Pirates need help from McCutchen, pitching prospects to make second-half surge



Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen will need to revert to MVP form in order for the Pirates to make the playoffs in 2016. (TNS)

By David Leftwich / Staff Writer

The Pittsburgh Pirates have struck out with their pitching staff in 2016.

Between injuries and underwhelming performances, the Pirates’ starting rotation is not working out, and it’s time for a change. The Pirates are in desperate need of a spark, and their top three pitching prospects can infuse the energy the team needs.

Offensively, the Pirates are still a good team. Their .266 batting average ranks fourth in the National League.

But players like Jordy Mercer and John Jaso have regressed from the .300 range and are now hitting .275 and .276, respectively, and former MVP Andrew McCutchen is still dwelling at a meager .243 batting average.

McCutchen hit two home runs in a win over the Los Angeles Dodgers Saturday, but he went 0-for-4 on Sunday and still doesn’t appear to be out of his slump. He is clearly getting frustrated, and it resulted in the first ejection of his eight-year career Sunday night against the Dodgers.

After taking a called strike three that was more than three inches below the strike zone, McCutchen was thrown out of the game for spiking his bat and arguing with the umpire. He also disagreed with an earlier strike call in the at-bat that was more than an inch low.

“I don’t want to feel like I’m being taken advantage of,” McCutchen told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “So, honestly, it felt like I had to take matters into my own hands and speak my piece.”

Frustration is mounting for the entire team, which has lost 13 of its last 18 games. Injuries have played a huge part in the slump, as ace pitcher Gerrit Cole and starting catcher Francisco Cervelli — who is crucial to the handling of the pitching staff — are on the 15-day disabled list.

But every team deals with injuries in a 162-game season, and the Pirates need to overcome them just like any other team — by calling for reinforcements.

Their top pitching prospects ­— Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow — are ready to help. All three sported ERAs below 2.60 in 60-plus innings of action for the Triple A Indianapolis Indians.

Of course there’s no comparison between the minors and the majors, but the Pirates’ three remaining healthy starters from the Opening Day rotation — Jon Niese, Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano — all have ERAs above 4.90, nearly twice as high.

Taillon was the first of the three prospects to break through, giving up three runs in six innings in his first major league start against the New York Mets June 8.

The second overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, Taillon has spent six years in the Pirates’ farm system but is still only 24. He was sidelined for two full seasons in 2014 and 2015 with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery, but bounced back with a 2.04 ERA this year in Triple A.

Taillon is 1-1 with a 4.50 ERA in four starts, but that includes an eight-inning, one-hit, scoreless masterpiece in his second start against the Mets.

Kuhl was the next man to get the call up. Under the bright lights of ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, with an estimated 50 family members making the trip from Delaware to see his debut, he gave everyone a night to remember.

His opponent for the first start of his big league career? Only the best pitcher on the planet and one of the best of all time — three-time NL Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL MVP Clayton Kershaw, in the midst of his best season yet.

The Pirates tagged Kershaw for four runs in the second inning, and they made those runs hold up.

Kuhl gave up two big hits to Justin Turner ­— a two-run home run and an RBI double — but outdueled the Dodgers’ ace over five solid innings and tagged out Turner on a play at the plate to preserve a one-run lead.

“You [have to] love the kid going in head-first with the ball and the glove, too,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after the game. “I mean, that’s backyard baseball at its finest.”

The Pirates’ shaky bullpen reverted to 2015 “Shark Tank” form with four scoreless innings to deliver Kuhl his first big-league win.

Glasnow — the Pirates’ top overall prospect and still only 22 years old — entered his start for Indianapolis Monday with a 1.61 ERA after back-to-back outings without surrendering a hit. He’s clearly ready for the big leagues, and at 37-40, the Pirates need him now.

After three straight years of making the postseason, anything less this season would be a disappointment. The team’s patchwork Opening Day rotation was doomed from the start.

Now it’s time to see if the prospects of the future can be the saviors of the season.

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