It’s going to be harder for the Pirates

Just one season after the Pirates snapped a modern American sports league record 20-year consecutive losing streak, won 94 games, and reached the National League playoffs for the first time since 1992, things are looking lean again.

At least right now.

Last year, the Pirates finished April with a 15-12 record and were only one-half game out of first place at month’s end. The Pirates finished this April at 10-16, and in fourth place, nine full games out of first.

It’s a long season, and there’s no room for panic among the Pirates’ faithful yet. Not that panic would do any good, anyway. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, an eternal optimist, knows all about how things can change – he managed the 2007 Colorado Rockies team that won 20 of 21 games late in the season and wound up in the World Series.

Truth be told, though, there are plenty of proverbial red flags now up where the Jolly Roger was customarily raised time after time following Pirates’ victories last year.

Among them:

n The intangibles are missing: 2013 was a magical season in which a different hero emerged for the Pirates every day. There was rarely a feeling that a game was beyond their reach. Andrew McCutchen had an MVP year, Pedro Alvarez emerged as one of baseball’s top home-run hitters, and even role players called off the bench took turns at contributing to the sense of positive karma that surrounded the Bucs. Through the first 26 games this season, those intangibles were missing.

n The lineup is springing leaks: McCutchen is a player that every team would love to have, but the Pirates’ lineup has shown plenty of soft spots so far this season. They’re getting no offensive production from either Jordy Mercer or Clint Barmes at shortstop, and the right-field platoon of Travis Snider and Jose Tabata has fans anticipating the midseason debut of Gregory Polanco. Time will tell whether newly-acquired first baseman Ike Davis can regain anything close to his 32-homer form of 2012, but don’t bank on it. Left fielder Starling Marte, a huge part of the Pirates’ offensive attack a year ago, had been mired in a strikeout funk and his timing seems to be off at the plate.

n The pitching isn’t as good: Other than Gerrit Cole and newcomer Edinson Volquez, none of the starters have been consistent or successful. Wandy Rodriquez is injury-prone, Francisco Liriano doesn’t have the lights-out stuff he showed while winning 16 games a year ago, Jeff Locke began this season working through an injury in the minor leagues, and Charlie Morton has been iffy.

n The bullpen isn’t as sharp: The Pirates lost just five games all last year when leading after seven innings. The protocol was to hand a lead to the bullpen after six innings, and work from there. This year, closer Jason Grilli – who is currently on the disabled list – has three blown saves already, one more than all of last season. Other than Mark Melancon, the rest of the bullpen hasn’t been as sharp, either.

n The league is better: Three teams from the National League Central Division made the playoffs last season. That won’t happen again, but Milwaukee, currently the Central leader, is vastly improved, and so is West leader San Francisco. St. Louis has the talent to defend its league championship, Atlanta is rolling again, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington, Colorado, Cincinnati, and even the New York Mets and Philadelphia could/should all be factors in the playoff hunt. It’s a deeper, more talented league in 2014, and that means the Pirates have more work to do to get back to where they were last October.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com