For the Pittsburgh Pirates and their passionate fan base, the 2016 season was one of extreme disappointment. After three consecutive playoff appearances, the beloved Bucs missed the postseason party.
The Pirates struggled to a record of 78-83 last season, good only for third place in the National League Central Division.
In each of the prior three years, Pittsburgh came in second place, with the team repeatedly falling just short of a division crown. The club finished within two games in 2014 and 2015 after falling three games short in 2013.
In 2016, the Bucs fell 7.5 games short of the second-place St. Louis Cardinals. But that was not their biggest concern heading into the offseason. Pittsburgh also finished a distant 25 games behind the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs in the division race.
PITTSBURGH ENTERED THE OFFSEASON WITH DECISIONS TO MAKE
At the very least, the Pirates management went into the offseason needing to figure out a way to close the 8.5-game gap between themselves and the two NL Wild Card teams.
There was much talk about Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington pursuing pitching. At one point, the Pirates were reportedly hot after Chicago White Sox lefty Jose Quintana.
Talk was also hot at one point in regards to Pittsburgh trying to deal away former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen for prospects. This would possibly signal that the team was looking to contend a couple of years down the line.
Clearly, the Bucs needed to do something. The status quo was not going to work out. Huntington either had to pull off a deal or two aimed at pushing the current team back into Wild Card contention, or he had to start rebuilding.
In the end, the GM accomplished neither. The Pirates were unable to either acquire Quintana or deal away McCutchen.
OFFSEASON ADDITION AND SUBTRACTION DOESN’T ADD UP
The one positive accomplishment of the offseason was the re-signing of their own free agent starting pitcher Ivan Nova.
The losses from last year’s third-place club don’t seem all that big on the surface, but they absolutely took away from the team’s veteran depth. Reliever Neftali Feliz, pitchers Ryan Vogelsong and Jeff Locke, and bench position players Sean Rodriguez and Matt Joyce are all gone.
Coming into the fold is veteran right-handed pitcher Daniel Hudson, who turns 30 years old early in spring training. Hudson worked his way back from missing nearly three full seasons to become a reliable reliever the last two years in Arizona. Over 134 games he allowed 139 hits in 138 innings, with a 129/47 K:BB ratio.
If Hudson stays healthy, he could make up for the loss of Feliz as skipper Clint Hurdle‘s primary setup man.
But these were the only moves of any real significance made by a team that finished with a losing record. Replace the setup man and keep the pitching rotation together. That’s it.
CAN THE PIRATES CONTEND WITHOUT MOVES?
For the Pirates to get back to playoff contention, they are going to need a return to All-Star form from McCutchen.
Pittsburgh is also going to need a leap forward in production from a pair of youngsters in right fielder Gregory Polanco and first baseman Josh Bell.
Pittsburgh is also going to need all three of their potential young stud starting pitchers to stay healthy. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow making 30+ starts each would go a long way toward a Wild Card berth.
Even with all the right answers from their in-house players, the Bucs are not likely to catch the Cubs this season. They will need all those right answers just to battle for a postseason berth.
THE ‘CUTCH’ QUESTION
What if McCutchen continues to struggle, losing even more trade value? He turned 30 years old in October and is in the final guaranteed season of his contract. There is a reasonable $14.75 team option for 2018. How should the club approach that option if he deteriorates further?
If the Pirates were going to deal McCutchen, the offseason would have seemed the time to do it. A contender could then have watched him acclimate in spring training, and then plugged him into their starting lineup from the beginning.
The failure of management to generate any real news of significance this offseason, one way or the other, could come back to haunt the Pirates. Not just in the 2017 season, but possibly for years to come.