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Plagued by injuries, slumping Pirates stuck in rut

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a cause for concern with injuries to catcher Francisco Cervelli and starting pitcher Gerrit Cole.

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The Pittsburgh Pirates are not having a good weekend. Ace Gerrit Cole was removed from his start Friday night in the third inning due to triceps tightness. An inning later, starting catcher Francisco Cervelli also came out of the game with pain in his left hand. Saturday morning, it was announced that Cervelli had undergone surgery to remove a fractured hamate bone from his left hand and would miss the next four to six weeks. Then, in Saturday’s game, Cervelli’s replacement, catcher Chris Stewart, had to come out of the game with pain in his left ankle, which he had fouled multiple pitches off earlier in the week and appeared to twist in attempting to make a tag at the plate in the eighth inning of Saturday’s game.

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While all that was happening, the Pirates lost both games to division rival Cardinals.  They gave up six runs in the top of the 12th inning on Friday night to lose 9–3, and were dominated by Carlos Martinez in a 5–1 loss on Saturday. The Pirates have now lost four in a row and gone 4–11 over their last 15 games. In the last two weeks, Pittsburgh has fallen from second place in the NL Central, 4 1/2 games behind the Cubs, and leading the NL wild-card race to third place,  11 games behind Chicago and two games behind St. Louis for the second NL wild-card spot.

The full extent of Cole and Stewart’s injuries have yet to be determined. Cole had an MRI on Saturday, but, according to Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who spoke with Cole after Saturday’s loss, the team is “still gathering information” on the 25-year-old righthander and does not have an update on his condition.

Should Cole head to the disabled list, the Pirates have a capable replacement at the ready in former No. 2 draft pick Jameson Taillon, who made his major league debut with a quality start against the Mets on Wednesday, but was optioned back to Triple A after that game. Taillon, who has a devastating curveball and hit 98 with his fastball in his debut, has impressed at Triple A thus far this year, showing excellent control after missing the last two seasons due to Tommy John and hernia surgeries. He certainly pitched well enough in his debut to deserve further opportunities in the Pittsburgh rotation, holding an admittedly scuffling Mets lineup to three runs over six innings. Taillon might even represent an upgrade over another member of the Pirates’ rotation. However, Cole has been their best starter, leading the team with a 2.77 ERA, a 3.05 FIP with a 2.08 ERA in his last six starts prior to his abbreviated, but still scoreless, outing on Friday night.

Using Taillon as Cole’s replacement not only downgrades that spot in the rotation, but prevents the Pirates from using Taillon to upgrade another spot. Depending on the duration of Cole’s absence, it could also force the Pirates to accelerate the arrival of top prospect Tyler Glasnow. One of the top pitching prospects in baseball, the 6’8” 22-year-old righty has gone 6–2 with a 2.04 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings in 12 starts in Triple A this season, but has also walked 4.2 men per nine innings.

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As for their catching conundrum, the Pirates acquired journeyman backup catcher Erik Kratz from the Angels Saturday morning. By the end of Saturday afternoon’s game, Kratz, a career .210/.261/.381 hitter who will turn 36 on Wednesday, was the team’s first-string catcher. If Stewart isn’t able to catch on Sunday, the Pirates will need a backup for Kratz, but the only other catchers on their 40-man roster are on the disabled list—Cervelli and Elias Diaz, who is on the 60-day DL following elbow surgery. Triple A Indianapolis offers 30-year-old minor league veteran Ed Easley, who appeared in four major league games for the Cardinals last year, his first taste of The Show, and 26-year-old Jacob Stallings, who has hit .203/.244/.344 in his first exposure to Triple A. It’s telling that the Pirates went after Kratz rather than promote one of those two, and if Stewart requires a disabled list stay, they may make a similar move for a comparable catch-and-throw veteran.

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Given the relative quality of their potential replacements, the loss of Cervelli could prove to be as damaging to the Pirates as that of Cole. Cervelli has hit for almost no power this season, just five extra-base hits in 167 at-bats, but he still had a .373 on-base percentage and graded out as the third-best pitch-framer in the National League behind Buster Posey and Yasmani Grandal. That placement is consistent with the full-season numbers from last year, when Cervelli ranked second in the NL behind Grandal and ahead of Posey. Meanwhile, Cervelli had improved his performance against the running game this year, throwing out 30% of attempting basestealers, compared to just 22% last year, numbers no doubt helped by A.J. Burnett’s retirement (baserunners succeeded in 82% of their attempts against Burnett over the final dozen years of his career).

These injuries all impact the Pirates’ run prevention, which can’t afford to suffer further. Over those last 15 games, the Pirates have allowed an average of five runs per game, allowing that total or more in nine of those contests. It remains to be seen how long Cole will be out—as of Saturday, he was still scheduled to make his next start on Thursday in New York, though it seems unlikely that he will—but his injury has already had a negative impact via the strain placed on the bullpen in Friday night’s game, leading to that extra-inning loss with starter Juan Nicasio on the mound. Nicasio was one of the candidates to be replaced by Taillon (the other, Francisco Liriano, had a comparatively strong outing on Saturday allowing four runs, but just one earned, while striking out eight and walking three in six innings). For now, the Pirates and their fans continue to wait on final word on Cole’s condition, but the lack of an update and the need to gather more information don’t inspire confidence for a quick return. Mired in a team-wide slump without their ace or a viable major league starting catcher, the Pirates as a team aren’t inspiring much confidence either.