Pirates need to step up in NL Central

Two bombshells rattled the NL Central at the beginning of this week. For the Pittsburgh Pirates, they should sound like a call to action.

Early Monday, the Milwaukee Brewers announced ace Zack Greinke won’t pitch until next week. Greinke has a 9.00 ERA during a bizarre month in which he started three straight games because of a first-inning ejection and the All-Star break. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin told my FOXSports.com colleague Ken Rosenthal that Greinke needs to “(recharge) his batteries.”

However the team characterizes Greinke’s breather, the recent developments have harmed Greinke’s trade value and any faint hope the Brewers had of rejoining the division race.

Later in the day, even bigger news came from Cincinnati: The Reds announced 2010 MVP Joey Votto — perhaps the game’s best hitter — will miss three to four weeks while recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Then Cincinnati lost to the flagging Arizona Diamondbacks, 5-3.

It’s as if the baseball gods are exhorting Pirates general manager Neal Huntington to make a big play — or big plays — before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline and end two decades of baseball misery in Pittsburgh.

The franchise’s futility has been so unfathomable that it bears repeating, just to confirm its accuracy: The Pirates have not had a winning season, much less a playoff berth, since Sid Bream slid home and broke their hearts 20 years ago. But now the Pirates are in second place, just one game back even after Monday’s walk-off loss in Colorado, with a pitching staff that entered the week with the sixth-best ERA in baseball.

The 2012 Pirates can halt a generation of losing — and make the playoffs, too. But for that to happen, they must make a trade or two.

Arizona right fielder Justin Upton would be the biggest prize, and sources say the Pirates have remained in contact with Diamondbacks officials. Upton, as the cleanup man, would ensure that MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen sees more pitches to hit in the No. 3 spot. (As hot as Pedro Alvarez is, manager Clint Hurdle has been reluctant to elevate him from sixth in the lineup.) Upton, even in a down year, would lend legitimacy to the Pirates as a contender while sending a clear message to the fan base that the organization expects to make the playoffs.

For now, though, Upton is a fantasy. Huntington thus far has refused to part with minor league outfielder Starling Marte or right-hander Jameson Taillon. At least one — and maybe both — would represent a fair price for a player of Upton’s ability (fourth in the NL MVP vote last year) and cost certainty (three years at $38.5 million, starting in 2013).

The Pirates have a reputation for overrating their own prospects — an earnest trait, but one that has resulted in trade proposals other GMs find baffling. Huntington is proud of the farm system he has built, and rightfully so. But now is the time to deal away the likes of Marte and/or Taillon, so the Pirates have a better chance to win at the major league level.

That’s why they’re in business, right?

Marte, 23, and Taillon, 20, are well-regarded prospects, but let’s be honest: We’re not talking about the next Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw. Marte is roughly one year younger than Upton and has yet to spend a day in the big leagues. Taillon, the same age Kershaw was at the time of his big league debut, has a 4.43 ERA this season at high Class A.

There are ways for Huntington to upgrade his roster without trading Marte and Taillon. He did that last year, with Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, but they didn’t do enough to propel the Pirates to a winning record. And that’s the point here: The Pirates don’t need players. They need impact players: Upton, Carlos Quentin or even Shane Victorino to help the offense; a veteran starter such as Wandy Rodriguez to replace the ineffective Erik Bedard.

Such moves come with no guarantees. The Reds or St. Louis Cardinals — defending world champions, in case you forgot — could finish ahead of Pittsburgh, even if Huntington swings deals for Upton and Rodriguez. But the time has come for the Pirates to find out how good they really are. They owe it to their fans. They owe it to their players. They owe it to themselves.

They need to be more than one of the most charming stories in sports today.

They need to win.

Play Now!