Series Preview: Cardinals host Pirates July 7-10

Neil - Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The 47-41 Pirates visit the 47-42 Cardinals for the penultimate pre-break series. Here are a few things you should know.

I must be brief this afternoon, but here's a short look at the series at hand.

Schedule

How did they get here?

On May 9th, the Pirates were 14-20 and looked worse than that. They had a bad run differential, had played mostly at home, and had a tough schedule ahead of them. They managed to right the ship by playing .500 ball against the tough teams on their schedule and then beating the tar out of the bad teams they played in June and early July. Of course, the fact that they've turned their season around by beating the Cubs, Phillies, D-Backs, Padres, Mets, and Rays is no slight. Good teams generally earn their records in precisely this manner. Hang tough against other good teams, and beat-up on everyone else.

So are the Pirates now a good team? Their run differential is at -1 on the year, so they're playing a bit above their Pythagorean record. On the other hand, they've managed their record while dealing with injuries to Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, and Neil Walker, and the terrible starts they absorbed from Wandy Rodruiguez (who was cut at the end of May) are irrelevant going forward. This is a different team now than the one who ballasted that run differential early in the season.

So who are they now?

Here are two newbies and two familiar faces with changing roles who are set to impact the remainder of the season.

  • Gregory Polanco: Jose Tabata and Travis Snider platooned in RF for 42 games and produced a nifty -0.9 fWAR. Polanco, the 22-year-old super-prospect, has been worth nearly half a win in 24 games since. He already has 15 walks against just 20 K's and a .287/.379/.396 line with 4 SB's. McCutchen, Marte, Polanco promises to be one of the most exciting outfields in baseball for years to come. The future is now.

  • Vance Worley: Remember when he was a reasonably effective pitcher for the Phillies a couple of years ago? He's the latest in a long line of scrap-heap reclamation projects for the Pirates, and the early returns have been solid. The 26-year-old was terrible in Minnesota last year, but credits changes in mechanics for a return to form. He had a nice 23.2 K% vs a paltry 2.2% BB rate in 46 AAA innings and has been solid in his first 28 innings with the big league club.

  • Jeff Locke: Remember when he was an all-star last year? That's ok, nobody else does either. He rode a fancy ERA to the All-Star Game last year, and then regressed so much and so hard, as his peripherals said he would, that he was on the bench during the playoffs. An oblique injury knocked him out of the spring training rotation competition, and he started slowly in AAA. Neil Huntington called him a "spot starter" in early May. Locke was inserted into the rotation in early June, and had an admirable month starting. He earned a 3.08 ERA with a 3.11 FIP while pitching eight innings in half of his six starts, and at least seven innings in two others. With Wandy Rodriguez gone and multiple other starters battling ineffectiveness and/or injury, Jeff Locke is suddenly an important part of the Pirates' season.

  • Josh Harrison: Unlike the last three players, Harrison has been valuable to the Pirates throughout the first half of the season, providing 1.7 fWAR while subbing in at 3B, 2B, and RF. But with Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez healthy, and Gregory Polanco present, Harrison will have a hard time finding the field going forward unless Alvarez is moved to 1B, where Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez have been terrible. It's a situation worth watching as there's potential here for yet another improvement to the team for the rest of the season.

The Race

I don't think the Pirates have played like a six-games over .500 team for the first half of the year, but that's an irrelevant point. What's more salient is this: The current Pirates, with better health, Gregory Polanco, and a couple of new pitchers who could add to the growing list of Pirate coaching successes, are a good enough team right now to be a genuine contender in the 4-way race race to the NL Central crown.

With three teams bunched so tightly behind the Brewers, the question is no longer "Can the Cardinals catch the Brewers?" Rather, Cardinals fans need to look not just at who is leading the pack, but also at who else is challenging the leader. Looking at everything, I tend to think the Reds are currently a stronger threat than the Pirates, but if the Cardinals don't start playing consistently good baseball, it won't matter.

Note:

Pedro Alvarez does not kill the Cardinals. 2013 regular season line against the Birds: .184/.232/.303. Career line against the Birds: .254/.319/.474

Yes, he hit well in the playoffs last year. Yes, he had a great series earlier this year. No, that doesn't mean you should shake in your boots when Pedro comes up to bat any more than Clayton Kershaw should have been shaking in his prior to his last outing against St Louis.

/cues Alvarez to hit 3 dingers and 8 RBI's over the next four days.

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