Fallen Star

The Pirates' playoff hopes could be in trouble without their superstar outfielder. (Getty)

The Pirates' playoff hopes could be in trouble without their superstar outfielder. (Getty)

One pitch, and there goes maybe an entire season for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

That would be the pitch that fractured Andrew McCutchen’s rib, of course — originally, the worry was that the Pirates’ MVP outfielder had suffered a strained oblique, which would be bad news for a team currently in a tight, three-way race for the NL Central — delivered intentionally by Diamondbacks pitcher Randall Delgado at the behest of catcher Miguel Montero and, one presumes, the entire Diamondbacks organization. This is something they’ve had issues with in the past, after all. (For his part, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says that connecting the injury with the HBP was a “conspiracy theory.”)

Regardless of the intentions behind that pitch, however — and they were certainly clear enough intentions to warrant a suspension for everyone involved — what’s done is done, and the Pirates have to deal with the consequences: either the loss of their .947 OPS, MVP contender outfielder for some significant period of time, or the knowledge that he will be playing through an injury that should sideline him. The Pirates, after all, remain optimistic that McCutchen won’t have to go to the disabled list. Considering that McCutchen has a fractured rib, it’s sensible not to share said optimism, or at least to leaven it with the concern that his performance will be greatly affected by having to play through an injury of that nature.

What does this mean for the Pirates? Going into Tuesday, Pittsburgh was a game and a half back of the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers and a half game out of the second wild card spot, which was also held by division rival St. Louis. The Pirates’ rotation has been extremely underwhelming this year after being on the best in baseball last season, with promising young starter Gerrit Cole still trying to work his way through rehab assignments back to the big leagues while Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke and Edinson Volquez teeter on the very lower end of average performance for a starting pitcher in 2014. Charlie Morton and Vance Worley are the only things keeping the rotation slightly respectable, and while Worley has a shiny ERA at the moment (2.43), he’s doing it in only 55 IP so far, and with half his career walk rate (1.5 BB/9 in 2014 against 2.9 for his career). Reasons abound to be skeptical of the pitching staff’s ability to pay it forward through the rest of the regular season.

Luckily for them, the Brewers are in much the same boat pitching-wise; unluckily for them, the St. Louis Cardinals still have Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn, and have replaced the injured Michael Wacha with the Boston Red Sox’ John Lackey. And now Pittsburgh has possibly lost what neither of those two teams had: a top-three position player in the NL having the best season of his career. Pittsburgh’s success on the mound last year wasn’t going to repeat itself, regardless of whether you want to call it a fluke or a miracle. Their path to the postseason this year was always going to be having a good lineup top to bottom that played good defense in a pitcher’s park, to hope the pitchers didn’t regress too hard, and to rely on some of their young players like Gregory Polanco to complement McCutchen’s production. It’s outright madness to expect them to replace it.

Without McCutchen, the starting outfield figures to be Josh Harrison in left (135 OPS+ in an unexpected breakout season full of crazy baserunning moves), Starling Marte in center (102 OPS+ and good defense at what is Marte’s true defensive home; he was reinstated from the 7-day DL in time for the Pirates’ game Tuesday night), and Polanco in right. Though each of those three players is having an acceptable to outright great season at the plate, given age an expectations, having to play Harrison, Marte, and Polanco — who is hitting .258/.329/.363 in 215 PA as a rookie — every day instead of being able to tailor the outfield corners to the opposing pitcher while reliably starting McCutchen in center will more than likely overexpose them and allow other teams’ advanced scouting to properly game plan for them.

The Pirates have Travis Snider on the roster to handle OF platoon duties, of course, but he can’t platoon for Polanco, who has been hideous against LHP this year, with a .495 OPS in 64 PA. The Pirates will eventually have to figure out if Polanco can hit MLB lefties over an extended period of time, yes — but that time is the first half of next season, not now, in the middle of a tight playoff chase.

Outside of the outfield, Ike Davis and Pedro Alvarez have been serviceable hitters (with Alvarez’s poor defense on an otherwise good defensive team prompting speculation that he’ll soon be moved to first) and Russell Martin and Neil Walker have been quite decent — but whereas a lineup with a bunch of 100 OPS+ guys, two 120 OPS+ guys and a part-time 135 OPS+ guy is great with a 170 OPS+ player to tie it together, without him that steady-but-unspectacular production loses a lot of its spark. Or in stats terms, losing the 2-3 offensive wins that McCutchen was on pace to provide over the back half of the season is no joke in a race as tight as this one.

Can the Pirates still do this thing? Sure, anything is possible; Cole might come back from his rehab stint and pitch like an ace, while Worley sustains his dark sorcery through the rest of the regular season; Harrison might continue to hit at his current clip regardless of having to face left-handed pitching more often, and Marte’s defense in center field should at least be an upgrade over Cutch’s. For his part, it might turn out that McCutchen either isn’t hurt that badly (or that it just doesn’t slow him down). But that’s a lot of “mights.” What we know right now is that the Pirates just lost the linchpin that ties their team together — and they’ve got only two more months to get out of third place.

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