Mindless move could torpedo Bucs’ season

Notes and observations from the first month of the Major League Baseball season:

Division championships are finalized in September, but the foundation for the success or failure of any given season is sometimes firmly established in April.

And it’s not always done with play on the field.

The bombshell announcement of outfielder Starling Marte’s 80-game suspension for the use of a performance-enhancing drug serves as a true double whammy for the Pirates.

Coming on the heels of third baseman Jung Ho-Kung’s DUI-suspended sentence in South Korea and his absence from the Pirates since the beginning of spring training due to work-visa problems, Marte’s issue leaves a Pittsburgh batting lineup that was struggling before his departure that much more punchless.

In their first 15 games this season, the Pirates have shown the type of pitching that would ordinarily enable them to contend for a wild-card playoff spot or better this year.

Gerrit Cole appears to be on the cusp of returning to his vintage form of 2015, Jameson Taillon is showing top-of-the-rotation type capability, and both veteran Ivan Nova and youngster Chad Kuhl are building upon their solid 2016 seasons.

It speaks volumes, however, that the Pirates pitching staff allowed a total of only six runs in three recent games in St. Louis, and the Bucs managed to lose all three — the first time since statistics were first kept back in 1913 that a Pirates team has allowed six runs or fewer over a three-game series and been swept.

Marte’s inexcusable misstep in an era where drug-testing for Major League Baseball players is routine puts a huge damper on any hopes the Pirates have of returning to postseason play this year.

Though the Pirates are toeing the company line about forging on, there’s no doubt that Marte has put the team behind the 8-ball and could end up rendering the Bucs as a major seller rather than a major buyer when the midsummer trade deadline rolls around.

n The balance of power in the National League Central Division still greatly favors the Chicago Cubs, but the team’s soft underbelly in middle relief may wind up becoming a stumbling block to a second straight National League championship, let alone a second straight World Championship.

n The Cincinnati Reds aren’t likely to have a winning season this year, let alone make the playoffs, but the Reds’ batting order has a lot of formidable and vastly unheralded hitters in the likes of third baseman Eugenio Saurez, outfielders Adam Duvall and Scott Schebler, and second baseman Jose Peraza. If the Reds can develop a solid overall starting pitching staff to go with a bullpen that appears to be quite capable, Cincinnati could return to contention sooner rather than later.

n Heady praise — veteran Reds Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Marty Brennaman has declared that speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton is the single-most impactful player that he’s seen in 44 years of calling play-by-play for the team. No small compliment, especially when it’s considered that a legion of Hall-of-Famers that include Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Barry Larkin and all-time baseball hits leader Pete Rose have all played in Cincinnati with Brennaman at the microphone.

n Rather than being NL Central bottom-feeders, the Reds and Milwaukee Brewers are likely to be feisty, contentious opponents for the division’s upper crust all season long.

n With both the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies both appearing to be vastly improved in the early going, it’s not inconceivable that the National League West Division could wind up boasting both of the league’s wild-card playoff teams this season.

n Rooting extra hard for 28-year-old right-handed reliever Kaleb Fleck, a product of Hollidaysburg and Claysburg-Kimmel High Schools who played collegiately at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, to make it to the big leagues before this season is over. Fleck began this season with the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Class AAA affiliate Reno (Nev.) Aces.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

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