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Post-Mortem On Pirates’ 2017 Season

Starling Marte and Jung-ho Kang made poor off-field decisions that hamstrung the Pirates in 2017

The 2017 season is over and there’s a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth that is associated with the Pirates, all the way from the casual fan up to every Pirate player to every Pirate employee that works at 115 Federal Street. While the body is still slightly warm, let’s perform a Y-incision on it and get the analysis over with. What follows are a few checkpoints throughout the season and where the Pirates’ record stood at each one.

  • March 24 — Jung-ho Kang not able to enter U.S. (0-0) — Awesome. Before the season even started, the Pirates were faced with the very real possibility of losing their cleanup hitter for an extended period of time. That amount of time ultimately ended up being the full year. While David Freese started off hot, he eventually regressed back into his true talent level. The Pirates could have desperately used Kang’s presence at cleanup and his very underrated defense at 3B.
  • April 18 — Starling Marte gets 80 game suspension for drug test failure (6-8). Another month, another key loss. This time it was to the Pirates most dynamic player that had speed, power, and Gold Glove potential. Losing Marte for 80 games to an injury would be devastating; losing him for 80 games because of a terrible, selfish decision was immensely frustrating. With Marte out of CF, the Pirates put Andrew McCutchen back in his customary defensive spot. Marte was seeing most of the time in the lineup at the #2 spot, so yet another key hitter was lost.
  • May 8 — Taillon gets surgery, with his pathology coming back positive for testicular cancer (14-18). And the hits just keep on comin’. After having some pain in his groin, Taillon had surgery on May 8th. May 17th it was announced that his pathology showed he had testicular cancer. Trevor Williams stepped into Taillon’s spot on May 8th in L.A. He got crushed in that start, but acquitted himself quite well the rest of the year overall. But losing a pitcher the caliber of Taillon can not be easily replaced, especially so early in the season when teams are not looking to make deals.
  • May 24 — McCutchen bottoms out in Atlanta (21-26). Man, McCutchen must hate going on the road to Atlanta. Hurdle benched him for a whole series in 2016 for a mental break and this year his season hit ground zero in Hotlanta again. After this May 24th game, McCutchen was hitting .205/.273/.360 — a truly anemic stat line for a once-great superstar. When he returned to the lineup on the 26th versus the Mets, he was not batting in his typical 3rd spot; rather, he was shifted down to the 6-hole to take the pressure off of him.
  • June 6-7 — Bullpen meltdown in Baltimore (26-32) — It’s easy to say that Tony Watson cost the Pirates both of these games. I’d be alright if you distilled it down to its essence. But don’t forget that Wade LeBlanc ultimately lost the game on the 6th. Or that LeBlanc really lit the infield on fire with his gas can on the 7th. Or, if you really want to do some second-tier thinking, you could say that Hurdle was to blame for sticking with Watson in the first place. Watson was not having a great season up to that point and Nicasio (1.40 ERA) and Rivero (0.60) were phenomenal at the time and could have given Watson a break.
  • June 10 — Taillon returns, Glasnow demoted (27-35) — First, a huge hats off to Jameson Taillon for being able to return at all in 2017 from testicular cancer. He came back on a hot run, but eventually he ran out of gas and got hit around pretty good by the end of the year. The other side of the coin is that Tyler Glasnow was sent down for Taillon to get a roster spot. It was not a good run for Glasnow to that point (or in 2017 at all) as he went down lugging a 7.45 ERA and 29 walks in 54-1/3 innings over 12 starts. He’s too good for AAA and can’t make it at the Majors.
  • July 2 — Getting swept by the Giants at home (37-45) — Here’s the exact moment that I gave up on the 2017 season. It’s always embarrassing to get swept at home by any opponent. In most years, getting swept by the Giants would be bad, but not totally unexpected. But if there was a National League team more disappointing than the Pirates this year, it was the Giants. Prior to this series, the Giants entered with a 30-51 record that was reflective of how awful they were to that point. It was totally unacceptable to lose all three to this edition of the Giants at PNC Park.
  • July 21 — Polanco going down with hamstring injury in Colorado (49-48) — Amazingly, the Pirates went on quite a run after that Giants debacle to push their nose above .500 and get within 2 games of the thoroughly mediocre NL Central. Losing Polanco itself was not as impactful as you would think; he was largely pedestrian up to that point with a line of .269/.322/.424. It was the fact that no move was made to bolster a surging roster with readily available talent like Jay Bruce or Curtis Granderson, both of whom ultimately were traded for table scraps, that signaled that both ownership and management had no faith in this team.
  • July 30 — McCutchen puts together two of the finest months of his career (51-54) — So this has been an unrelentingly bleak look at the season so far. But allow me to cast a positive light on what McCutchen did in June and July. He took his move to the 6 spot in stride and instantly started to produce, ultimately getting himself re-instated back to his usual 3-spot. The months of June (.411/.505/.689) and July (.322/.434/.607) were unbelievable to watch. It was vintage McCutchen and he willed them to win at times through sheer force.
  • August 5 — Pirates trade for Sean Rodriguez and George Kontos (53-57) — Somehow, the Pirates were still hanging around the edges of the NL Central and were only 5-1/2 games out. Neal Huntington, after being paralyzed by inactivity at the actual non-waiver deadline on July 31st, dipped a toe in the trade waters to get help for the team. Rodriguez was a boost to the lineup and will act as Kang insurance for 2018, in some form or fashion. Kontos showed very nicely during his time with the Pirates and seems to be on track for the 7th inning role next season. But it was too little, too late.
  • August 31 — The Juan Nicasio Fiasco (63-72) — We’ve all done something stupid at work at one point or another. Maybe it was so bad that you get reprimanded for it. Maybe you got suspended or, even worse, fired for it. If you were Neal Huntington, you would get a 4 year contract extension. No, the Nicasio Fiasco and the extension are not conjoined, but the optics on the series of moves are terrible. On August 31st, the Pirates let the Phillies (the 1st team picking on waivers, mind you) claim Nicasio for free. The Phillies would pick up his remaining $600K in salary and the Pirates get…a roster spot? A chance to see young talent in late innings? Huntington’s feeble defense was that they had another team claim him previously, but didn’t want him to go to a direct competitor (the Cubs). So instead, they kind of spited him by letting him go to the woebegone Phillies. But, lo and behold, the Phillies traded him on September 7th to the Cardinals, where Nicasio had a shot at the playoffs and stuck it directly to the Pirates on multiple occasions in September. And the Phillies got a halfway-decent prospect back in return.
  • September 5 — Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle get matching 4 year extensions (67-72) — As previously mentioned, Huntington got seemingly rewarded for his incompetence, while Hurdle got rewarded for putting up with this terrible roster construction all year.

This offseason is a pivotal one for the Pirates. Will they, as I believe they should, make one final reload with the gang for a 2018 run? The Rockies, Diamondbacks and Twins showed that with a few modest tweaks and a return to health for key players, a team can quickly vault back into the playoffs.

The basis for a playoff team is here. The main five starters this year acquitted themselves well throughout the year. An upgrade would be welcomed of course, but less dire than originally anticipated. If Kang is allowed in the U.S., that could chance their thinking of going for it or rebuilding, but that may stretch into 2018 again.

Of course, the easy answer is that the Pirates will be rebuilding through a series of trades. It’s practically on the team’s crest at this point — Kick The Can Down The Road And Sell Hope.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

6 Comments on Post-Mortem On Pirates’ 2017 Season

  1. Patton Annegan // October 6, 2017 at 8:24 AM //

    Excellent summary of the Pirate season focusing on the Pirates low points. If there is a reason for optimism in 2018, what should the Pirates do to improve their anemic offense. I think that is the real challenge to the playoffs in 2018.

  2. Colonia Joe // October 8, 2017 at 11:07 AM //

    Excellent article, thoroughly researched, well done! A couple of things:
    1. I think Polanco is ready to break out. He did well last year. This year, it seemed that whenever he began to put things together … a hamstring injury would come up. Him, Marte and Cutch are still very capable of big things and being the best outfield in baseball.
    2. Third base MUST be addressed, and I don’t mean bringing back Freese to play third and bat fifth — and I don’t mean Sean Rodriguez playing the position (they should be late-inning defensive replacements/pinch hitters, nothing more). Kang would be perfect for the position, of course. If we cannot bring him back, something must be done. I don’t know how hard Huntington tried to improve the position, but it was far below average during the season. I don’t know if moving JHay to third would be the answer because he has a terrific glove at second. I love Frazier at the plate but he has stone hands.
    3. Hudson, Glasnow and Watson were personally responsible for at least 10-12 losses last year. I know relievers cannot go through seasons perfectly, but these guys were horrendous all year. If we can just piece together three solid innings out of the pen per game, that alone can push us to 85 wins, compared to this year’s disastrous middle relief.
    4. Let’s not fool around with Cutch anymore, leave him in center. There was never anything wrong with him playing the position in the first place. And leave him batting third.
    5. The starting rotation is in excellent shape, with the two question marks of the early season — Kuhl and Williams — pitching the best ball over the season’s final 10 weeks. Let’s hope the other three — Cole, Nova and Taillon — pitch like they’re capable of next year.
    6. Let’s begin the season with Diaz behind the plate. He is potentially an impact hitter. I’ve grown tired of Cervelli’s act: no power at all, not at all an impact bat, his whining to the umps, and even his tired walk-up song.

    • Kevin Creagh // October 8, 2017 at 11:18 AM //

      Thank you for the kind words. This isn’t Communist China (yet), so I do disagree with you on some things here and there.
      1. There’s been a Waiting For Polanco like Waiting For Godot for 3 years now. He has loads of potential, but if a player AND his coaches can’t unlock it, it may remain trapped inside.
      2. Kang would be ideal. I would move Harrison to 3B and then seek a 2B on the market (the cost for a 2B is less than 3B, typically).
      3. Yeah, that trio was a trainwreck, but it’s easier said than done to just conjure up 3 relievers. Hudson is going to be here next year, so hopefully they can find the mechanical flaw and fix him somewhat.
      4. Every defensive metric under the sky has McCutchen as the worst defensive CF. If you don’t like defensive metrics, that’s fine, but they always identify the best and worst players correctly.
      5. Agree, but I would still look for one #3/4 level type on the market and shift either Kuhl/Williams to the bullpen.
      6. I don’t like Diaz and I don’t think the Pirates do either. You can see a lot by his sparse playing time at key points.
      7. Completely agree.

  3. I think one of the keys will be getting Kang elligible to play, prefferably at shortstop and perhaps trade Jordy Mercer for Jake Odorizzi?

    • Kevin Creagh // October 9, 2017 at 7:45 AM //

      I don’t know if his knee will allow him the lateral mobility to play SS anymore.

  4. Cutch’s defense. It appears there is no doubt that he is poor defensively as there are not too many times that he makes a catch and you go, wow, that was a great play. It seems like his range should be better than it is too. That being said, I’m not certain he is worse centerfielder in baseball. Back in 2011 he had over 400 putouts. This season only 211. I don’t know how much of that is because of the Pirates getting more outs via groundouts than in 2011 or not. But on the face of it is evidence that his range has dropped. while he played fewer games in 2017 that should only account for 50 or 60 of the difference.

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