What's going on with the Pirates?
Pittsburgh's 22-27 record isn't very surprising except for the fact that the team made the playoffs last year and appeared to have a lot of young pieces on the rise. Still, if you look around the roster, it's hard to imagine this club making a run at the NL Central crown with the Cardinals and Brewers playing so well.
A big part of the Buccos' 2013 success was the incredible pitching of veterans A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, but Burnett is now working his sorcery in the land of Philadelphia, and Liriano has crashed down to Earth so hard he's made a crater. Well, he still is getting a ton of ground balls and striking out about one batter per inning, but Liriano is letting up more home runs and walks, and that has caused his ERA to inflate above 5.00. Young stallion Gerrit Cole is pitching admirably, but that's not good enough to support the rest of the rotation when Edinson Volquez, Charlie Morton, and the recently dismissed Wandy Rodriguez are your "rest of the rotation."
On the offensive front, Pittsburgh is getting nice performances from Andrew McCutchen (duh), Neil Walker, and Josh Harrison, but Pedro Alvarez is not hitting enough home runs to justify his massive strikeout totals. This is also a team that, like the Mets, is getting nothing from its shortstop position. First base was a problem for Pittsburgh as well... until the Pirates acquired Ike Davis.
Say what you want about wishing Davis well, but I know for me personally it would be painful to see the former first round pick thrive in another uniform. So far this season he's hitting .285/.389/.415 with his signature high walk rate in tact. Davis's strikeout rate is down to 16.7 percent, but both the Pirates and Mets have the ability to keep him away from lefties. Could this finally be the breakout season for Davis that Mets fans have envisioned for years? If it is, all I can say is, good for Ike.
Who are these guys?
Josh Harrison has previously worked for the Pirates as a light-hitting utility man, but recently the power that has shown up in Triple-A for him is making an appearance in the majors. The 26-year-old Harrison is slugging .493 in 71 at-bats this season, and his walk rate has also taken a boost. We don't know yet if the "new" Harrison can keep up this production over a full season, but right now he's doing a great job starting every day in the outfield and leading off for the Buccos. With some power, some speed, and the ability to play both infield and outfield, Harrison is looking more and more like a rich man's Emilio Bonifacio.
With Clint Barmes relegated to bench duty, Jordy Mercer is Pittsburgh's everyday shortstop in 2014. Unfortunately, he's not hitting as well as he did as a part-time player in 2013. He's walking less, striking out more, and both his BABIP and isolated power are in the tank. After a truly abysmal April, Mercer has started to heat up a little bit in May, but so far it's not enough to make him look like the solid starter that the Pirates want him to be. At least with Stephen Drew off the market, he can enjoy the type of job security that Ruben Tejada was supposed to have before Wilmer Flores got called up. Pittsburgh's minor league options include Robert Andino and Michael Martinez, so look for Mercer to keep the job until highly rated prospect Alen Hanson (currently at Double-A) is promoted next season.
Who's on the mound?
Monday: Brandon Cumpton vs. Jacob deGrom
This was supposed to be Wandy Rodriguez's spot in the rotation, but the lefty was recently designated for assignment due to ineffectiveness. Taking his place should be the right-handed Cumpton or Jeff Locke, who used smoke and mirrors to pitch effectively in 2013 despite an 11.8-percent walk rate. Cumpton, on the other hand, made just five major league starts last year, but he looked pretty good over the small sample. He walked just five batters and struck out 22 in 30.2 innings, and the solid command has carried over to 2014, where the 25-year-old has walked only one batter in two outings with the Pirates. At Triple-A Indianapolis, Cumpton has had some trouble getting swings and misses, but that's usually not an issue for pitchers facing our Mets.
deGrom is another guy getting his feet wet in the majors, and he recorded his second straight quality start last Wednesday against the Dodgers. It's not often that a pitcher can hurl a quality start while allowing three home runs, but that's what deGrom was able to do, for better or worse. With 10 strikeouts and five walks so far, the rookie appears to have the right combination of stuff and control to be a solid rotation piece in the future.
Tuesday: Edinson Volquez vs. Jon Niese
With the way Volquez has pitched over the past five seasons, it's hard to believe he was once traded for Josh Hamilton in a pitcher-for-hitter blockbuster between the Rangers and Reds. The Dominican right-hander has always had great strikeout stuff and the ability to get ground balls, but from 2009 to 2012, he walked more than five batters per nine innings every year. The trend looked like it was continuing last season when Volquez posted a 1.67 WHIP and 6.01 ERA with the Padres, but he seemed to perk up a bit after joining the Dodgers in late August. Maybe it was just the adrenaline of being in a pennant race, but Volquez recorded 26 strikeouts and just eight walks during his 28 innings in Los Angeles. That was enough to get the Pirates to take a chance on Volquez this winter, and so far he's cut down on his walks even further. The problem is that the control comes along with a drastic decline in strikeout rate, as well as 10 home runs allowed in just nine starts.
Unlike Volquez, Niese is a pretty simple guy to predict. Despite a minor elbow issue at the start of the season, the lefty has been captain consistency with three earned runs or less and three walks or less in every 2014 start. Last week in this spot, we talked about how Niese's very affordable contract made him an interesting asset for the Mets, but is it one that is better off held or dealt? With Zack Wheeler struggling with his control and Dillon Gee struggling to stay on the mound, Niese is looking more and more like someone the Mets cannot afford to let go.
Wednesday: Charlie Morton vs. Bartolo Colon
As an extreme ground ball pitcher, Morton uses the worm burners to make up for strikeout and walk rates that have been unsightly at some points in his career. Like most contact-oriented pitchers, Morton has never been a big strikeout guy, but lately he's started to get his walks under control and looks to be the the midst of a career renaissance. Last year, at age 29, Morton posted the best ERA (3.26) and WHIP (1.28) of his career in 20 starts for the PIrates, and this year he's on a similar path despite a rough month of April.
Morton has allowed just three home runs all season, and that's a skill that Colon would love to add to his portfolio. The portly right-hander is letting the long ball spoil a campaign that so far features his best strikeout rate since 2011 and his best walk rate ever. He would have one more too, if not for last Friday's rainout cancelling an Aaron Hill home run.
Prediction: The Mets appear to have a big advantage in the starting pitching department, here, so I'll go for the sweep.
What about some GIFs?
Dillon Gee took the opportunity to flash some leather when the Mets visited Pittsburgh last July.
We could have used a replay review when Pedro Alvarez threw out Eric Young at the plate.
Check out this Pirate fan's false hustle as he pursues a foul ball.