PITTSBURGH -- Six weeks after having entered June with lucid needs -- bats, bats and more bats -- the Pirates enter the Trade Deadline stretch drive in a somewhat conflicted state. Looking at their lineup on any given day, people come away shaking heads and muttering about them not coming off like a playoff-caliber team. But even if a classic case of overachievement has thrust them atop the National League Central standings, how does general manager Neal Huntington justify tooling with a lineup that has led the Major Leagues in scoring since May? The challenges faced by Huntington, with the considerable input of others, are dramatized by this very-recent incident: While the Pirates were in the midst of a 17-hit dismantling of the Giants on Sunday, the Internet was atwitter wondering about bats available to the Bucs.
To further gray what recently was a black-and-white issue, the stellar starting pitching that appeared to give the Pirates depth from which to deal has shown considerable cracks. Coincidental with the bats coming awake, the rotation began logging fewer innings, burdening the bullpen. Still, manager Clint Hurdle remains steadfast in the team's biggest need, recent extended events be darned. "We're in a buying mode," he said. "We need to be optimistic, but also realistic about who we are and what we need to do to take another step. That doesn't take away from what's been done. We're not saying, 'You aren't good enough.' You look to get better, so where can you improve? How can you improve? Doesn't mean it's going to happen." Foremost, Pittsburgh hunts for an outfield bat, ideally a left-handed hitter who can be a threat off the bench when not in the lineup (yes, getting a productive Jose Tabata back from the Minors would help, but the Bucs would still want to add lefty punch). That's why early rumors linking the Bucs to the Phillies' Shane Victorino were credible. Middle-infield help is also a high priority. Noise from the bats around him have helped Clint Barmes hide, but otherwise his .204 average (and .227 on-base percentage) could become a major liability. The Bucs' shortcomings have been best illustrated when they've been cornered into a late-game deficit, which, admittedly, has been a rare occurrence of late. When looking for offensive help off the bench, Hurdle's choices have been quite limited. Two of the few, and thus valuable, roster spots still belong to defensive specialists with very light bats -- shortstop Jordy Mercer and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. There is a school of thought -- recently shot down by Hurdle -- that the Pirates may actually be better off adding to their strength: pitching. Several blue-chip starters -- Matt Garza, Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels among them -- are out there. Pirates management is fully aware of the fact that, as solid and as sufficient as the current rotation has been, only one cog of it (A.J. Burnett) is signed beyond this season. Thus, you also have to plan ahead. Whatever moves the Pirates make, it will not be with that "all-in" mentality urged by everyone not vested in the team's fortunes. A team trying to wipe out 19 years of futility will not swap a promising long-term future for a lightning-bolt short-term high.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.