By: Sam Soergel
This time last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates were on their way to 98 wins and the top Wild Card spot. Fans expected more of the same heading into 2016. It looked like they had the talent to at least make it back to the Wild Card game. Whoops.
Entering this weekend’s series against the Reds, the Pirates are mathematically eliminated from NL Central contention and sit behind the Mets, Cardinals, and Marlins for the second Wild Card spot. Instead of contending for the division, the Pirates are just trying to finish the season above .500.
So, what happened? How did a team that showed so much promise in 2015 and even at points in this season collapse? There were already glaring weaknesses in April, but mix in struggles nobody saw coming and the Pirates end up crawling to their worst finish in four years.
The Pirates lost J.A. Happ and A.J Burnett in the offseason, leaving Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and Jeff Locke in the rotation. If they planned on competing with the rotations of the Cubs and Cardinals, they needed to make a splash on the trade market or in free agency to get a solid two or three starter.
To fix that problem, they traded for Jon Niese and added Ryan Vogelsong and Juan Nicasio in free agency. Management believed that these moves were sufficient to replace two valuable pieces of the rotation. The Niese trade was a disaster as Neil Walker had a great year and Niese was sent back to the Mets at the deadline. Vogelsong was sidelined for most of the season after getting hit in the face with a pitch in his first start. Nicasio was solid to start the season but ended up not being able to pitch through a lineup more than two or three times before they figured him out.
At the same time, Cole had the worst season of his career and Liriano regressed – big time. In a move that seemed Dave Littlefield-esque, he was traded to the Jays as a salary dump, but the Pirates included two high level prospects just so the Toronto would take him. Enter Drew Hutchinson. A 26-year-old that never put eye-catching numbers in the majors and was rocked in his first start for the team.
An opening day rotation of Cole, Liriano, Locke, Nicasio, and Niese turned into a September rotation of Taillon, Chad Kuhl, Ryan Vogelsong, Steven Brault, and Ivan Nova. Taillon and Nova are two of the few bright spots of the second half. A one-time top prospect, Taillon has pitched like a two or three starter should. Since coming over from New York, Nova has been a stud, going 5-0 with a 2.41 ERA.
The Pirates thought that quantity as opposed to quality could solve the rotation problem, but it made it worse. To make matters worse, the available free agent pitchers this offseason are nothing special, so the Pirates need to take a long look at an Ivan Nova extension if they have plans to compete next year.
Nobody saw Andrew McCutchen’s 2016 season coming. The anchor of the Pirates offense for the last six years was expected to put up regular numbers and continue being one of the best players in the MLB.
However, Cutch struggled all year with an especially dismal first half in which he hit an uncharacteristic .247. His slump continued in the second half and his slash line sits at a disappointing .250/.331/.426. The only thing normal about Cutch’s 2016 is his power numbers; he’s already matched his 2015 total of 23 homers.
Cutch’s window to get a title in Pittsburgh is closing. 2017 is his second to last year here and he will be 30 years old. He doesn’t need to have a league MVP season next year, but he needs to perform like one of the team MVPs because the team needs him if they want to return to the postseason. If this is the new McCutchen, however, the Pirates have a huge problem. This year, the rest of the offense was able to compensate for his lack of production, but they need him to produce to be a contender.
The last three years the Pirates were relevant, they had one of the best bullpens in baseball. Mark Melancon and Tony Watson looked to be one of the best one-two punches in the majors. And they were, until Melancon was traded to Washington, leaving Watson to struggle in the closer role. He was not the only pitcher in the bullpen to struggle, either. Jared Hughes has given up 58 hits in 53 innings. Arquimedes Caminero was nothing to write home about and the Bucs sent him to Seattle in the middle of the summer. Felipe Rivero and Nicasio have not lived up to their expectations and have trouble putting up clean innings as the season comes to a close. The bullpen of 2015 had the best ERA in the majors and only St. Louis gave up fewer earned runs. This year they still put up a top 10 ERA but ended up in the middle of the pack in other categories.
Some would argue that the Pirates prematurely got rid of Melancon, but since April, they were playing for one game against Kershaw, Bumgarner, Syndergaard, or Strasburg. Once things started going downhill, they got what they could. Rivero was a major league ready late inning arm and Taylor Hearn was a hard throwing farmhand that put up strong numbers in the minors. It was not a Chpaman-like return even though Melancon is on the same level as him, and it almost looked like Nats GM Mike Rizzo was playing with Huntington, but that was not even the worst trade this summer.
A terrible starting rotation, lackluster bullpen, and the worst season of Andrew McCutchen’s career led to the Pirates having a very bad year. They were a disappointment. There is no getting around that. Neal Huntington’s of ‘financial flexibility’ along with depth in a minor league system will not win important games in September. It will not produce pennant winning teams. What it will do, however, is create multiple Wild Card teams that do not have the talent to make it past that one game.
If the 2017 Pirates have any hope of even making a run at the Cubs, they need a better rotation. They need to go out and get at least one proven starting pitcher, not reclamation projects that ‘Doctor’ Ray Searage can fix. They need to strengthen the bullpen and they need to stop wasting the prime of Andrew McCutchen because his time is running out. The Pirates have a core that could allow them to keep competing but the Pirates need to build an actual winner around the best player this team has seen in a generation. The 2016 season should have come as a rude awakening to Neal Huntington, and he needs to fix a lot of things before next April.