Brewers Take on a Struggling Pirates Team
A conversation with Bucs Dugout manager Eli Nellis
If it seems like the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t played much this season, it’s because they haven’t. The two teams have played just three of their scheduled 19 meetings, and have yet to meet at all at Miller Park. One way or the other, the Pirates are likely to have a lot to say about whether or not the Brewers remain atop the NL Central: Pittsburgh represents almost 18% of their remaining schedule, more than one in six of their games left to play.
The Pirates’ season to date has not been what they were hoping for: A loss to the Cubs on Sunday dropped them to 31-38, and after the game we talked to Eli Nellis, manager of the SB Nation Pirates site Bucs Dugout, about the challenges and strengths facing the team.
The Pirates entered the season in the conversation for contention for a possible NL playoff berth but have spent all but one day of the last two months in fourth place or below in the NL Central. What happened?
A little bit of everything. Jung-Ho Kang had an offseason DUI, and apparently has a couple more on his record, and now cannot leave Korea. Starling Marte got popped for steroids. Jameson Taillon had a cancer scare. On top of that, Andrew McCutchen still looked pretty awful until a few weeks ago, Gregory Polanco has stagnated, the starting rotation, while good, has had its issues and the bullpen has been in flux.
First baseman Josh Bell came into 2017 as Baseball America's #35 prospect in all of baseball, and he entered play Sunday tied for the team lead with 12 home runs on the season. What are your expectations for him going forward?
I think his contact skills will refine and he'll hit for a higher average. I'm pleasantly surprised with how his power has developed. I don't necessarily expect him to hit 40 homers in a season, but that looks like one area he could outperform, given his progress so far. He's a disciplined hitter and, while he's dealing with the ups and downs of the majors full time now, he seems to be weathering them quite nicely. He's shaken the issues he had hitting from the right side in the minors and is no longer a defensive liability at first -- he was drafted as an outfielder and didn't play first until the upper minors -- so he's already shown himself to be a mature, focused player that can overcome the challenges thrown at him.
New closer Felipe Rivero recorded three multi-inning saves in the last week, is tied for the MLB lead in relief appearances and carried a sub-1.00 ERA into Sunday's game. Is this usage pattern likely to continue going forward?
Yes. The bottom line is, there aren't any other relievers that are really trustworthy on this team, so Rivero's going to get his innings. I'm pleased with the current setup -- I was afraid they'd pigeonhole Rivero into a strict ninth-inning-only type of role. I'm sure Clint Hurdle has the front office's backing to do the saber-friendly thing with his bullpen management, even if it leads to some outside scrutiny.
Who are the likely All Stars on this team?
Rivero is deserving, though his lack of saves or even a true "closer" label might hurt him in this regard. Then again, Joe Maddon made some pretty flattering comments about him over the weekend, so Rivero seems to have the right guy's attention.
Other than that, it's probably Josh Harrison, who has quietly seen an offensive resurgence to go with solid defense amidst a pretty hectic year for Pirates position players.
Despite a slow start, the Pirates are just a handful of games back of first place in the NL Central. Do you expect them to get back into the playoff race, fall far enough back to consider selling at the trade deadline, or something in between?
I feel like they'll be somewhere in between, though that depends a lot on the Cubs and/or Brewers, but I also think they'll sell a piece or two off anyway. They dealt Mark Melancon while theoretically still being in the hunt last year, and that's worked out pretty well. This front office doesn't really let the unpopularity of a move deter them from making a move they view as being better in the long term.