By Rob Biertempfel/Photo by Christopher Horner
— Since last fall, I’ve had a hunch 2017 will be Clint Hurdle’s final season as Pirates manager. That feeling intensified when Tom Prince was named bench coach. I wasn’t surprised when chairman Bob Nutting refused to say during spring training whether Hurdle’s contract — which runs through this season with a club option for 2018 — will be extended. Over the final few days of spring training, Prince shadowed Hurdle during his postgame media scrums, taking mental notes on how Hurdle handles reporters and how we probe him for information. I think its possible that at some point this season the Pirates will announce Hurdle will retire after the season.
— Andrew McCutchen will bounce back. Cutch tried to use emotion to fuel his performance last year — hoping to force management to extend his contract — and it blew up in his face. This year, I sense he has a chip on his shoulder (who wouldn’t, after the way he was treated last offseason?) but is trying hard not to be sentimental. If Cutch can be all business, his numbers will rebound.
— The thing is, better stats will make McCutchen easier to trade. He’ll be gone by Aug. 1.
— Tony Watson will put up decent (but not dominant) numbers as the closer and he also will be moved at the trade deadline. Daniel Hudson will become the new closer, keeping the spot warm while Felipe Rivero is groomed to take over in 2018.
— Starling Marte will try to make up for some of Jung Ho Kang’s missing power. The Pirates won’t miss the distractions Kang will bring, but they do need to replace the 20-something home runs he’d hit if he was in the lineup. Marte went deep just nine times last year, but Hurdle believes there is more juice in his bat. Look for Marte’s HR total to approach the 19 he blasted in 2015, but it’s likely his batting average will take a bit of a hit.
— Gerrit Cole will notch 18 wins and be in the Cy Young conversation all season.
— I’m stealing this prediction from the Bill James Handbook: Tyler Glasnow will lead the NL in walks issued. Other than that blemish, Glasnow will turn in a decent season, a spring board for bigger things in 2018.
— Drew Hutchison will make a spot start or two when an injury pops up, but he won’t stick in the big leagues and will be gone next winter.
— Ivan Nova and Rivero will combine for six different hair colorings and three mohawk-style trims by the end of September.
— And finally … the Pirates will finish 84-78, third in the NL Central and watch the postseason on TV for the second year in a row.
>>> UPDATE 9:44 A.M. – As Stephen Nesbitt of the PG and I were walking into Fenway this morning, we ran into Alen Hanson, who was searching for the players’ entrance. Ha, rookies!
>>> UPDATE 12:17 P.M. – Gregory Polanco had a heat wrap on his tender left shoulder before the game. Polanco is the DH today, will start in left field on Wednesday and will be the DH again on Thursday. Polanco is batting cleanup today, which is where Hurdle wants him to stay this season. “I believe Polanco is going to be a run-producer,” Hurdle said.
>>> Some pregame thoughts from McCutchen, including a guarded response when I asked how he feels going into what might be his final opener with the Pirates:
>>> You want links? I’ve got links:
I say the most important factor for Pirates success this season is a healthy Gerrit Cole
Kevin Gorman says the most important factor is Andrew McCutchen playing like his old self instead of what he was last year.
Alen Hanson and Phil Gosselin are on the active roster, Jose Osuna is back at Indy
Here’s a spring training photo gallery from the Trib’s award-winning photographer Christopher Horner
Four things the Pirates must do to improve their chances of catching the mighty Cubs in the NL Central race
Pirates: Frazier 7, Marte 8, McCutchen 9, Polanco DH, Freese 5, Cervelli 2, Bell 3, Harrison 4, Mercer 6. RHP Gerrit Cole (2017 debut).
Red Sox: Pedroia 4, Benintendi 7, Betts 9, H. Ramirez DH, Moreland 3, Bogaerts 6, Bradley 8, Sandoval 5, Leon 2. RHP Rick Porcello (2017 debut).
Gamecast: Porcello posted a 7.07 ERA over four Grapefruit League outings. Good news for the Pirates? Not necessarily. Last year, Porcello had a 9.77 ERA in spring training and went on the win the Cy Young Award. … Red Sox OF Mookie Betts is touted as a preseason MVP candidate. A righty batter, last year he had a better slash line vs. RHP (.331/.377/.540) than LHP (.264/.302/.512).
Hurdle says Fenway Park is his favorite major league venue: “I don’t get here enough, which probably continues to make it my favorite,” Hurdle said. “I’m really happy when I’m here. You can’t come up with anything better than to open up here. They’ve got a really good club over there, a fun team, a dynamic team. There is a lot of baseball to be found here and to be experienced.”
>>> Tuesday: Off
>>> Wednesday’s game: Pirates at Red Sox, 7:10 p.m., Fenway Park, Boston. TV: Root. Radio: 93.7 FM
Pirates: Lineup TBA. RHP Jameson Tailon (2017 debut).
Red Sox: Lineup TBA. LHP Chris Sale (2017 debut).
>>> Thursday’s game: Pirates at Red Sox, 1:35 p.m., Fenway Park, Boston. TV: Root. Radio: 93.7 FM
Pirates: Lineup TBA. RHP Chad Kuhl (2017 debut).
Red Sox: Lineup TBA. LHP Eduardo Rodriguez (2017 debut).
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.