What's going on with the Pirates?
These Buccos were struggling the last time the Mets saw them, which was just about one month ago. Since losing two of three in New York and falling to 23-29, though, the Pirates have righted the ship (yar!) somewhat. They've beaten up on some weak opponents lately to bring their record back up to .500 at 39-39.
Has enough changed for the Pirates to consider themselves a contender? Well, hot prospect Gregory Polanco got called up and has looked pretty good during his first 15 games. The front office is so fond of the kid that they're already attempting to negotiate a long-term contract extension, and some scouts think Polanco has superstar potential.
Now with a talented and athletic outfield starring Polanco alongside MVP cadidate Andrew McCutchen and the speedy-but-strikeout-prone Starling Marte, the Pirates jettisoned Jose Tabata from the 40-man roster. Even so, the return of second baseman Neil Walker from the disabled list means that manager Clint Hurdle must find ways to keep Josh Harrison in the lineup. The surprisingly productive Harrison can play second base as well as outfield, but both spots are now crowded thanks to the return of Walker.
It would be nice if Harrison could play shortstop, because Pittsburgh is still getting little production from that position, and first baseman Ike Davis has tailed off a bit since his hot start with the team. When you add in that third baseman Pedro Alvarez is barely hitting enough homers to make up for his strkeouts, you get an offense will have trouble covering for a mediocre rotation and a bullpen that has seen Jason Grilli fall off a cliff.
Who are these guys?
Can you tell that I'm not too high on the Pirates? It probably started when I looked at last season's playoff roster and thought, "You know, they're not that much more talented than the Mets." That was intended to be optimism for the Amazins, but now that both clubs are lousy, it's pessimism for Pittsburgh.
One guy that it's difficult to generate pessimism for is Polanco, who displays the rare combination of athleticism and ability to control the strike zone. Last season at Double-A Altoona, he posted 36 walks and 36 strikeouts in 286 plate appearances. Polanco didn't hit for much average or power in 2013, but he sure did this year at Triple-A Indianapolis. A .347/.405/.540 line with 24 walks and 44 strikeouts in 274 plate appearances made the decision to call up Polanco an easy one. The 22-year-old out of the Dominican Republic has the potential to become a McCutchen-like player who can bring excitement to Pittsburgh for years to come.
Russell Martin has a name that is familiar to baseball fans, but he may not be as appreciated as he should be. After being a star player on both offense and defense through his first three seasons with the Dodgers, Martin has dropped off into the "good intangibles" category of usable backstops, but the stats show that he's still plenty valuable at the plate and behind it. Last season, a .222 BABIP made Martin a replacement-level player on offense, but FanGraphs rated his defense so highly that he was worth 4.1 fWAR. He's not quite as good on defense in 2014, but a .327 BABIP and a career-high 14.9-percent walk rate have made him a surprisingly valuable bat in the Pittsburgh lineup.
Who's on the mound?
Thursday: Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Vance Worley
Did the Phillies win or lose the trade that sent Worley to the Twins in exchange for Ben Revere prior to the 2013 season? That is not among the most interesting debates in MLB history. What is interesting is that the Twins allowed the Pirates to buy Worley off of them towards the end of spring training even though the Twins' rotation kind of stinks. The move has paid off for Pittsburgh so far, as Worley combined for nine strikeouts, one walk, and just three runs allowed in two starts against the Cubs and Marlins since he took over for an injured Francisco Liriano earlier this month.
Another fill-in starter who is performing admirably is Matsuzaka, who continues to give the Mets quality innings despite high walk totals. The veteran out of Tokyo has allowed just two runs total in his last two starts that he wasn't forcing out of with a stomach issue. If he keeps this up, Matsuzaka just might draw interest at the trade deadline, as he's been quite a versatile asset for the Mets so far.
Friday: Jacob deGrom vs. Brandon Cumpton
The 25-year-old Cumpton has bounced up and down between Indianapolis and Pittsburgh all season, making spot starts when the big league club needs them. Back on May 26 he threw a quality start against the Mets despite striking out just one batter in a game Pittsburgh would eventually win. That was followed up by a total beatdown at the hands of the Dodgers, but the persistent Cumpton has remained in the rotation and pitched pretty well in June. The low-strikeouts, low-walks man has allowed three runs or less in each of the month's four starts, and the most recent was his best. Cumpton shutout the Cubs for seven innings, and he'll look for the good times to keep on rolling against the suddenly dangerous Mets.
deGrom is a guy I have a tough time measuring. At first he was pitching well beyond his peripherals, then his ERA bounced up after a couple of rough outings. I've decided to go start-to-start with him, and his last one was quite good. Seven strikeouts and seven shutout innings against the Marlins is nothing to sneeze at these days, although I continue to believe the 26-year-old doesn't have good enough stuff to continue walking batters on a regular basis.
Saturday: Jon Niese vs. Gerrit Cole
There's still plenty of time for Cole to improve, but as the one high-upside stud in Pittsburgh's current rotation, he doesn't blow you away with his performances this season. His strikeout and walk numbers are good, but not as crazy good as you'd want from your team's future ace. Since striking out 10 Cubs back on April 10, Cole hasn't sniffed double digits for the rest of the season, although he has consistently been solid at generating ground balls and grinding out quality starts. That's all well and good, but right now Cole looks more like a middle-of-the-rotation guy than the ace that this team needs. This weekend, he's making his first start since June 3 thanks to a shoulder injury that knocked him out for nearly four weeks.
Now that I think about it, Cole's performance this season hasn't been too different from Niese's. Cole has slightly sexier strikeout numbers, but the way he racks up quality starts without ever truly dominating is what Niese has done all season. The difference is that Cole is a former No. 1 overall draft pick and Niese is a guy whom the Mets were able to sign to an reasonable long-term deal. If all goes right for Cole, he'll eventually demand more money from the Bucs than Niese was able to get from New York. Meanwhile, the Mets are happy to have a reliable rotation member who is as affordable as Niese.
Sunday: Bartolo Colon vs. Edinson Volquez
Since he allowed two runs in five innings against the Mets on May 27, Volqeuz has continued this bizarre campaign of his in which he's managed to drop his walk rate down to just three batters per nine innings at a heavy expense to his strikeout rate. Thus, Volquez depends a lot on batted ball success to help him out. It's probably not a good sign that he has a 4.35 ERA even though his BABIP is just .248 and well below his .301 career mark. Nevertheless, Volquez has been excellent in two of his last three starts, shutting out the Cubs for seven innings and letting up just one tally in eight frames against Tampa Bay. In the start in between, Volquez was blown up for eight runs in under three innings by the Reds, but overall it's been a pretty encouraging June for him.
Speaking of encouraging Junes, Colon has gone the entire month while having just one outing of fewer than seven innings and one outing with more than two runs allowed. Both instances were from a mediocre start in San Francisco, and other than that, he's been the dominating force that Mets fans could only hope for at the start of the season. Like I said last week, we don't know how much longer Colon will be pitching for the Mets, so make sure you enjoy every start. The last time he faced Pittsburgh was one of Colon's finest games of the season (7.1 innings, nine strikeouts, one walk, zero runs), so hopefully Sunday can be a fun day for the Amazins.
Prediction: The Pirates aren't throwing scary pitching at the Mets, and lately the team has hit well enough to take advantage. Amazins take three of four.
What about some GIFs?
During Pittsburgh's recent trip to St. Petersburg, Harrison showed why it's not so bad for a second baseman to have outfield experience.
When shortstop Jordy Mercer made a similar catch, McCutchen trolled him.
McCutchen likely wasn't impressed with Mercer based on this catch he made against the Mets back in May.
Bonus GIF: McCutchen's great catch was likely revenge for this robbery that Juan Lagares pulled on the All-Star outfielder.