phillip Evans to the minors. It continued when Ka’ai Tom and John Nogoski were cut.
But the living definition of Designated For Assignment was Gregory Polanco, whom the team had insisted on showcasing to trade for … anything.
Since 2018, Polanco has struggled to get above .200, led the team in strikeouts in 2021, was still shaky in the field, couldn’t throw, and was making more than Colin Moran, Steven Brault, Jacob Stallings, Chasen Shreve, Chris Stratton, Wilmer Difo, Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman, Michael Perez, JT Brubaker, and Hayes … combined.
That it took two weeks after the purge before Polanco was cut continues to baffle anyone who knows a baseball has stitches.
But two current players continue to play, although it’s obvious what they bring to the Pirates’ table. Although he has shown some recent improvement, Kevin Newman has the lowest OPS of any Pirate in 123 years, and only one current MLB player has a lower exit velocity. And is Michael Perez the best backup catcher in the organization?
Why play these two when management already knows their positives and negatives?
The Pirates recalled Anthony Alford, who is playing regularly.
Some players like Cole Tucker, Mitch Keller, and Nick Mears have had short auditions, only to be sent to the minors. Others like Jared Oliva, Max Kranick, and Cody Ponce have had even briefer trips to Pittsburgh and need longer looks.
Still others like Hoy Park, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Michael Chavis, and Anthony Banda have barely been around long enough to know their uniform number, and need playing time.
With maybe six or eight players needing protection from this November’s Rule 5 draft, the organization needs to take a major-league look at players who might make it on the 2022 40-man roster and who could be removed.
The team needs to promote, play, and protect players who project to help the team be better next year and contend by 2023 and purge those who won’t.