PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates ended the first half with a bang, putting together a 10-run first inning in Sunday's 14-3 win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field. They went out on a high note, too, winning five of their last six games.
The Bucs' winning road trip through Philadelphia and Chicago pulled them within five games of .500 but still seven games behind the National League Central-leading Brewers. That is the fine line the Pirates must walk as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches: They have struggled through an inconsistent season, but the division is not far out of reach.
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There are reasons to believe in a second-half turnaround. For one, the Pirates are 16-12 over their last 28 games and stand to benefit from left fielder Starling Marte's return on July 18. But they have not owned a .500 record since April 16, and seemingly every step forward this season has been followed by a step further back. Where do the Pirates stand as they pause for the All-Star break?
What went right
For one, the division hasn't exactly run away from the Pirates. Andrew McCutchen is back to being himself at the plate, which means it's practically appointment viewing when he's in the batter's box -- same as it is when Felipe Rivero takes the mound. Josh Harrison bounced back offensively and earned his second All-Star nod. Juan Nicasio returned as a late-inning weapon. Ivan Nova has provided innings and experience, and Jameson Taillon continues to show considerable potential. Rookies Josh Bell, Trevor Williams, Adam Frazier, Elias Diaz and Jose Osuna have all contributed.
What went wrong
Not much has gone according to plan for the Pirates this season. Start with those who haven't been able to play, specifically Jungho Kang (unable to acquire a work visa, remaining in South Korea) and Marte (80-game suspension for a positive PED test). Taillon missed a month after being diagnosed with testicular cancer. Then consider McCutchen's season-opening slump, a brutal month-long stretch for Cole, the struggles of Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl and Gregory Polanco's inconsistency. The Pirates' depth has been tested by injuries to David Freese, Frazier and Francisco Cervelli. Finally, a series of bullpen implosions led to Tony Watson's demotion from the ninth inning and cost the Pirates a handful of wins last month.
What we learned
The Pirates are still in the NL Central race, but they simply haven't been able to get everything on track at the same time. That inconsistency is reflected by their below-.500 record and the fact that their longest winning streak of the season is a mere four games.
They pitched well in April but didn't hit enough to back it up. They hit better in June but struggled on the mound. The bullpen, aside from Rivero, endured a particularly tough stretch last month. But at times, Pittsburgh has shown enough promise -- particularly in a middling division -- to make things interesting.
Top everyday player
Though he was uncharacteristically cold for nearly two months, it's hard to argue against McCutchen. His numbers speak for themselves. After his average dipped to .200 in late May, McCutchen is now slashing .294/.380/.528 with 17 home runs and 50 RBIs in 86 games. Harrison deserves consideration for propping up the lineup for three months, but McCutchen proved again that he when he gets hot, few can compare to Pittsburgh's franchise player.
How do you decide between an innings-eating starter and a lights-out reliever? You don't. Nova and Rivero play different roles for the Pirates, but both 2016 non-waiver Trade Deadline acquisitions have filled a need. Nova posted a 3.21 ERA in 120 2/3 innings over 18 starts in the first half; to put that in perspective, he's under seven innings away from eclipsing the Pirates' 2016 innings leader, Jeff Locke. Rivero has been one of the game's best relievers, ascending to the ninth inning and thriving there, with a 0.76 ERA, six saves and 55 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings over 44 appearances.
With a nod to Williams for capably filling a rotation spot, the clear pick is Bell. Remember the offseason questions about his power and defense? All he's done is slug 16 homers and 35 extra-base hits, both first-half franchise rookie records, and record three Defensive Runs Saved at first base while hitting .239/.322/.472 in 88 games.