Coming into the season, most people would have picked either the Reds or Pirates to finish last in the NL Central. Through almost 40 games, the Pirates have edged that Reds out for that last spot in the division. The two teams will more than likely be near each other, at the bottom of the division standings for a majority of the entire season. So, what has been the problem to the Pirates early season struggles?
When you have two guys who are batting over .270, to say the offense is struggling is an understatement. Josh Harrison, the teams best player early on is batting .292, but seems that not many of those hits are extremely productive. He only has 13 Runs Batted In, which is somewhat normal for a leadoff hitter, but it also shows that the bottom of the order guys are not getting on base that often, which is less than ideal.
The Pirates best player over the last 6-7 years has been centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, but the last two years he has been a shell of himself. Some of that could probably be blamed on age as he is 30 years old and has been the full-time centerfielder basically since he has been in Pittsburgh as a major leaguer. You could probably say that a less than stellar lineup has contributed to that as well. He does not have the same fire power in the lineup around him that he used to in his earlier years in Pittsburgh. This most likely has prevented him from being protected by other hitters and has made it easier for pitchers to attack him at the plate and be more aggressive against him.
Pieces around McCutchen and Harrison, such as Gregory Polanco, David Freese, Josh Bell and Francisco Cervelli have had less than appealing start to the season, which is an even bigger reason why the Pirates offense has struggled. If any combination of these guys were to start to heat up, it may lead to some other pieces around them starting to figure it out at the plate as well. Until that happens or some moves happen to switch up the lineup, the Pirates may continue to struggle.
As down of a year as the offense has had, the pitching staff has a couple bright spots early on. Those come in the form of 30-year-old Ivan Nova and 26-year-old Gerrit Cole. Nova has started 8 games, sporting a 2.48 era, going more than 6 innings and giving up three runs or less in 7 of his 8 started games. Even doing that Nova is only 3-3, mostly because his offense has failed to support him. Nova has been one of the better pitchers in baseball, but the results do not necessarily show that as the offense has not picked him up. This happens all the time with pitchers, with the latest example being Indians pitcher Corey Kluber. Kluber went 18-9 by the end of the season, but he could have easily won 20-25 games if the offense would have picked him up early in the season.
Gerrit Cole is in a similar boat as Nova, going 2-3, with a 2.84 era in 9 starts, 8 of those starts being quality starts. Cole has seen a similar thing as Nova, as he also is not getting support from his offense. Cole would also benefit from an increase in run support as he could easily have 5-7 wins with a little run support.
The Pirates may continue to struggle the rest of this year, but an increase in offensive production would be a good start at seeing better overall results for the team. The 1-2 punch of Nova and Cole would go a long way with a little offensive production. Regardless of how the rest of the year goes, it is going to be extremely hard for them to compete with the Cubs, Cardinals, or Brewers, but being competitive would be a step in the right direction.