MLB Rumors: Are The Pittsburgh Pirates Pretenders Or Contenders?

The 2016 Major League Baseball season is winding down and there are several National League teams contending for a wild card slot. The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of 11 teams still with a legitimate chance for a playoff spot with 50 games to go in the regular season.

Pittsburgh entered the season with high expectations, following three straight playoff appearances and posting 280 victories over that span -- which is the second most in the majors behind the St. Louis Cardinals. However, the Pirates have struggled this season.

Pittsburgh (57-55) is currently two games out of the fifth and final playoff spot, after defeating the San Diego Padres 4-0 on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 11, at PNC Park, as rookie Jameson Taillon had one of his best games of his 10 starts this year. The Los Angeles Dodgers (64-60) lead the wild card standings by four games while the Miami Marlins (60-54) have a one-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals (60-56) for the last playoff spot.

Taillon went eight strong innings, holding the Padres to just three hits. The 24-year-old right-hander (3-2, 2.85 ERA) threw 101 pitches as he walked two batters and struck out four. He has now gone at least six innings in each of his past six games, surrendering two or fewer runs in five of those starts.

With the win Thursday, the Pirates took two-of-their-three game series with the Padres. Pittsburgh heads out west for a pivotal six-game road trip, having won four-of-their-last six games to improve to 5-4 in August. The Bucs will play three games against the Los Angeles Dodgers (Aug. 12-14) and three versus the San Francisco Giants (Aug. 15-17).

Pittsburgh owns the second worst road record (24-30) among NL teams that are in the playoffs (as of now) or within five games of the last playoff spot. The Pirates are also the only squad of the aforementioned teams to have a negative run differential (-7). The Bucs have scored 503 runs and surrendered 510 runs this season.

As one might expect with a record just above .500, Pittsburgh has several holes. Statistically speaking, the Pirates are producing slightly above average offensive numbers and slightly below average pitching numbers.

Pittsburgh ranks 19th in the Majors in runs, 14th in average (.257), seventh in on-base percentage (.329), and 21st in slugging percentage (.409). The Pirates' offense has been anemic in August, batting just .207 (56-of-270) and having scored only 32 runs this month.

Outfielder Starling Marte, who went 2-for-3 against the Padres Thursday, is the only regular who is hitting over .300. Despite going through a slump (7-for-his-last-31 at-bats), Marte is batting .315 on the year and has a team-high 182 total bases.

Third baseman David Freese (.283), OF Gregory Polanco (.279), SS Jordy Mercer (.273) and 2B Josh Harrison (.270) are the other regulars hitting over .270. Freese is batting .333 (8-for-24) in August after going 5-for-11 in the series versus the Padres, including 2-for-4 on Thursday. The 33-year-old is on pace for one of his best seasons of his eight-year career as he also has 11 home runs and 45 RBIs.

The two most disappointing hitters have to be CF Andrew McCutchen and 3B Jung Ho Kang. McCutchen had his four-game hitting streak snapped Thursday but he is still hitting only .240 with 15 home runs and 111 strikeouts. If the 29-year-old doesn't turn things around soon, he will finish with his lowest batting average and highest strikeout total of his career.

Kang had a solid rookie campaign in 2015 though he has struggled the whole season thus far. The 29-year-old South Korean has three hits in his last 18 at-bats (.167 average) and is batting a paltry .230 on the season (50-for-217). Kang does have 11 home runs and 37 RBIs in 71 contests.

Another issue for the Pirates this season has been base running. The Bucs have given up scoring chances throughout the season due to errors on the bases. Pittsburgh is tied for fifth in the majors with 84 steals though they have been caught 34 times for a 71.19 succession rate, which is tied-for 17th.

Marte leads the team with 39 steals and is followed by Harrison with 15, and Polanco has 11.

The Pirates' pitching, particularly the starters, has to be the most disappointing of any aspect. Pittsburgh, which finished second in the Majors with a 3.21 ERA in 2015, ranks 15th in ERA (4.18) and 22nd in WHIP (1.39). The Bucs have logged 52 quality starts (t-15th) and have permitted opposing hitters to bat .264 off them.

The starters are 39-42 on the season with a 4.60 ERA. However, the Pirates have revamped their rotation over the past month with Ivan Nova, Gerrit Cole, Chad Kuhl, and Ryan Vogelsong joining Taillon. Nova, Kuhl, Tallion, and Vogelsong have replaced Juan Nicasio (5.05 ERA), Jonathon Niese (5.13), Francisco Liriano (5.46), and Jeff Locke (5.86). Nicasio and Locke have been moved to the bullpen.

Nova is scheduled to make his second start for the Pirates against the Dodgers on Friday night at 10:15 EDT. The 29-year-old right-hander, acquired from the New York Yankees, permitted six hits and three runs over seven innings in a 5-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Aug. 6. He struck out five Reds' hitters and didn't walk any, though he did get tagged for two home runs. Overall, Nova is 8-6 with a 4.83 ERA and 1.32 WHIP.

Cole will take the hill versus the Dodgers on Saturday and Kuhl is slated to go on Sunday, while Vogelsong will open the Giants' series (Monday) on the mound. Cole (7-7, 2.94 ERA) has made five starts since returning to action on July 16, following a month off. He is 2-3 in those games and has only gone at least 6 innings in two of those starts.

Kuhl is 2-0 with a 3.91 ERA and a .258 batting average against in five starts. He has given up 24 hits, 11 runs, struck out 17 and walked nine in 25.1 innings of work. The 23-year-old rookie is coming off a six inning, five hit, two run performance against the Padres on Aug. 9.

Vogelsong (1-2, 2.67 ERA) has pitched well in his last two starts. The 39-year-old has allowed three runs and six hits in 12 innings over his last two outings.

The Bucs' bullpen has also gone through a bunch of personnel changes recently, but they have been solid overall. The 'pen has a 18-13 record and ranks 10th in the Majors with a 3.57 ERA and 10th in save percentage, converting 38-of-51 opportunities (74.51 percent). Tony Watson (2-3, 2.77 ERA) is 1-0 and has converted 4-of-5 saves since taking over the closer role from Mark Melancon.

How the Pirates do in their six-game road trip against the Dodgers and Giants will go a long way to determine whether they are pretenders or contenders. Pittsburgh is 17-10 against the NL West this season -- including 3-1 against L.A., and 1-3 vs. San Francisco

[Photo by Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo]