By Rob Biertempfel
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — News, notes and flat-out speculation from the first day of the winter meetings:
UPDATE 3:40 pm – I was told the Nationals balked when Pirates asked for OF Victor Robles and RHP Lucas Giuolito in exchange for Andrew McCutchen. Deal-breaker? Not necessarily. As far as I can tell, though, the two sides remain in touch about a possible swap.
The Nats raised concerns about McCutchen’s declining physical skills — he appears to have lost a step, his offensive stats reached career blows, blah blah blah.
But here’s something new: the Nationals evaluators also wondered about McCutchen’s mood and presence in the clubhouse. McCutchen had a few outbursts about ball-strike calls, one of which led to his first career ejection. He had some out-of-chareacter moments — he slammed the bat down at the plate, interacted with some hecklers in the stands — that have been mentioned by manager Clint Hurdle.
No one actually believes McCutchen is a bad guy. He had a rough season, probably realized early on the Pirates were not going to extend him, and reacted out of frustration. Still, it’s not surprising the Nats would bring up those kind of questions during trade talks; it’s normal business procedure to seek any kind of advantage in negotiations.
>>> GM Neal Huntington is scheduled to meet with reporters at 4 pm today. Look for updates soon about what he says on McCutchen, Jung Ho Kang and other topics.
UPDATE 12:45 pm — Uh oh. John Heyman tweeted there is a “mystery team” in the McCutchen sweepstakes. Could it be the Giants? They have some dandy prospects to dangle, including RHP Tyler Beede and INF Christian Arroyo.
Beede, 23, was a first-round pick in 2014. He made 24 starts at Double-A this past season and went 8-7 with a 2.81 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. Fastball is 91-94 mph and touches 97 mph. Changeup (Pirates front office looooooves it some changeup) is his best secondary pitch, but is inconsistent. Beede also throws a 12-6 curve and a cutter.
Arroyo, 21, was a first-rounder in 2013. He was drafted as a shortstop, but likely will move to third base due to his power bat and limited range. In 119 games at Double-A, he hit .274 with 29 walks and 72 strikeouts in 474 at-bats.
>>> Let’s talk pitching.
You don’t have to be Bill James to know that finding a veteran starting pitcher is the Pirates’ top priority this offseason. The rotation was their biggest disappointment last season.
It doesn’t have to be a No. 1 guy. It’s about time Gerrit Cole starts to live up to his hype and fills that role. When I talked with Gerrit a few days ago, he was still unwrapping wedding gifts and is getting ready to ramp up his offseason training routine. Cole was injured during the last offseason — no one from the Pirates ever said exactly how that happened — and needs to be smarter with his approach this year.
The Pirates need to be smarter, too. Manager Clint Hurdle wonders if the team didn’t rush Cole back into action last April.
“Cole played catch-up, pretty much it seemed from spring training on,” Hurdle said. “It was hard for him and it was hard for us. You want to honor the kid; he wanted to complete. Did we do the right thing? I think we all learned from it. If that situation arises again, there will probably have to be some harder conversations about making sure that we’re as good to go as we can be before we get back and compete.”
Jameson Taillon did as well as anyone could have expected last season — maybe even a bit better. There was a stretch in the second half when the rookie right-hander was the most reliable guy in the rotation.
Is Taillon ready to be a No. 2? That’s probably a bit much to ask of someone with only 18 big league starts on his resume. Yet, it also seems reasonable to expect Taillon to be ready for that job sooner than later.
Beyond Cole and Taillon, the Pirates have … questions.
Is Chad Kuhl for real? Will Tyler Glasnow tap his enormous potential and learn how to reduce the walks and control the running game? Do Steven Brault and Trevor Williams take paths to the rotation or the bullpen? And who and what, exactly, is Drew Hutchison?
That’s a lot of uncertainty — too much, actually — to cram into 60 percent of the starting rotation.
That’s why general manager Neal Huntington and his lieutenants arrived at the Garylord resort intent on uncovering at least a couple additions to the pitching mix.
There are free-agent options, such as Ivan Nova (who rebuffed the Pirates’ contract offers in late September), Doug Fister, Jason Hammel and Jorge De La Rosa. The Pirates have had varying levels of interest in all of those guys in the past.
Huntington’s best route to finding a reliable pitcher with some measure of team control probably is to make a trade. For openers, he’ll place a call to the Rays, who are motivated to move a starter.
Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times offers a good breakdown of the Rays’ possible trade pieces. The most attractive candidate is RHP Chris Archer (signed through 2021 for $38.5 million). The most likely candidate is LHP Drew Smyly (third-year arb eligible, projected to make $7 million). The Pirates could split the difference and go hard after RHP Jake Odorizzi (first-year arb, $4 million).
The D’backs, who recently acquired Taijuan Walker, appear to have a surplus of young, controllable pitchers. And, of course, the Nationals could send a pitcher (or two) this way in a package for Andrew McCutchen.
>>> Eric Wood was named to the Arizona Fall League top prospects team. Wood played third base for Double-A Altoona, but is listed among the AFL outfielders. He led the AFL with 20 RBI and ranked second in hits, third in at-bats, fourth in total bases, sixth in batting (.330) and eighth in OPS (.876). In 23 AFL games, he hit five doubles and three home runs.
The Pirates did not place Wood on their 40-man roster, so he could be snatched up in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft. It’s a bit odd Wood, a sixth-round pick in 2012, wasn’t protected, as he has some of the best raw power in the Pirates’ farm system (although might be faint praise, considering there’s not a lot of thunder there, top to bottom). Last season at Altoona, Wood, 24, hit .249/.339/.443 with 16 homers in 118 games.
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.