PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates left the nation's capital after Sunday's marathon victory trailing the Cubs by 8 1/2 games in the National League Central. They are 2 1/2 games out of a NL Wild Card spot, still behind the Marlins, Mets and Cardinals. But in many ways, they are well set up for the season's stretch run.
Starting Tuesday, 37 of Pittsburgh's last 70 games will come against the rebuilding Brewers, Reds, Phillies and Braves, and the Bucs' bullpen is rounding into form. Their lineup was quiet over the weekend, but it flashed reminders of its April production before the All-Star break. Their bench is remarkably deep, and they have capable callups waiting in the Minors.
What's missing? What stands between the Pirates and a fourth straight postseason appearance? Their rotation, a strength since Pittsburgh's re-emergence in 2013, hasn't performed up to its ability.
As of Monday, the Bucs' starters rank 22nd in the Majors with a 4.80 ERA and second to last with 14 seven-inning outings in 92 games. They have had to use 11 pitchers, five of them making their first Major League starts.
With the second half of the season underway and the Aug. 1 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaching, what might the Pirates do to fix their rotation?
"We will weigh [our options and see if we] are better going with our own guys, [or] is there something that makes sense from the outside?" general manager Neal Huntington said. "That'll play out over the next couple weeks."
Improve from within
While the Pirates scour the Majors for help the next two weeks, their greatest needs might be met by the arms they already possess.
After debuting in the first half, their young pitchers will be asked to contribute over the next 2 1/2 months, particularly top prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, who is set to come off the disabled list Tuesday night.
Chad Kuhl turned in the best start of his young career on Sunday. Veteran righty Ryan Vogelsong, another depth option, is nearly ready to rejoin the team after recovering from multiple facial fractures. Lefty Steven Brault and righty Trevor Williams are waiting at Triple-A Indianapolis.
With six scheduled off-days over the next month, Pittsburgh can shuffle its rotation to keep Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Taillon on a consistent schedule. The Bucs can then align Jeff Locke and a potential fifth starter, if and when they need one, around those three.
"You build the rotation around Gerrit Cole," Huntington said. "And if we can get Francisco Liriano back to what he'd been for us for three years, that's a really good addition."
Wheel and deal
Considering those internal options, the Pirates may be raising their standards on the trade front. Rather than seeking two-month rentals, Pittsburgh appears to be prioritizing young arms who could remain in its rotation over the next several years.
On Friday, the Bucs sent two officials to Tropicana Field, where Chris Archer started for the struggling Rays. They also had scouts in the stands to see left-hander Matt Moore and right-hander Jake Odorizzi, according to the Tampa Bay Times. All three fit their desire to add a young, controllable starter.
Pittsburgh has also discussed hard-throwing right-hander Nathan Eovaldi with the Yankees, according to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Problem is, true difference-makers won't come cheap. San Diego shipped All-Star lefty Drew Pomeranz to Boston for Anderson Espinoza, MLBPipeline.com's No. 34 overall prospect.
"It reminds us that it's a seller's market, and the acquisition costs are going to be steep," Huntington said. "It also reminds us that it's really important to develop your own pitching."
The Pirates have the Major League depth and Minor League prospects to make a deal. Is the potential return, the possible boost to their struggling rotation, worth the price?
"You continue to look externally, but your bar's set fairly high in terms of what the acquisition needs to be," Huntington said. "And that acquisition comes with an extreme acquisition cost."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.