Durability means a lot when it comes to a 162-game season. Major League Baseball players train and work hard to keep themselves in shape during the grueling campaign, but sometimes this isn’t entirely enough. Injuries are an unfortunate aspect of the game, and it’s evident that managers and executives dread seeing names be placed on the disabled list. Up to the halfway mark in the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the most durable teams in Major League Baseball, avoiding being plagued by the “injury bug.” As of late, the Buccos fortunes have been tested, providing the big league club with some difficult challenges ahead. However, with trade deadline day approaching, the Pirates could become more active than we think, providing a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.
The start of the injury domino effect began on July 5 in a contest against the Cleveland Indians. In the fourth inning, outfielder Starling Marte was in obvious pain after fouling off a pitch during his second at-bat of the game. Marte was removed from the game with left side discomfort and was replaced by Gregory Polanco, who finished the at-bat. Though the 26-year old outfielder has since returned to the Pirates everyday lineup, he was forced to miss some time due to the minor injury. Marte has been a huge part of the Pirates success this season and some, including myself, thought that he should have been placed on the disabled list in order to give him rest throughout the All-Star break. He was not placed on the DL and returned to the lineup six days later in game three of a four game series against St. Louis. The fact that Marte has been in the lineup the past four games following the All-Star break is an indication that the minor injury isn’t anything serious. In fact, Marte going 3-5 last night in Kansas City is a great sign. However, if this were to happen again, I’m sure precautionary measures would be taken.
A day after Marte was removed from the game, everyone expected to get further information on his condition and whether or not there was cause for concern. What was not expected was to hear about another star player going down with a crushing injury. In the same game on July 5, third baseman Josh Harrison injured his left thumb while attempting to steal second base in the seventh inning. The play seemed harmless, as Harrison slid in safely, but the awkward slide caused a lot more damage than what was initially thought. Unlike Marte, Harrison was placed on the 15-day Disabled List on July 6th, and underwent successful surgery to repair a torn ligament two days later. Harrison, a National League All-Star in 2014, was hitting .279 with four home runs and 22 RBI prior to the injury, and is not set to return until at least late August. Jung Ho Kang has filled in well at the hot corner for the Pirates, but the loss of Harrison is still a devastating one.
The Milwaukee series alone provided two major blows to the major league club, with one being a little more severe than the other. Starting pitcher Francisco Liriano was scratched from his scheduled start on Saturday due to tightness in his neck. Though it did not appear to be too serious, this type of injury and the fact that Liriano has been known to be injury prone could be cause for a bit of concern. It is still unknown whether or not Liriano will make his next scheduled start, but the Pirates cannot afford to lose the 31-year old lefty. Liriano has been nothing but consistent lately, going 2-2 with a 2.63 ERA in his last seven starts, while even being pretty helpful at the plate. He may be the third starter on this ball club, but he sure has pitched like an ace. As much as Gerrit Cole and AJ Burnett have meant to this team, Francisco Liriano has proved that he means just as much, if not more.
The more severe loss came when Jordy Mercer had to be carted off of the field with what appeared to be a left leg injury during Sunday afternoon’s game against Milwaukee. The injury occurred when Mercer collided with Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez on a controversial play at second base. Mercer was diagnosed with a lower leg contusion and an MCL sprain in his left knee. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list prior to last night’s game against Kansas City, while Corey Hart was transferred to the 60-day disabled list. The Pirates also selected the contract of Infielder Brent Morel from Triple-A Indianapolis as a corresponding move. Though Mercer avoiding surgery is good news, the loss is a pretty big one. He now joins Josh Harrison as infielders who won’t be back in the Pirates lineup until at least the end of August, leaving a void over at a key position that Mercer played very well.
The list has grown significantly over the last few weeks. Outfielder Gorkys Hernandez (left shoulder discomfort) and Rob Scahill (right forearm tightness) can also be added to the list of Pirates players who have had to miss time due to injury issues. Last night, catcher Francisco Cervelli, who has been a decent surprise this season for the Pirates, left the game early in the bottom of the seventh inning with discomfort in his right wrist. Cervelli appeared to have been hit in the wrist on multiple occasions and it seems as if it has been a lingering issue for him. He was treated and evaluated after leaving the contest and the severity of the injury and whether or not he will start tonight in Kansas City is unknown.
If there is any positive news to the string of bad news the Pirates have received, it could be that the July 31 trade deadline is vastly approaching. The Pirates have the assets to make some moves that could help them overcome the issues that they have recently faced, but it is unknown what management would be willing to give up in trades. Even before enduring these recent challenges, the Pirates were poised to attempt to trade for a right handed bat that could help off of the bench, providing them with some quality depth within their roster. Players such as Justin Upton, Jeff Franceour, Ben Revere and Mike Napoli are clear options for the Pirates, but I’m not quite sure how well they would fit in within the roles the club wants fulfilled.
With Jung Ho Kang already replacing Harrison at third base, I doubt that there is a strong desire for Sean Rodriguez or Brent Morel to take Mercer’s spot in the everyday lineup at shortstop. These two could provide solid defensive work and at-bats off of the bench, but they’re not who you want to fill in everyday while Mercer is out. This is a reason a guy like Ben Zobrist of the Oakland Athletics could make sense for the Pirates. Zobrist is a guy who can hit from both sides of the plate and be a versatile option in the everyday lineup. He doesn’t necessarily crush left handed pitching, but his .294 batting average against lefties this season isn’t bad. He has the postseason experience that you want from a veteran guy and he can contribute in different ways. He is a player who can serve the team’s immediate needs by playing anywhere on the diamond, and he could be a huge contributor off of the bench when players start to get healthy later in the season.
Following a huge series against St. Louis to close out the first half of the season, the Pirates have stumbled out of the gate to start the second half, going 1-3 in four road games. They have been rattled by these injuries and, in the first three games following the break; they struggled to compete in the house of horrors known as Miller Park. The Bucs were able to pick up a big victory against Kansas City last night, in which the offense ignited for 10 runs, but that does not diminish the fact that deadline day on July 31 could be an important day. Due to the various injuries, it could definitely become more important than we once thought.
Without Harrison and Mercer, the infield has taken a hit and the current Pirates bench players have to step into those roles, which isn’t exactly ideal. The Pirates currently sit four games behind the St Louis Cardinals in the National League Central race and are finally being tested with adversity in mid-July. They do have a somewhat comfortable lead in the Wild Card race, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they made some moves at the deadline. The Pirates have an opportunity, not just to boost their bench or pitching staff, but to atone for the loss of two of their best infielders and solidify themselves as legitimate World Series contenders.