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With Gabe Kapler out, what’s next for the Phillies?

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Kapler was let go after two seasons as the Philadelphia Phillies manager

 

Under tremendous fire from their fan base after a disappointing 2019 season, the Philadelphia Phillies had to make some type of change at the management level. Today, that change was announced.

The Phillies have fired manager Gabe Kapler after two seasons as the skipper and with one year remaining on his contract. The club went 80-82 in 2018 and then finished at 81-81 in the recently completed campaign under his guidance.

Telling in the decision is that it reportedly did not come from club management in the front office, but instead was made by ownership.

Per Bob Nightengale and Chris Bumbaca of USA Today: “The decision was made by Phillies owner John Middleton, and not general manager Matt Klentak, a high-ranking Phillies executive told USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity.

Middleton then released a statement himself, as reported by ESPN:

Several years ago, I promised our loyal fans that I would do everything in my power to bring a world championship team to our city. I will never waver from that commitment. … I have decided that some changes are necessary to achieve our ultimate objective. Consequently, we will replace our manager.

Just last week, I wrote that the Phillies should bring Kapler back. I felt that, while he indeed made mistakes, the injury situation was bad enough that he should be given the final year of his contract in 2020 to see if he could push the club forward.

However, Middleton reportedly took the time to not only consider the situation in his own head, but also sought out the opinions of a number of his team’s key players. It can now be assumed that those players did not aggressively back their manager.

So, the owner made the decision that most of the problems with the 2019 Philadelphia Phillies were in the clubhouse and the dugout, and not in the front office. That much became clear when Middleton also let it be known that Klentak would “lead the search” for the new manager.

Be sure of this, while Klentak sorting through the candidates during the search and lining them up for interviews may indeed be the case, no manager will be hired at this point without input and likely final approval from Middleton.

I believe you can also be sure of another thing as well – the new manager will have some real experience in that role, unlike Kapler when he was hired.

That would leave out candidates such as former Phillies outfielder Raul Ibanez and the recently retired Carlos Beltran, two hot names being bandied about to fill one of the open MLB managerial positions this off-season.

While I believe he would make a perfect candidate, I do not believe that Joe Maddon will be the man. A big-league skipper for parts of 16 seasons, Maddon has an overall 1,252-1,068 record.

He has taken his teams to the postseason eight times, and won a World Series with the 2016 Chicago Cubs. Maddon was also the Tampa Bay Rays manager when they captured the American League pennant in 2008 before dropping the Fall Classic to the Phillies.

However, Maddon is widely seen as the front-runner for the open managerial position with the Los Angeles Angels. He has history there, spending more than three decades from 1975-2005 as a player, coach, scout, minor league manager, and big-league coach.

Maddon also served previously as the Angels interim manager in both 1996 and 1999. It is hard to believe that he wouldn’t take that job, hoping to help make Mike Trout and company into legitimate contenders.

So, let’s get right to it. Who do I see as the leading contenders to become the new Philadelphia Phillies manager beginning with the 2020 season? I have three leading candidates.

Buck Showalter

Now 63 years of age, Showalter has been the manager with four different organizations: New York Yankees (1992-95), Arizona Diamondbacks (1998-2000), Texas Rangers (2003-06), and Baltimore Orioles (2010-18).

Showalter has an overall record of 1,551-1,517 and won a division title with three of the four clubs. However, his teams had winning seasons in just 10 of the 19 full years that he was at the helm, and only reached the postseason five times.

It may be in his favor that he was hired for the Orioles managerial job during the time that current Phillies club president Andy MacPhail was serving in that position with Baltimore and while Klentak was their Director of Baseball Operations.

Joe Girardi

Turning 55 years of age this coming weekend, Girardi was the man in the dugout as the New York Yankees skipper when the Bronx Bombers took out the Phillies in the 2009 World Series. He put together an overall 910-710 mark in the Big Apple over 10 seasons from 2008-17.

Girardi’s teams reached the postseason six times, and reached the American League Championship Series four times. Just two falls ago, his Yanks held a 3-2 lead in the ALCS vs Houston before the Astros rallied to win the final two games.

He also won three World Series rings as a member of the Yankees late-1990’s dynasty. Girardi was the NL Manager of the Year with the Florida Marlins in 2006 after keeping a low-budget team in Wildcard contention for much of the summer. But he was fired following that one season after clashing with owner Jeffrey Loria.

Mike Scioscia

A local product who was born in Upper Darby and attended Springfield High School and Penn State University, Scioscia will turn 61 years of age in late November.

He was the manager with the Angels for 19 seasons from 2000-2018, leading that franchise to their only World Series championship in 2002. During his tenure the Angels won six AL West Division titles, including over five of six seasons between 2004-09.

Scioscia had an overall 1,650-1, 428 record at the Angels helm and seven of his teams reached the postseason. However, despite having the game’s best player in Trout for most of that time, the Angels made the playoffs just once over his final nine years.

He had a 13-year playing career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was the starting catcher on their 1981 World Series championship team. Scioscia was an NL All-Star in both 1989 and 1990.

Other possibilities who fit the bill of an experienced big-league manager who might be open to consideration for the position would include John Farrell, Dusty Baker, John Gibbons, Clint Hurdle, Brad Ausmus.

Whomever gets the job of trying to guide the Philadelphia Phillies back to the postseason from inside the locker room and dugout, both Klentak and MacPhail should now consider themselves as being squarely on the hot seat.

The Phillies have not only failed to reach the postseason during the four full seasons of the MacPhail-Klentak front office regime, but the minor league system is widely regarded as among the weakest in the game.

That comes after four years of their leading the draft and international signing process. If the Phillies cannot become winners on the field, and should that minor league organization not begin to display legitimate depth of talent, heads in the front office should be the next to roll.

What the Phillies should do with Gabe Kapler for 2020

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The Phillies have gone 161-163 during two seasons under manager Gabe Kapler

 

The Major League Baseball postseason begins on Tuesday night with the Washington Nationals hosting the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Wildcard Game.

For an eighth consecutive October, there will be no playoff baseball drama and excitement at Citizens Bank Park. That seemed an almost ludicrous possibility when the season opened back in late March with a home sweep of the division-rival Atlanta Braves.

This was the second year for the club under 44-year-old manager Gabe Kapler. He still has one year remaining on the three-year deal given when he signed to take over a team believed to be in the final stages of a rebuilding program for the 2018 season.

Under Kapler’s guidance, the Phillies surprisingly fought their way to the top of the National League East Division during his first summer at the helm. They were in first place as late as August 12.

From that point on, the club collapsed to a 15-30 finish over the final seven weeks of the 2018 campaign. Still, the ultimate 80-82, third place finish was better than many had expected when the season began.

Everything changed during the winter prior to the 2019 season, however. The Phillies, spurred by owner John Middleton, opened up their wallets in free agency and became more aggressive in the trade market.

The result was a far more experienced and dynamic starting lineup entering the 2019 season thanks to the additions of Bryce Harper and Andrew McCutchen on the outfield corners, shortstop Jean Segura, and catcher J.T. Realmuto.

Those four would join a returning core of first baseman Rhys Hoskins, center fielder Odubel Herrera, third baseman Maikel Franco, and second baseman Cesar Hernandez.

Once again, the Phillies got off to a strong start. Following an 11-4 victory over the Saint Louis Cardinals on May 29, the club sat a season-high 11 games over the .500 mark and held a 3.5 game lead in the division.

As late as June 11, the Phillies remained in first place. But then it all suddenly fell apart. Losses in 11 of 13 games were low-lighted by a seven-game losing streak.

It all coincided with a winning stretch by the defending division champion Atlanta Braves. By the time the losing skid was over, the Phillies had not only lost their division lead, but had fallen 6.5 games behind the surging Braves.

From June 8, the last time that the Phillies reached 10 games over the .500 mark, until the end of the season, the team played to a 44-54 mark.

On Independence Day, they fell out of second place for the first time, passed by a red-hot Washington Nationals club. On August 10, the New York Mets slipped past them, dropping the Phillies to fourth place.

Still, the Phillies managed to hang around in the race for the second and final National League Wildcard playoff berth. As late as September 10 they were just two games off the pace.

Unfortunately, they could never sustain enough of a winning streak to seriously push themselves back into the race. They never won five games in a row all year long, and finished up by losing nine of their final dozen games.

The 2019 Phillies spent just one day all season – September 26 – below the .500 mark. Aside from that June swoon slump, they never fell into a deep enough skid to get knocked completely out of the race. Until the final two weeks that is.

There are a number of reasons that the Phillies finished the 2019 season just one game better than the 2018 season. The first and most obvious is key injuries.

McCutchen was lost for the season as June got underway. Jay Bruce stepped into the starting lineup and provided a power lefty bat and veteran presence. Until he was injured, missing roughly 50 games over the final three months.

Herrera didn’t get injured, he injured someone else, getting himself arrested in Atlantic City following a domestic assault on his 20-year-old girlfriend. He would ultimately be suspended for the season by Major League Baseball.

His replacement, Roman Quinn, did what Quinn does. He looked dynamic until he got hurt, playing in just 44 games all year and ending the season on the IL, to no one’s surprise.

But it was the bullpen where injuries struck hardest, quickest, and most often. Tommy Hunter, David Robertson, Seranthony Dominguez, Pat Neshek, Victor Arano, Adam Morgan, and Jerad Eickhoff would all succumb to various injuries.

The rotation was healthy for much of the year, they just were never consistently effective. Aaron Nola, the presumptive ace who was a 2018 Cy Young Award finalist, was simply very good for much of the year, pitching more like a solid #2 starter.

The rest of the rotation members enjoyed what can only be described as a roller-coaster campaign. Veteran Jake Arrieta, in the second year of a big free agent contract, was pitching like a back-end starter before going down for the year after 24 starts.

Kapler began the season using a mostly set lineup in the early going when the team was winning. But it seemed that as soon as there were struggles, he abandoned that, returning to his troubling rookie managerial season habit of a new lineup nearly every day.

Not only did Kapler come up with some new configuration on a game-by-game basis, but he also was juggling players in and out. He continued to shuffle Scott Kingery all around the diamond. And Franco just seemed to fall completely out of favor with the skipper at one point, getting sent to the minor leagues.

So, where does all of this leave Kapler? Frankly, in my opinion, there is no way that you can possibly pin all – not even most – of the Phillies struggles in 2019 on him.

Kapler managed the 25 players, a few more in September, who he had available to him on any given night the best that he could. This is where the big question comes in – is Kapler’s best good enough?

Back in mid-August, with the Phillies struggles to put together a consistent winning stretch becoming more apparent with each passing week, Kapler appeared in a revealing radio interview at local sports talk 94 WIP FM. In that interview he stated the following:

“…the life of a baseball manager is that you manage until the day that you get fired and almost everyone gets fired at some point. I guess I’d say this, I’m not going to manage scared. I didn’t play scared. I fought and gave everything I had every single day. You’re going to manage in the same way. So, if I get fired I do and it’ll be a hard day for me to deal with, but I’m not going to waste a single ounce of my mental or emotional energy thinking about myself when I could be thinking about how I could help us win tonight’s game. The players, those 25 men battling out there, those are the ones that matter.”

When I see what happened to the 2019 Phillies and think about a managerial change, one question that comes to mind is, could anyone else have done better, based on the circumstances?

Two days ago, I ran a poll at my Twitter feed, asking fans who should be the Phillies manager in 2020. I gave four choices: Kapler, Joe Girardi, Joe Maddon, or “Other”, asking fans to comment if they had a different preference.

Over 18 hours, the poll received 463 votes, and results were as follows:

The comments yielded other names: Mike Scioscia (4), Clint Hurdle (2), Dusty Wathan (2), Buck Showalter, Raul Ibanez, and even Charlie Manuel.

So, I am left to consider whether experienced big-league skippers like Girardi, Maddon, Scioscia, Hurdle, and Showalter or any of the other names could have done better this year than Kapler.

Frankly, I find it difficult to believe that they could. Every one of these men is out of a job right now, and there are any number of reasons for that fact. Mostly because they simply weren’t getting it done where they were.

Kapler rubs many Phillies fans the wrong way. They dislike what is often seen as a Pollyanna style of backing his players in public, rarely willing to criticize those players even when they repeatedly fail.

He has also battled from behind from the very beginning for many of those fans due to his physical fitness, his personal blog which described his preference for coconut oil during certain activities, and especially his heavy reliance on analytics and statistics.

I was asked frequently over the last month what I thought should happen with Kapler in 2020. I repeatedly said that I was waiting until the season was over before revealing my opinion.

The fact is that I had my own bottom line. The Phillies had to finish with a winning season in order for Kapler to return in 2020. A total collapse to a losing season and there was no doubt that I would be recommending a change.

But neither happened. The Phillies finished at .500, the only team in Major League Baseball to finish with a dead-even 81-81 record this year.

I publicly criticized Kapler’s often head-scratching lineup choices on a frequent basis over the last few months. But his “style” never bothered me the way that it seemed to bother many other fans.

When evaluating Kapler, I harken back to Terry Francona, who was fired after four years as the Phillies skipper on this very date in 2000.

The Phillies were Francona’s first managerial opportunity, just as they are Kapler’s first chance to lead from the dugout in the big-leagues. After being fired in Philly, Francona went on to become one of the best and most respected managers in Major League Baseball.

His teams won 744 times over eight seasons with the Boston Red Sox. He guided them to the playoffs five times and won two World Series titles. Francona has now won 638 games over the last seven years with the Cleveland Indians, with four playoff appearances and an AL pennant.

I think Francona was a good manager in Philadelphia, albeit a bit inexperienced. But he was one without a lot of experienced, championship-caliber talent. I see no reason that he wouldn’t have eventually won here as the talent improved.

Manuel was not embraced at first by Phillies fans, but grew to become beloved. (Keith Allison)

As Kapler gains experience with another year at the helm, could a Phillies pitching staff improved by some key off-season additions this winter and just a little more luck with health in 2020 make his perceived eccentricities more palatable to the fan base?

I remember when Manuel was first hired with the Phillies. The majority of fans wanted former Pirates and Marlins skipper Jim Leyland to get the job. They saw Manuel as some country hick who would never last in Philadelphia.

Today, Manuel is the beloved ‘Uncle Charlie’, the man who guided the Phillies to five consecutive NL East titles, two National League pennants, and the 2008 World Series championship. He is a Wall of Famer who will be popular with fans until the day he dies and beyond.

Now, I don’t know whether Gabe Kapler will ever accumulate the kind of records that either Francona or Manuel have in the future. What I do know is that fans were far too quick to go negative on those two managers.

This isn’t going to be a popular opinion, based on what I am reading on social media and hearing on the radio. But emotions aside, I don’t think that any of the alternative names above can necessarily be counted on to do a better job.

I think that Kapler should come back for the 2020 season as the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. I firmly believe that he does everything within his power to win every game.

It appears to me that he does everything in his power to keep his players looking ahead. I have no problem whatsoever with his trying to keep the atmosphere as positive as possible, no matter the circumstances.

Kapler has one year left on his contract. See how things go next year. Give him the final year on his deal to see if he can be a part of turning things around.

Now, if in the coming days, the Phillies decide to go in another direction, that is fine. But the real problems with the organization lie higher on the food chain for me. If they simply fire the manager without making changes higher up, nothing will really change as far as long-term contention.

Phillies and Pirates rekindle cross-state rivalry with weekend series

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Phillies will spend a steaming hot July weekend at PNC Park

The Philadelphia Phillies (50-47) will be spending the next three days at one of the most beautiful ballparks in the game when they visit the Pittsburgh Pirates (45-50) for a weekend series.

The Pirates are struggling, losers in five of their last six and seven of their last 10 games. Though just 6.5 games out in the NL Central Division standings, the Bucs have not been able to rise above fourth place in their division since the start of June. They have not won more than three straight since mid-April.
For their part, the Phillies enter the series coming off a 2-2 split with the best team in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers, but are still struggling mightily themselves to put back together what once appeared to be a winning season.
The Phillies went 3-4 on their just completed home stand in which they faced two tough teams in the Dodgers and division-rival Washington Nationals. They are just 7-9 going back over the last three weeks, since ending a four-game winning streak. While nine games over the .500 mark at home, they have fashioned only a 20-26 record on the road
Head-to-head, the Phillies won six of the seven games between the two clubs a year ago. However, that was the first time since their record-setting 2011 campaign that they had a winning seasonal mark against the Pirates.
Pittsburgh is 17th in MLB in runs per game (4.74), just behind the Phillies (4.84) who rank 15th. The Pirates are 13th among the 15 teams in the National League in home runs, 10th in stolen bases, and 9th in OPS. The Pittsburgh pitching staff is collectively ranked at 13th in the NL in both batting average and OPS against, ninth in strikeouts.
With the hot summer weather fully entrenched here in the eastern United States, and with two struggling pitching staffs, this could end up a high-scoring series. That is especially so if the Phillies do not get improved starting pitching, and if they can get into the Pirates bullpen by the middle innings.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

TOP LINEUP THREATS

Josh Bell: (26/1B) – .293/.367/.623, 27 HR, 84 RBIs, 61 extra-base hits, 71 runs. Bell finished third in the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year voting, made his first NL All-Star team earlier this month, and if the Pirates can reach the postseason will be a legitimate NL MVP candidate. On top of all that talent, he is also a switch-hitter.
Starling Marte: (30/CF) – .275/.316/.482, 16 HR, 52 RBIs, 37 extra-base hits, 59 runs. Marte was a 2016 NL All-Star and won Gold Glove Awards in both 2015-16.
Colin Moran: (26/3B) – .294/.334/.472, 10 HR, 50 RBIs, 27 extra-base hits, 31 runs. Lefty bat at the hot corner.
Kevin Newman: (25/SS) – .331/.370/.468, 6 HR, 35 RBIs, 20 extra-base hits, 26 runs. Pirates first round pick at 19th overall in the 2015 MLB Draft out of the University of Arizona was called up to stay in early May.
Bryan Reynolds: (24/LF) – .340/.413/.520, 7 HR, 37 RBIs, 28 extra-base hits, 40 runs. Giants second round pick in the 2016 MLB Draft was dealt to the Pirates in January 2018 along with reliever Kyle Crick in exchange for currently injured Phillies outfielder Andrew McCutchen. One of three switch-hitters in the Pittsburgh regular starting lineup.
Adam Frazier: (27/2B) – .281/.333/.407, 4 HR, 26 RBIs, 29 extra-base hits, 49 runs. Lefty bat is a solid, consistent hitter with a .281 average and .342 OBP in 1,322 big-league plate appearances.
Melky Cabrera: (34/RF) – .303/.339/.443, 6 HR, 21 extra-base hits, 31 RBIs, 31 runs. 15-year MLB veteran switch-hitter signed with the Pirates back in February. He won a World Series ring when the New York Yankees defeated the Phillies back in 2009.

SPOTLIGHT PLAYER

Chris Archer: The Phillies will not see Archer in this weekend’s series. This seems like a good time to shine the spotlight on him as we approach the 2019 MLB trade deadline with the Phillies linked to a number of talented starting pitchers. Archer was obtained by the Pirates from the Tampa Bay Rays at last year’s trade deadline in exchange for a pair of premium prospects, outfielder Austin Meadows and pitcher Tyler Glasnow.
A two-time AL All-Star with Tampa Bay, Archer had finished third in the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Award voting while with the Rays during a freshman season in which he also made two relief appearances in the ALDS. The Bucs were in the midst of a playoff push, having won 16 of 20 games at the time of the deal in a stretch that pulled them within three games of an NL Wildcard berth and six games of the AL Central lead.
It didn’t work out. The Pirates struggled to a 26-27 record after obtaining Archer, who went 3-3 with a 4.30 ERA and 1.357 WHIP over 10 starts with Pittsburgh. In this, the final year of his guaranteed contract, Archer has gone just 3-6 with a 5.36 ERA while getting bombed for an NL-high 22 home runs over 17 starts.
There are team options on his contract for $9 million next season and $11 million in 2021, when Archer will be just 31 and 32 years of age. Those are reasonable prices for an experienced pitcher with a winning pedigree. But there’s the rub – Archer does not have such a pedigree. His career record is just 60-77, and he has put together just two winning seasons, all the way back in 2013 and 2014. To pick up that option will be an interesting decision for the Pirates come this off-season.

SCHEDULED STARTING PITCHERS

FRIDAY – Jordan Lyles – 28/RH:  5-6, 5.16 ERA, 1.400 WHIP, 74 hits over 75 IP across 15 starts with an 80/31 K:BB
SATURDAY 
Trevor Williams: 27/RH: 3-3, 5.17 ERA, 1.357 WHIP, 88 hits over 76.2 IP across 13 starts with a 61/16 K:BB – SCRATCHED – ILLNESS – MUSGROVE (BELOW) TO START
SUNDAY – Joe Musgrove – 26/RH:6-8, 4.31 ERA, 1.227 WHIP, 102 hits over 104.1 IP across 20 games (19 starts) with a 90/26 K:BB. MOVED TO SATURDAY; SUNDAY SP NOW TBD
NOTE: The Pirates announced during Friday night’s game that Williams will not make his scheduled Saturday start due to illness. Musgrove will move to Saturday, and Sunday’s starter has yet to be determined.

THE SKIPPER

Clint Hurdle: The first-round choice of the Kansas City Royals at 9th overall in the 1975 MLB Draft, Hurdle appeared in 10 big-league seasons as a player between 1977-87. He appeared in 14 playoff games with the Royals, including in four of the five games of the 1980 World Series against the Phillies.
Hurdle managed the Colorado Rockies for parts of eight seasons from 2002-09, guiding them to the 2007 NL pennant, the only one in the history of the Rockies franchise, and their lone World Series appearance. However, that was his only winning season with Colorado. He was fired after 36 games in the 2009 season with the club at 18-28.
Hired to manage the Pirates in 2011, Hurdle guided the Bucs to three straight winning seasons from 2013-15. That included the first playoff appearance for the franchise in 21 years, and a 98-win season to cap the run off in 2015. The Pirates have enjoyed just one winning season since, last year’s disappointing 82-win campaign.
Coming out of last week’s MLB All-Star Game break, Hurdle was interviewd by MLB.com’s Adam Berry as quoted by Jim Sankey of Allied News“We’ve had multiple opportunities during the first half to find out what we are capable of doing when it maybe wasn’t the way we thought we were going to do it. From that standpoint, I still believe the best is yet to come.
However, the Pirates lost five of six games after returning from the break on the road in Chicago and Saint Louis. This series will mark their first time in front of the home fans in nearly two weeks. If they don’t turn it back around quickly, Hurdle could find his job on the line.

THE BALLPARK

PNC Park is widely considered as one of the most beautiful ballparks in America. That reputation comes largely from the views of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline and the iconic yellow Roberto Clemente Bridge over the outfield walls. The bridge is closed on game days, which allows fans to park in Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle and then walk across the bridge to the ballpark. The ballpark is unique in its use of limestone in the building’s facade, and also features steel truss work and a riverside concourse.
It is 325 feet to left, 383 to left-center, 410 feet to what is known as deep left-center, and then a wall jut-in brings the fences to a 399 oot to dead center field. It is then 375 to right-center, and 320 feet down the right field line.
PNC Park has hosted the 2006 MLB All-Star Game. During those festivities, Ryan Howard of the Phillies won the Home Run Derby.

SERIES WEATHER REPORT

FRIDAY: It will be 89 degrees with a real-feel of 98 at the 7:05 PM EDT first pitch. Winds will be light, and there is almost no chance of precipitation.
SATURDAY: Getting hotter with a game time 7:05 PM EDT first pitch temp of 93 degrees, feeling like 102. Winds will remain light, and there is again almost no chance of precipitation.
SUNDAY: Scattered thunderstorms can be expected for the 1:35 PM EDT first pitch and all during this game. Temps will be around 90 degrees with real-feels at just over 100. While winds remain light, there is a 35-45% chance of those thunderstorms passing through on Sunday as of the start of this series.
Pittsburgh, PA weekend forecast from The Weather Channel

For the Pittsburgh Pirates, No News is Bad News

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.
Pirates
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 ColeJameson 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.

Would Pirates Actually Deal Andrew McCutchen?

It was a rough season for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016. After three straight playoff seasons, the Bucs fell to 79-83 and third place in the NL Central Division.
A six-game winning streak at the end of April lifted Pittsburgh to 15-9, just three games out of first place. 
They would never be that far over the .500 mark, or that close to the division lead again.
In examining what went wrong this season in the Steel City, you find a number of factors came in to play. The starting pitching rotation suffered through injuries and ineffectiveness. The club got little production out of either the catcher or first base positions.
But another key element in the Pirates’ struggles this past season was a noticeable decline from center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

ONCE-CLUTCH CUTCH SLIPS UP

The 2013 National League Most Valuable Player had finished among the top five in MVP voting in each of the previous four seasons. He was an NL All-Star in the previous five seasons, and had won four consecutive Silver Slugger Awards.
In short, “Cutch” was one of the best players in all of baseball. This season, however, he never approached those levels. McCutchen hit for an entirely mediocre .256/.336/.430 slash line. He produced 24 homers and 26 doubles, driving in 79 runs and scoring 81 times.
His stolen base total slipped to just a half-dozen, the first time in his career that he didn’t reach double-digits in steals.
His defensive game was also down this past season. The former Gold Glove Award winner saw both his DRS and UZR ratings slip noticeably. Should he stay, there has been talk in Pittsburgh of moving McCutchen to a corner outfield spot in 2017.

A BOUNCE-BACK CANDIDATE

McCutchen could be a major bounce-back candidate next season. He just turned 30 years old in October, and has just one more guaranteed season on his contract at $14 million. There is a $14.75 million team option for 2018 with a relatively inconsequential buyout.
The Pirates could take him into the 2017 season, in which case he would become a major trade deadline piece. Then should the club fail to contend, but he produce that bounce-back season, they could look to deal him in July.
However, he might prove more valuable right now. This would allow an acquiring team to plan its lineup with his presence in mind. They would also have McCutchen for all of Spring Training and the entire season.

POSSIBLE DESTINATIONS

A number of clubs have been linked to possible McCutchen talks with the Pirates. Going back to last season, the Washington Nationals were reportedly discussing such a deal.
A rumored lead piece coming back to Pittsburgh in those talks was outfielder Victor Robles. However, Robles was sensational last season, and is now considered a top ten prospect in all of baseball. It is doubtful the Nats would surrender him for one season of McCutchen.
The New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, Seattle Mariners, and Los Angeles Dodgers have all been linked to McCutchen through various rumors.
Bucs manager Clint Hurdle was quoted by Rob Biertempfel of triblive.com during the World Series: “Andrew has been very black and white in the conversations I’ve had with him. He’s told me, ‘I’m under contract here, so I plan on playing here. However, I don’t call all the shots, either.’”
Hurdle further went on to discuss the reality facing the Pirates in a small market with players in McCutchen’s contract situation:
“I think any general manager that’s in a market similar to the one we’re in has to explore the possibility of (trading) players who have one or two years left on their contracts. You have to see what value is there to keep or to move. That’s the way we’re going to need to continue to operate. It’s the hard part of what we get to do.”
How they choose to handle the McCutchen situation makes the Pirates one of the more interesting teams as baseball’s Winter Meetings open next weekend. But even if nothing is done in National Harbor, they still have all winter, and even into next season, to consider such a move.