Should the National League Central's mediocrity affect how the Pirates approach the non-waiver Trade Deadline? I think a chance to win the division matters considering they haven't done it since 1992.
-- Gary S., Bradenton, Fla.
Yes and no. The Pirates absolutely should push for the division title if it's there for the taking, but they shouldn't let a thus-far mediocre season alter their view on the reality of their situation.
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They're "only" seven games behind the division-leading Brewers. The Bucs are also five games under .500 more than halfway through the year. They should improve with Starling Marte returning Tuesday from his suspension -- by all accounts, he still looks like himself -- and adding him also helps their depth. Their rotation may be stabilizing, and a lineup led by this version of Andrew McCutchen is a dangerous thing.
But the Cubs are bound to improve, especially with Jose Quintana now on board. And the Pirates' 42-47 record matters. Let's say it will "only" take 85 games to win the division. They would have to finish 43-30 to get there, while the Brewers could go 35-36 the rest of the way. Not to mention, the fourth-place Bucs would also have to outplay Chicago and St. Louis -- both equipped to add at the Trade Deadline, as is Milwaukee.
The Pirates could improve their standing over the next couple of weeks, but even then, that may only merit the same buy-and-sell approach they put into play at last year's Deadline, when they were closer to an NL Wild Card spot than they are now. It's unlikely they will part with top prospects in any event, though they are typically willing to move mid-level prospects to improve the big league team, even for rentals like Ivan Nova last year.
They could look to move pending free agents such as Juan Nicasio, John Jaso, Tony Watson and perhaps McCutchen (if there's a market for him that would yield the return he's worth at this point), but it would take a lot to get someone like Gerrit Cole since they also hope to contend next season. Stay tuned.
Will Jungho Kang ever play for the Pirates again?
-- Kevin, Lancaster, Pa.
My sense is the Pirates are hopeful he'll return, but also realistic. Based on the calendar alone, there's essentially no chance he could help them this season; just consider the time it would take to suddenly acquire a work visa, get from South Korea to the United States and spend a month or so in some facsimile of Spring Training to get him up to game speed. By that point, the season's basically over.
There's also no indication such a shift is close to happening. The Pirates have been working all year with the Commissioner's Office, the MLB Players' Association and Kang's agents while staying in contact with Kang. Commissioner Rob Manfred and union chief Tony Clark reiterated their involvement Tuesday in Miami, but their efforts have not yet helped him acquire a work visa.
As for the future, he remains under club control through 2019. That hasn't changed. Neither has his current situation. It's possible that factors related to the visa process could change between now and next spring, opening a path for Kang's return, but his sentence for his December arrest for driving under the influence -- eight months in prison, suspended for two years -- was not lessened upon appeal.
Is it more critical to strengthen the bullpen or the rotation?
-- Nicholas P., Murrysville, Pa.
At this point, the bullpen. A top of the rotation featuring Cole, Nova and Jameson Taillon is legitimate. Some combination of Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault can get the job done on the back end, especially if Glasnow returns to form and Brault maintains the mentality that's been so successful for him in Triple-A. They're all young or under club control, and they've shown positive signs at various points.
But they could use some bullpen help. You won't find many better than Felipe Rivero, and Nicasio has been a quality setup man. Nicasio is, however, a free agent after this season and therefore a logical trade candidate. They just need more out of the rest of the group, and it would help if young arms like Edgar Santana and Dovydas Neverauskas proved ready for bigger roles. Looking forward, they could experiment to see which current young starters work best out of the bullpen.
With Jose Osuna's potential power, isn't it worth getting him more at-bats? Even if it means learning a new position, with a crowded outfield and Josh Bell at first, possibly at third base for more depth and life after David Freese?
-- Chris M., Freeport, Pa.
Osuna did some work this spring at third base, so it seems like something the Pirates might consider in the future. His best fit defensively remains first base, however. We've seen some of his limitations in the outfield this season, though he does possess a strong arm that could play at third with better range.
The rookie has provided power, and he's been a valuable bench bat the Pirates probably didn't expect they'd have to rely on so heavily. He has five homers and a .468 slugging percentage, with 18 of his 34 hits going for extra bases, but also a .286 on-base percentage that needs improvement.
With Bell blocking him at first, Osuna might be best served as a backup first baseman/corner outfielder and power bat off the bench. There's value in a player like that, especially one as young as Osuna.