If I were to have asked you in February, who were the six most important Pirates heading into 2017, what would your list have looked like? I imagine it would be fairly close to mine (in no particular order):
- Gerrit Cole — would he rebound to his 2015, ace potential?
- Andrew McCutchen — would he pull out of his 2016 tailspin?
- Jung-ho Kang — would he be the Pirates’ cleanup hitter and best source of power?
- Starling Marte — would he continue to hover just below star-level?
- Gregory Polanco — would he take the next step in his evolution to potential stardom?
- Jameson Taillon — would he be a solid #2 wingman to Cole?
Last Tuesday, my cohort Steve wrote an article saying that things could be worse for the Pirates. In fairness to him, he wrote it on Sunday when the Pirates were 14-17, but I had another article scheduled for Monday so I bumped it to Tuesday. In that one day interim, Jameson Taillon had one of his beans removed thanks to suspected testicular cancer and the Pirates got shellacked by the Dodgers thanks to his replacement, Trevor Williams, pitching poorly. The Pirates went on to have a miserable West Coast swing, going 2-5 against the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.
So with Taillon out, three of my six most important Pirates pre-season all have very murky futures in 2017. Marte is perhaps the cleanest, as we know he’s eligible to return on July 18th, but where will his mental and physical state be at that point? I’m hesitant to say we’ll see Kang at all this year. If you boil it all down with him, he’s now a foreign national with a criminal record trying to enter this country to take a job from an American. So good luck with that. And Taillon? I have absolutely no idea when he’ll be back and quite frankly, I don’t care. It’s cancer, it’s his life. Next time someone says ‘I’d give my left nut to play baseball’, ask them if they’ve spoken with Jameson Taillon recently.
To complicate matters even further, Kang’s replacement at 3B, David Freese, was off to an excellent start in April. Really, aside from maybe an extra homer or two, no one missed Kang’s presence in the lineup. Sure, it weakened the bench, but Freese was papering over a lot of holes. And then Freese got hurt with a bad hammy on April 25th and the Pirates’ ship started to take on too much water. Coupled with another very good hitter, Adam Frazier, going on the DL for roughly the same time period, the Pirates were just running out of qualified bodies. In the 16 games that those two jointly missed, the Pirates went 6-10 to drop their record to 14-21.
It didn’t help that neither McCutchen nor Polanco grabbed the reins and carried the team in their absence. Polanco was quasi-respectable with a .260/.363/.440 triple slash line, good for a 113 wRC+, but that’s not exactly carrying a team. But that’s Herculean compared to McCutchen’s Jaso-ean line of .145/.230/.309 in the same period, bad for a 45 wRC+.
Most of the onus for the Pirates poor performance has to be borne by the players. McCutchen and Polanco have been discussed, but Francisco Cervelli had a putrid April (he’s righting the ship with a strong May so far), and Jordy Mercer has been consistently sub-par all year with his 54 wRC+. Tyler Glasnow has been a tire fire for most of his innings as a starter this year. Tony Watson is bringing back memories of ex-closer Mike Williams (not in a good way) and Daniel Hudson has been excruciating to watch in the 8th inning. Yes, there have been great stories, like Felipe Rivero becoming a young beast in front of our eyes, the resurgence of Josh Harrison, Josh Bell tapping into his in-game power and being not-terrible at 1B, and Ivan Nova being a joy to watch pitch. But the bad has outweighed the good for the most part and other areas of the organization have to share some blame.
If there’s one overarching thing about the Pirates in recent years that has bothered me, it would be their lack of a killer instinct. This is personified by Clint Hurdle taking his foot off the gas in certain series, especially when the Pirates have already won the first two games, to get his starters rest. A perfect example is the recent Milwaukee Brewers series. The Pirates won their first two games in the series and appeared to be trending up. They were 14-16 and were facing a struggling Kyle Davies on a Sunday afternoon. (Granted, they were starting their own struggling Tyler Glasnow, but he was coming off a strong May 2nd effort against the Reds). Hurdle put out a lineup, in front of a Sunday home crowd to boot, that resembled one more in line with Triple A Indy. Jaso leading off, Phil Gosselin starting…anywhere, Chris Stewart catching (I know Cervelli rarely starts day games after night, but he just did it in Arizona a couple days ago), with Jose Osuna and Gift Ngoepe starting as well. No McCutchen, no Harrison, no Cervelli. Glasnow probably didn’t pitch well enough for it to matter, but that is a white flag lineup. It’s one that says that Hurdle was happy enough with 2 out of 3 in the series.
I understand that Hurdle, as he should, gives a long leash to vets to work it out, but his reluctance to take Hudson out of high-leverage innings has cost the Pirates as well. For some reason, Hurdle has given far too many at-bats to Phil Gosselin, even with a then-hot Gift Ngoepe on the team. And although I place most of the blame on the players, the abomination that is the Pirates’ team defense has to fall somewhere on the coaching staff, too.
Steve and I had lunch together on Monday and we discussed the skeleton of this article. When I asked him about how much blame to assign to Huntington, he had a salient point about how he fritters away potentially interesting assets for marginal upgrades to the 24th/25th/26th man. Case in point, the Milwaukee Brewers are the proud recipients of Keon Broxton (would be the 4th OF this year) and a pretty good prospect in Trey Supak so that the Pirates could acquire 1B Jason Rogers. Rogers had 33 terrible plate appearances last year and is now languishing in Triple A Indy with a 725 OPS. Clear win for the Brewers. (No, do not re-legislate the Francisco Liriano deal. McGuire/Ramirez are not top prospects, they were used as pyrite to buy down Liriano’s $13.7M salary). Frank Duncan, a respectable guy to keep in AAA for call-up purposes, was traded for Phil Gosselin. There are plenty of other examples of being willing to give up a potentially useful short-term asset for a minimal gain.
Now pair this with Huntington’s inability, bordering on paralysis by analysis, to part with top prospects to improve the Major League team in a significant way during a potentially winnable year. Yes, I’m talking about Jose Quintana. I’ve read some comments on various social media platforms to the effect of ‘boy, glad we didn’t trade Josh Bell in part of a package for Jose Quintana!’. I agree that Bell appears to be finally hitting for power, but let’s slow down here. He’s still a 1B and it’s not like he’s batting .300 yet. Quintana would have enabled the Pirates to get another top-end pitcher for multiple years that if things went sideways for the team, they could re-trade and re-coup their prospect haul given up originally. Quintana would have pushed Kuhl to his rightful #5 spot, shunted Glasnow to Triple A where he should be, and would now give them Taillon-insurance. Giving up Glasnow-Bell-Newman-something else would have been no big deal for me. Freese would be at 1B, Harrison at 3B.
He’s made some shrewd moves (hi, Felipe!) and some moves that have borne out, like extending David Freese last August, but he’s had plenty of misses on his trade card, too. Most GM’s do, it’s the nature of the business. But this 2017 team felt like he deliberately came up 1 or 2 moves short prior to Spring Training. Which leads me to…
If you’ve read The Point of Pittsburgh for any amount of time, you know that I’m not a ‘NUTTING IS CHEAP!!!’ guy. But I am, as a result of all our work on revenue/payroll articles, a ‘NUTTING IS SHORTING THIS TEAM $10-15M’ guy. It’s a difference, trust me. The first camp thinks the Pirates should be spending wild amounts of money they don’t have. The camp that I occupy sees them bringing in $240M in revenue, while spending in the high $90M’s on payroll, roughly 40%. League-wide, the rule-of-thumb of 50% has been suppressed in recent years down to 43-45%. Why there’s not more of a media push to find where the teams are stashing all the extra TV revenue and MLB Advanced Media revenue is a mystery to me.
Steve had some push back on this point of contention. But I think injecting $10-15M more for this team would have been a better veteran pitcher and/or some strengthening of the bench/bullpen. This season has seen the Kang/Marte/Taillon oddities, which no team can truly plan for, but in a normal season with all three of those players plus 1-2 upgrades, this team would be well above .500 again.
It’s not even June 1st. That’s when I really take stock of a team and get a feel for whether they should buy or sell. After this probably-unforgiving Nationals series, the Pirates can make some hay the rest of the month with the Phillies, Braves, Mets, and Diamondbacks on the remainder of the schedule, with most of the games at PNC Park. If they can dent the deficit of their win-loss record down to two games under, that would be a success.
The dire cries from the Chicken Littles of the fanbase calling for a team-wide fire sale are very premature. Tony Watson is probably going to go in July, as he should, especially if the Pirates can get a Mark Melancon-lite return for him (hi, Felipe!). McCutchen might go in July, especially if Austin Meadows comes out of his 2017 performance coma. That’s OK, too, since he looks like an asset headed towards salvage value. I would not anticipate them trading Gerrit Cole, as has been widely speculated, as I hope they see this year as a weird aberration of events. If they keep Cole, they can always reload for 2018 and still have the option to trade him with 1-1/3 years of control in July 2018. With Glasnow’s future as a starter hanging in the balance, the Pirates can’t afford to relinquish potential #1’s before they absolutely should.
In short, take a deep breath, Pirate fans. Better days are ahead. Although with this season, it’s more like just hoping to dodge the next anvil dropping from the sky.