SOUTH HILLS – The Pirates began clearing out their lockers in the PNC Park home clubhouse Wednesday afternoon. Cardboard boxes littered the carpet space as players packed belongings, the team soon to be scattering all over the country and even on the other side of the Pacific as Jung Ho Kang will soon return to South Korea for the first time since he signed with the Pirates.
They are packing sooner than they would have liked.
With the Pirates’ loss Tuesday night and the Giants’ win, the Pirates were eliminated from postseason play for the first time since 2012. The Pirates’ last meaningful game came against the Cubs, the same club that ended their postseason dreams a year ago, the same club that leads the Pirates by 22 games in the standings this year.
How did the Pirates fall so dramatically?
How can they shrink the gap with the Cubs?
The answer is simple: pitching.
(And to a lesser extent, a better defense behind it).
The Cubs have the best ERA in baseball and have allowed 200 fewer runs than the Pirates. After the Pirates ranked second in baseball in ERA (3.33) trailing only Cardinals from 2013-15, the Pirates rank 17th in baseball in ERA (4.20). The Pirates’ starting rotation ranks 22nd in the sport in ERA (4.75) and and 24th in wins above replacement (6.8). A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ combined for five wins above replacement in the No. 3 starter spot last season.
While the root cause is apparent, fixing it will be more difficult.
On Wednesday afternoon, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle was willing to commit to just two names in his starting rotation for 2017: Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.
Taillon’s development has been the silver lining for the club in 2016. After a strong start Wednesday, he finishes with a 3.38 ERA over 104 major league innings, striking out 7.3 per nine, walking just 1.4, and producing a plus ground ball rate (52.4 percent).
Most important? He stayed healthy. He must remain healthy again in 2017. Cole must be healthy, too. It starts there.
Internally, who else could fit after the No. 1 overall pick of 2011 and the No. 2 overall pick of 2010?
“You’ve got to like the development of (Chad) Kuhl,” Hurdle said.”To look forward to what we can do to help the development of (Tyler) Glasnow, of (Steven) Brault, the guys we got to see, of (Drew) Hutchison and guys who came up here and performed. Those are just the internal guys we know are going to have a place in our spring training next year. Trevor Williams is another guy that’s a very interesting guy for me moving forward, to see what he can bring, where he would fit. Those would be the names I’m looking forward to having a conversation about how they fit and where they fit. Those two other guys are the guys that I would go ahead and say, yes, they’ll be in the rotation.”
Not mentioned among the internal options? Jeff Locke, who leads the staff in innings, is a non-tender candidate.
What is true is that while the Pirates must become a more homegrown staff, it’s tough to fill every void internally.
Hurdle mentioned, ideally, he would have multiple veteran presences in the rotation. One common thread between the three Pirates’ playoff teams? They all had at least two quality veteran starting pitchers in the rotation.
2013: Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett
2014: Liriano and Edinson Volquez
2015: Liriano, Burnett and J.A. Happ.
The Pirates are trying to retain Ivan Nova, and Hurdle mentioned the club would like him back, along with another veteran.
Said Hurdle: “Bookends for Cole and whoever else might be in the middle….We’ve talked about different ways to cut it up. It’s going to depend on who’s available, what budget is available.”
Of course, the Pirates thought the starting pitching market costs were prohibitive last offseason and it figures to only be worse in the coming offseason with a historically thin starting pitching class. Nova is likely to beat Happ’s contract. MLB Trade Rumors projects Rich Hill will earn a three-year, $45 million deal.
So to recap …
The Pirates have questionable, inexperienced options after Cole and Taillon.
Any major, impact external help is unlikely to come from a free agent signing. Even reclamation projects are becoming eight-figure bets.
The most likely way to acquire a quality mid-rotation option?
Perhaps via trade.
Where do the Pirates have a surplus from which to trade?
The Glasnow and Austin Meadows for Chris Archer proposal that Ken Rosenthal reported in July? If it is still on the table this offseason the Pirates have to consider it. Archer has a tremendous contract, and the Pirates are hoping Glasnow can become Archer-like.
The other potential chip to acquire quality mid-rotation starter? Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates could use a similar formula as the one they employed in trading Neil Walker for Jon Niese last offseason. And while that trade did not work out, the same principle makes sense if the Pirates get a better arm in return. I doubt many clubs would consider an impact prospect for McCutchen, but maybe a similarly priced veteran arm.
(I’m not sure where McCutchen would fit, most likely in the AL with a team with a smaller ballpark — and left field. There will be teams likely to bet that McCutchen’s bat is better in 2017.)
It’s interesting that Josh Bell continues to get more and more reps in the outfield. Hurdle discussed Bell’s versatility and a focus on improving his throwing technique yesterday.
“We have some ideas for his throwing mechanics. They’ve started to get in place. Some new things we are talking about at the major league level to give him to work on in the offseason going into next year … One of the nice things to revisit is the flexibility to play in the infield and the outfield and see how that plays out.”
With David Freese and John Jaso under contract next season, the Pirates could look at Bell as a right fielder if they moved McCutchen in the offseason.
There is one way to improve the staff without a trade or free agent signing, without spending prospect treasure or dollars, and that’s through an improved ground ball focus.
After leading baseball in ground ball rate from 2013-15, after having MLB record ground ball rates over 50 percent each year during the playoff run, the Pirates have fallen to fourth this season (47 percent).
That was in part by design.
Neal Huntington felt the club could not be married to one model of pitcher last season in search of value as injured, ground ball pitchers like Brett Anderson received qualifying offers.
The plan didn’t work, especially in a year when more fly balls were going for home runs and extra-base hits across the sport.
Can the Pirates get their ground ball groove back in 2017?
“It’s one (question) we have already taken the task of answering internally when looking at the guys we have internally when looking at the guys that do sink the ball,” Hurdle said. “Jameson didn’t have a two-seamer when we were having this conversation about him last year. He’s turned into a guy who has an ability to get the ball on the ground. Kuhl has shown the ability to put the ball on the ground. Cole, there are different sequences where he’s shown the ability to put the ball on the ground. I do think it’s something that we’re going to keep as one of our cornerstones.
“We tried some outliers this year to attack it a different way based on giving Juan Nicasio a shot, we knew he wasn’t a ground ball guy but we knew he could be a swing-and-miss, fly-ball guy. Jon Niese has been a ground ball guy. Those kind of went away and the fly balls showed up. I do think we know we’ve had a recipe for success and we want to follow it.”
For the Pirates to find a way forward it perhaps begins with a renewed focus on the ground ball, also with finding quality veterans, and with the hope a Glasnow or Brault or Williams makes a performance leap.
Without that then 2017 could very well be another bridge season.