PITTSBURGH -- Can the Pirates capitalize on their strong finish to the first half and force their way back into the National League Central picture? What will they do with Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole?
Those will be the questions most frequently lobbed at the Pirates over the next 2 1/2 weeks as they embark on a critical 16-game stretch leading up to the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Pittsburgh has a losing record, but the club is potentially only one sustained run from making noise in the NL Central -- and the Bucs will have plenty of second-half chances against the teams they're chasing.
General manager Neal Huntington's actions at the Deadline could be heavily influenced by the club's performance leading up to that date. If the Pirates are legitimate contenders, perhaps Huntington will supplement the roster as he did from 2013-15, and somewhat in '16 with the additions of Ivan Nova and Felipe Rivero but the subtraction of Mark Melancon.
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If they fall farther behind, there will be trade rumors buzzing around Cole (under club control through 2019) and McCutchen ($14.5 million club option for '18) as contenders seek ways to bolster their rosters down the stretch.
The Pirates should have some financial flexibility leading up to the Trade Deadline. They have not had to pay Jungho Kang ($3 million) all season, and Starling Marte's 80-game suspension is unpaid. They also cleared most of Jared Hughes' salary when they released the veteran reliever at the end of Spring Training. Huntington said earlier this season the Pirates will "gladly pour the money back into the club" if the opportunity presents itself.
If the Pirates don't view themselves as a serious contender, they could look to unload pending free agents as they've done in the past. Among those who fit the description: relievers Juan Nicasio and Tony Watson and first baseman/outfielder John Jaso. Speculation will focus on McCutchen and Cole, but in reality, the Pirates will place a high asking price on their franchise player and pitcher.
If the Bucs have a shot at the division, they could consider adding a reliever to shore up their shaky setup situation. Don't be surprised if they find a way to add long-term pieces while parting with short-term assets, as they did last July in the trade that netted them Rivero and Taylor Hearn for Melancon.
What are they playing for?
The 16 games between the start of the second half and the Trade Deadline could shape the Pirates' answer to this question. If they put together a run that thrusts them into the division race, perhaps they'll be playing for a postseason spot. Otherwise, they'll be looking toward next year.
The road ahead
The Pirates' next seven games will come at home against the division-rival Cardinals and Brewers, and then they'll play nine during a West Coast trip through Colorado, San Francisco and San Diego. The Pirates' second half includes 12 games against the first-place Brewers, 13 against the Cardinals and 12 against the Reds, who have taken six of their first seven meetings with the Bucs this season.
McCutchen and Cole are the marquee names, and the Pirates would greatly benefit from getting Gregory Polanco on track. But the key may be left fielder Marte, set to return Tuesday from his 80-game suspension. Marte (4.9 WAR) was Pittsburgh's most valuable player last season. Can he return to that form down the stretch?
Prospects to watch
If the Pirates need a starter down the stretch, they could call up Tyler Glasnow or Steven Brault. Relievers Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas remain with Triple-A Indianapolis, providing bullpen depth. The biggest name is Austin Meadows, their top prospect, who may be ready for the big leagues later this year if he's healthy.