Despite their gumption to stay -- actually, jump back into -- the race, the Pirates have the same holes they looked through all winter: First base, right field and the rotation. Now they may have to fill two other places: Starling Marte's uneven season has turned left field into a soft spot, and a pair of dubious moves have weakened the bullpen.
Through his first six weeks, Gregory Polanco has not been an upgrade over his right field predecessors; their "production" has been identical, and ranks in the lower third of MLB right fielders. At one of the key power corner positions, first basemen Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez have combined to drive in the third fewest RBIs in the Majors. Albeit effective in stretches, the rotation has been patchwork.
So the Pirates can use a lot of help, and they are being offered a lot of it by teams salivating over their cache of prospects. MLB.com's Jim Callis notes that "the Bucs' combination of prospect quality and quantity" is unmatched.
They include outfielders Josh Bell, a participant in the Futures Game two weeks ago; Austin Meadows, their top Draft pick in 2013; and Harold Ramirez. Their roads into the Pittsburgh outfield are blocked if Marte-Polanco are still viewed as long-term bookends for Andrew McCutchen.
The coveted mound surplus goes from Tyler Glasnow and Nick Kingham to Jameson Taillon, who, as a recovering Tommy John surgery patient, may not be as untouchable as a year ago. The Bucs would consider including young arms in a deal for a reliable No. 2 or No. 3, but only if he came with some remaining club control. Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez may both be gone from the '15 rotation.
Should Huntington stay pat through the Deadline, Pirates fans know better than most that it won't mean things will be the status quo down the stretch. A year ago, the Bucs didn't do a thing at the end of July, then played big at the end of August, acquiring Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau for September and beyond.
After July 31, however, it's the "bakery" model; players can only be dealt after passing through waivers so you must wait your turn. Now, price talks, and no team has the prospect currency of the Pirates.
The pitching name most often linked to the Bucs is A.J. Burnett, a sign that things indeed never really change. The situation really is no different than it was eight months ago: The Pirates would not mind having him back in his No. 34 uniform, but not at his payroll-busting price.
Well, there is one difference. In the offseason, they had to negotiate with Burnett. Now they have to bargain with the Phillies, and how much they are willing to eat of the contract to which they signed him. Including options and incentives, that will reach $21.75 million if Burnett matches the 30 starts he made last season.
The search for bullpen depth, frankly, is to make up for two earlier moves that appear to have badly backfired. The deal of Bryan Morris is easier to take, even though he has been sensational in Miami (he has allowed one earned run in 26 2/3 innings) -- it was made for long-term considerations, and we'll just have to wait to see how Connor Joe, the outfielder drafted with the pick acquired from the Marlins, pans out.
But then, there is Jason Grilli, exiled to Anaheim a week after losing his closer's job in a change-of-scenery move from which only he has benefited. Ernesto Frieri has an 11.25 ERA here, while Grilli has a 1.74 ERA there entering Sunday's games. Team brass must've felt Grilli couldn't commit to resuming the setup role he filled for Joel Hanrahan prior to succeeding him as the closer, and would be a clubhouse distraction.
How active the Pirates are in the days leading to the Deadline depend on two things: Projections for Gerrit Cole (two rehab starts from rejoining the rotation) and Liriano; and what Huntington views as more significant.
Does the GM look at the standings, and see a team within a couple of hot streaks of pulling it off? Or does he see a team with weaknesses that need attention to make a playoff run a surer bet?