The Tigers kick off a series against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night. To help familiarize you with the Pirates at this point in the season Eli Nellis of Bucs Dugout answered a few questions for us.
BYB: The Pirates are 54-57 and sitting 4.5 games out of first in the NL Central. How does their current situation compare to the expectations there may have been for the team at the start of the season?
EN: I think this is about where they were realistically expected to be, though it hasn't played out as expected, with the Cubs' first-half struggles keeping the Pirates closer than maybe they should have been based on their performance.
There's been plenty of turbulence -- Jung-Ho Kang got a DUI in South Korea in the offseason, it then came out that it was the third on his record and he now can't get in the country; Starling Marte got busted for PEDs; this isn't in the same category at all, but Jameson Taillon had a cancer scare. So all of that, plus running a bullpen with 1 1/2 good pitchers in it, Andrew McCutchen's struggles carrying into the early months of this season and Gregory Polanco's struggles ... still going on, have been a bit too much to overcome.
The Pirates have sat on the edge of contention all year. Any time they get close, they lose a bunch of games to bad teams (the Giants and Reds come to mind), and I think they'll still be on the fringes, left on the outside, when the season is over.
After a rough first half, Gerrit Cole seems to have settled in and is pitching quite a bit better. Has he changed anything he's doing, and do you think we're seeing a return to the Gerrit Cole of 2015?
I can't tell specifically, but Cole's had some issues with home runs that may have contributed to his earlier problems. His whole career he's gotten into these spells in which he's pumping 96-97 MPH, but just getting crushed. Perhaps he's around the strike zone a little too much, the fastball loses some movement or it's a function of issues with his secondary pitches -- I'm just kind of spitballing.
He seems to be beyond those issues for now. He's throwing his changeup a bit more now than he has previously, so it seems that's helping.
Which Tigers player are you least looking forward to facing in this series?
I guess Justin Upton would be the obvious answer, so I'll go with someone else.
It looks like Drew VerHagen could get the Thursday start? Let's go with him. The Pirates have just had these flat games lately, getting shut down by guys like Travis Wood, Dinelson Lament (who might actually be good) and Robert Stephenson. So get ready for VerHagen to somehow just get through seven easy innings with seven or eight strikeouts, a couple walks and probably no runs, just because.
The Pirates recently acquired a pitcher very familiar to Tigers fans in Joaquin Benoit. What are your thoughts on that trade and what the Pirates did leading up to the deadline? Is it what they should have done?
The Pirates' deadline approach was boring, but I thought it was appropriate. They didn't want to sell bigger pieces and punt on 2018 (yet). They weren't in a position where it would've been smart to make a really big trade, but it also makes sense to let this team play out 2017 and see if they still can't wiggle their way into a division title race.
I also think the front office was hoping to get a better idea of where this team is going into August, with the possibility of waiver trades -- and they've already gone that route to get Sean Rodriguez, who was strangely powerful with the Pirates last year.
I was a bit disappointed they didn't go get a rental corner-outfield bat. You're well aware the price for those was set pretty low.
When the Pirates acquire a pitcher, particularly a veteran, I figure they think pitching coach Ray Searage can rejuvenate him. That often works out well. Benoit had a couple bad outings to start, and fans expecting a bigger deadline splash already don't like him, but I think Benoit will be a good relief option for a team that's been in great need of those.
The Pirates had a stretch from 1986 to 2005 where Jim Leyland, Gene LaMont, and Lloyd McClendon all took a turn as the manager. These are three names Tigers fans know well. How would you rank those three as Pirates managers?
1. Jim Leyland
Leyland is revered around Pittsburgh just as he seems to be in Detroit. He helmed the three NL East title teams from 1990 to '92, having helped guide the organization from the aftermath of the Pittsburgh Drug Trials in the mid '80s. He didn't have much talent to work with from '94 to '96, which is a theme you'll pick up on.
Later in life I learned Jay Bell, one of the team's better hitters, and he always batted second, was frequently among the league leaders in sacrifice bunts, and led the league once. That would drive me nuts now. But I, and pretty much all Pirates fans, recall Leyland very fondly.
2. Gene Lamont
I give Gene the second spot because he led the 1997 "Freak Show" team, which had an opening day payroll a little over $9 million dollars but pushed the Astros for the NL Central title until the final week of the season. I was a little too young to appreciate the early-'90s teams, so this was my first (little) dose of competitive baseball at an age when I could appreciate it.
Lamont's teams flopped after that, but how much of that was his fault isn't clear.
3. Lloyd McClendon
McClendon took over in 2001, when the team opened PNC Park to great fanfare. Their public comments for a few years had been that they were building to be competitive in '01. It didn't help McClendon that that investment came in the form of Derek Bell and Pat Meares, and Lloyd's first team lost 100 games in a year a lot of eyeballs were on the Pirates.
McClendon had a bit of a bulldog mentality that endeared him to fans. Everyone remembers the time he literally stole first base after an argument with an umpire. Unfortunately, McClendon never really had a lot to work with, either.
Also, the Pirates clubhouse at this time was known to be notoriously bad. Jason Kendall greeted newcomers, saying "Welcome to hell." Kendall and Brian Giles made fun of Jack Wilson because he actually liked baseball.
Here's your chance to prognosticate. What's your prediction for how this series Shakes out?
There's nothing really to this, but, 3-1 Pirates.
The Pirates seem to come up with a big series every now and then when they look on their way out of the race for good. A series split or 3-1 Tigers win would probably be more fitting, but I think the Pirates have a couple more good strings in them, just so they can let us back down again.
Also, they probably have a slight pitching advantage, at least with Gerrit Cole and the emerging Trevor Williams. Ivan Nova's had some issues lately, though, and Chad Kuhl can be iffy as a starter.
Thanks again to Eli Nellis for taking the time to talk Pirates baseball with us. You can find his work and a variety of quality Pirates focused writing at www.bucsdugout.com.