Matthew Leach

Bucs, Tribe face second-half challenges

Leach: Bucs, Tribe face second-half challenges

Bucs, Tribe face second-half challenges
Officially, the Indians' "natural rival" is the Reds. Naturally, Cleveland's official rival is Pittsburgh.

When the Indians and Pirates meet at Progressive Field this weekend, the stakes will be high not only in the standings but in the stands. These are two cities that just don't much like each other, and if either team can improve its own standing while helping sink the other, it'll be plenty delightful for the fans.

Both clubs are surprising contenders. And both the Bucs and the Tribe are intriguing teams, inspiring more than a little "how are they doing this?" intrigue. Oh, and also, they're doing it completely different. The Indians are scoring more than a run per game than are the Pirates. They're also allowing more than a run per game. The average Pirates' score is 4-3. The average Indians' score is 5-4.

The final product, though, is remarkably similar. Pittsburgh is 32-30, three games out in the NL Central. Cleveland is 32-30, 1 1/2 games back in the AL Central. Both teams have a run differential of minus-31, meaning they are outperforming their expected records based on runs scored and allowed. Both teams made surprising runs early last season before fading to losing records.

The question now is whether they can keep it up, and beyond that, which one is more likely to still be standing in October.

The trend lines are a bit friendlier to the Bucs. Cleveland's pitching, successful in the early going, already seems to be regressing. The Indians have a low-strikeout, high-walk pitching staff that relies extremely heavily on the team's defense to get outs. Cleveland has the second-fewest strikeouts and second-most walks in the American League, a bad combination.

In the early going, they worked around it. Opposing hitters managed a very low .276 batting average on balls in play against the Indians in April, allowing for a team ERA of 4.10 for the month. Since then, it's gotten a lot uglier. The BABIP has returned to more normal numbers, and the Tribe has a 4.78 ERA since May 1.

That would be less of a problem if they were bashing the ball, but the offense has merely been good enough, not great. Cleveland has gotten star-level performances from the middle infield, and not nearly enough from the rest of its lineup, but the Indians rank last in the AL in OPS from first basemen and from left fielders. Their third basemen rank 11th.

At three critical offensive positions, the Indians have been subpar. Catcher Carlos Santana should hit better, but the corners don't seem to offer a great deal of hope for real improvement. That means they'll either need to add a bat or two, or improve elsewhere. The AL Central is there for the taking, but the cracks are already starting to show for the Indians.

The correction hasn't really come yet in Pittsburgh, but the Bucs just got some very bad news when right-hander Charlie Morton learned he needs Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery. That put a dent in a rotation that has been outstanding, and forces the Pirates to scramble for innings. The resulting strain on the bullpen is a real worry.

One of the main ways a team can outperform its run differential is by winning the close games. You do that with a strong bullpen, and that's one area where the Pirates rate extremely well. They have a deep and effective 'pen that ranks fourth in the Majors in ERA and is tied for the fewest losses of any relief corps in baseball.

It's the second year in a row that Pittsburgh's bullpen has shined, and the group is one of the biggest reasons for optimism for the Bucs as the season continues. It's a quality group, and thanks to a better and deeper starting rotation than the 2011 Pirates had, they shouldn't wear down quite so much as they did last year.

Pittsburgh will have to keep scores low, though, because it has an offense that has struggled hugely. The Pirates rank 29th in the Majors in batting average, 30th in on-base percentage, 29th in slugging percentage, 30th in runs and a distant last in walks.

The team's offseason tweaking upgraded the defense, which has helped the pitchers and makes it less likely you'll see a second-half run-prevention fade. But it was done at the expense of offense, with low-OBP players brought in to play shortstop and catcher. Meanwhile, most of the team's young hitters have regressed, even as Andrew McCutchen puts up MVP-caliber numbers.

But you can still see where this could be a more effective offense. Pedro Alvarez continues to show flashes at times. Neil Walker is coming around. Jose Tabata is still only 23 and has time to rebound. The Pirates don't have the seeds of a great offense, but they ought to be better, and there may well be more room for improvement from the hitters than for fading by the pitchers.

Pittsburgh's problem is the competition. The Reds, a preseason co-favorite in the division, have shown themselves to be solid and don't look likely to fade away. A healthy Cardinals team should come on strong in the second half. Those appear to be more formidable foes than the Indians have to face in the AL Central.

Still, that's the kind of problem both of these teams like to have. If their biggest worry going forward is the quality of the teams they're battling for playoff position, it's going to be a good year in both cities.

Matthew Leach is a writer for Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.