Time to Buc up in left field

The Pirates are in first place, even after losing to the Giants in front of a happily surprised near-capacity crowd in PNC Park. The question is whether they’re just getting started, or repeating last season’s multi-month run of relevance before going into a 19-43 tailspin that sealed the franchise’s 19th consecutive losing season.

Perhaps the killer in this particular ballgame was seeing the Giants put an early five-spot on the board, because if there’s one thing that has been a reliable cause for concern for this season’s Pirates, it’s their offense. However, things have improved considerably since June 1, as they’ve ratcheted things up to score 5.5 runs per game in their last 33 contests. Some of the solution has come from finally seeing Neil Walker hit, and part of it has come from busting up their Garrett Jones-Casey McGehee first-base platoon and using them to try and cover for the team’s biggest offensive problem: their galling lack of production from the outfield corners.

The problem has been especially galling in left field, where the Pirates’ production is just about league-worst, swapping the dubious honor in the sub-.600 OPS range with the Nationals on a night-to-night basis. If you’re looking for other empty slots on offense, the only position producing less in the Pirates’ lineup is shortstop, where Clint Barmes is doing his defensive wizardry thing. Meanwhile, the Nats are getting the benefit of a .500 slugger at short with Ian Desmond's breakout season. It’s easier to find an outfielder who can bop than a shortstop who can hit, which is why whenever the Nats fix their left-field problem, their offense might be in great shape. The Pirates don’t have the benefit of greatness anywhere but where Andrew McCutchen plays, so they can’t afford multiple zeroes in their lineup.

Scapegoating Jose Tabata and shipping the one-time Yankee blue-chipper to Triple-A Indianapolis earlier this week might be gratifying as far as sending him -- and the other young Bucs -- a message that attitude and effort matter. That’s swell, but beyond putting a scare into the non-McCutchens in the lineup it doesn’t do much to fill the Pirates’ vacuum in both outfield corners. Spreading Jones, McGehee and well-traveled utilityman Drew Sutton among right, left and first base to cover the three traditional power slots hardly provides reliable long-term answers at any of them.

From 30,000 feet up and looking at the Pirates’ record, you can look at reasons to doubt their ability to stick any better this season than they didn’t last time around. Looking at their runs scored and allowed, the Pirates are “supposed” to be three games worse than they are, which would put them back behind the Reds in the standings. Some of that is thanks to a 19-13 record in one-run games, and of course they owe plenty to their 28-12 record against teams below .500.

Look at that info, and you might say the Pirates are just lucky to be here. But that’s beside the point: They’re here. You don’t lose games already in the books, and as Lou Boudreau once put it, to contend you want to beat the tar out of the bad teams and break even against the best. A performance record is not a prediction of failure, but it does provide suggestions that it’s time to do something about a team’s outstanding issues to make that regular-season record stand up in the standings.

So if you’re GM Neal Huntington, you can’t think about the things that should have been. There’s no need to apologize. Instead, he’ll need to focus on what he can do to make things better still. The question is what Huntington will do to make something out of his team’s start, and that means addressing the team’s problems, with offensive production from a power slot like left field being smack-dab at the top of the list.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t foreign to Huntington, because it’s much the same as last year’s problem. Last year’s deadline deals to try and make good on last year’s promising start were meant to address this same issue, but bringing in first baseman Derrek Lee and left fielder Ryan Ludwick were cheap fixes that produced equally cheap results. Between them, the two former All-Stars provided a whopping 0.6 Wins Above Replacement combined over two months across two key offensive positions. Even as relative improvements over Lyle Overbay and the like, they represented baby steps in the right direction.

The Pirates can’t settle for that again, for improving incrementally on previous bad answers. Certainly, folks might be willing to settle for a streak-busting season of .500 or better. But the established favorites in the division like the Cardinals and Brewers have failed to live up to expectations, while the Reds keep finding ways to come back to the pack. There’s more at stake than a chance to break the Pirates’ record 19-season losing streak. Here’s hoping Huntington’s shopping list at the trade deadline reflects that.