For the six months immediately following the 2015 season, I talked continually about how assembling a team for 2016 would be the biggest challenge Neal Huntington faced to date as the Pirates' general manager. Coming off three straight Wild Card berths, the Pirates were a team in transition. To his regret, I'm sure, Huntington used the term "bridge year" last winter to describe the upcoming season. While Huntington made it clear that "bridge" did not mean taking a step back, he had to deal with the continuing reality of a Draconian, self-imposed budget and an organizational depth chart loaded with young talent, but talent not ready to immediately contribute. If things were to play out as Huntington envisioned, he'd have to continue his Rumpelstiltskin-esque run to get the Bucs to the All-Star break as a contender.
The Pirates entered the offseason with a roster that was mostly set with its starting eight, but needed to add depth to the bench and bullpen and, most importantly, had serious questions about its starting rotation. The complicating matter was that the Pirates had two minor league starting pitchers viewed as two of the brightest prospects in the game in Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow. In addition, Josh Bell, Elias Diaz and Alen Hanson were all expected to be ready at some point in 2016. The problem, and it was clear in December, was that none of those prospects would be ready to head north with the Pirates out of Spring Training. They all needed at least a couple more months in Triple-A, and of course the Pirates were going to manage the service time of Taillon, Glasnow and Bell. That made an early June call-up the earliest any of those three would contribute.
The young starters created the biggest challenge for Huntington. It was easy back in March to look forward to the '17 season and ink Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Taillon and Glasnow into the rotation. The problem was getting from here to there. How was Huntington going to cobble together a back-end rotation for 2016 and make sure not to block his star prospects and the other talented starters moving up through the system?
One obvious answer was to re-sign J.A. Happ. The 32-year old Happ was acquired from the Mariners at the 2015 trade deadline. After a rough first start with the Bucs, Happ was Kershaw-lite the rest of the way, going 7-1 with a 1.37 ERA and 63 strikeouts against 11 walks in 59 innings with a .525 OPS against. No one expected a repeat performance, but the rejuvenated Happ pitching in PNC Park seemed to be a perfect fit for the starter-starved Bucs. Happ instead signed a three-year, $36 million deal with Toronto and is having an excellent season.
After Happ signed Huntington talked about the price for mid-rotation starting pitchers "blowing up." He was likely being a good employee. I'd be shocked if Huntington was taken aback by MLB's contract escalation. More likely Huntington didn't have the financial resources to shop at the mall, let alone the high-end boutiques. He was forced to go again to the thrift stores.
The Pirates ended the offseason with a smorgasbord of Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, Juan Nicasio, Kyle Lobstein and Wilfredo Boscan to go with their established starters. After trading Charlie Morton and his $8 million salary in a straight salary dump the Opening Day starters were Cole, Liriano, Niese, Nicasio and Jeff Locke. The results have been even worse than expected. The Bucs' starters finished the first half 14th in NL fWAR, 14th in HR/9, 13th in BB/9 and 12th in ERA, IP and K/9. Cole has been injured and Liriano has massively underperformed.
Niese was acquired in a trade for Neil Walker in a virtual match of salaries. The logic behind the deal for the Bucs was they had a surplus of middle infielders and could replace Walker with Josh Harrison and hope that Niese would be the latest Liriano-to-Volquez-to-Happ baton-carrier in the rotation. Niese, however, has been terrible with a 7.92 ERA and eight of his 20 home runs allowed in his last six starts. The Pirates are floating his name in the trade market, but he's more likely to be designated for assignment than bring any return at this point. Of the rest, Vogelsong has been injured, Nicasio was miscast as a starter (but now should supplement the bullpen), and Lobstein is in Triple-A where he belongs. The Pirates have turned to their rookies over the last month, but the results have been lackluster so far.
#Pirates rookie starters haven’t really given team a big boost (neither have the vets). 10 starts, 50.2IP 4.62 ERA 1.362 WHIP 6.9K/9 2.5BB/9— David Todd (@DTonPirates) July 11, 2016
Since Cole went down on June 10 the Pirates have played 29 games. Their starters have gotten past the sixth inning only three times while failing to get to through five an astounding 12 times.
But as bad as the starters have been, the bullpen has stabilized and is coming off a dominant three-week stretch. Aside from Mark Melancon everyone in the Pirates bullpen has had their ups and downs. After separating the wheat from the chaff (relievers who appeared for the Pirates this season and are not currently on the 25-man roster pitched 80.2 innings and gave up 52 runs), the roles appear set, and the 'pen catalyzed the team's strong first half close. Starting with an 8-6 win over the Dodgers on June 24, the bullpen went 35.2 scoreless innings and only gave up one run in 46.0 innings through a 7-5 win over the Cardinals on July 6. The Pirates went 10-2 and during that stretch even though their starters only got past the sixth inning one time. A.J. Schugel, Arquimedes Caminero and Nicasio have stabilized the middle relief and the closing trio of Neftali Feliz, Tony Watson and Melancon have locked down late leads.
The Bucs' offense has intermittently been very good despite a tremendously disappointing first half from Andrew McCutchen. Young stars Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, a solid second season from Jung Ho Kang and the best bench in baseball have fueled the run production. Marte earned his first All-Star berth this week and is posting career highs in all three triple slash lines and is second in the majors with 30 stolen bases. Polanco, who deserved to be an All-Star, is having a massive breakout season. The contract he signed in April sets him up for life but may prove to be the biggest feather in Huntington's cap, exceeding even the massively team-friendly deals signed by Andrew McCutchen and Marte. Kang has mostly continued to impress, although he slumped into the break and has serious allegations hanging over his head.
The most surprising offensive contributions have come from the bench. While Huntington's offseason foray into the starting pitching market was a disaster, his position-player signings were just the opposite. Holdover Sean Rodriguez, re-signed to a one-year, $2.5 million deal, has picked up where he left off the last two months of last season with a completely different approach at the plate. After earning five walks in 240 PAs last season, SRod already has 18 in 188 plate appearances this year. The 31-year old super-sub is blowing away his career numbers and is second on the team in OPS at .870 while playing excellent defense at five different positions. Matt Joyce, signed to a minor league deal in February and making $1 million this season, leads the team in on-base and slugging percentages (slashing .295/.420/.558), and is tied for the NL lead (min 150 PA) in wRC+ with Anthony Rizzo. David Freese, signed midway through spring training to a one-year, $3 million deal, is replicating his 2012 All-Star season.
At this point it probably isn't fair to call any of the of three bench guys as they are all deservedly (and often necessarily) starting two or three games a week. In fact, it might be time to ask whether Rodriguez should supplant Josh Harrison, who is proving to be more the 2011-2013 Harrison than the 2014 JHay All-Star, as the starting second baseman. Like Harrison, Francisco Cervelli was also having a very disappointing season offensively before going down with a broken hamate bone. Cervelli's OBP is actually slightly better than last's year .370, but he has been devoid of any power, slugging a hollow .293 with no homers in 201 PAs. Cervelli's various replacements have been adequate defensively but brought even less to the offense, although recent acquisition Eric Fryer has been a bright spot in limited duty. Shortstop Jordy Mercer and newly-signed first baseman John Jaso have provided league-average offense at their positions while being sound defensively.
That leaves Andrew McCutchen.
Cutch has been arguably the most disappointing player in baseball this season. The fact that there are still questions as to why his performance has tailed off so dramatically reinforces the view that nobody actually has a good answer. Disappointment with his contract, his spot in the batting order, a lingering thumb injury that affected his swing plane are three of the many ideas that have been suggested with the last being the only one that would seem to have merit. Players of McCutchen's pedigree and skill set rarely fall off the performance precipice the way he has. After four straight seasons finishing in the top five of the NL MVP voting, Cutch wouldn't be in the top five on his own team to this point. The Pirates can only hope he has a Robinson Cano-like turnaround in the second half.
While it wasn't ideal, the Pirates managed to get to the All-Star break with a 46-43 record and are currently just 1.5 games back in the Wild Card race, despite not receiving significant contributions from Cole, Liriano, McCutchen or Cervelli. Now the outlook for this team is completely different. Taillon is up to stay. Bell and Glasnow figure to have significant impacts. Cole and Cervelli, along with Taillon, will return from the disabled list shortly after the All-Star break, and the Pirates will play 39 of their remaining 73 games against the Brewers (15), Reds (11), Phillies (7), Braves (3) and Padres (3), who have an aggregate winning percentage of .408. I think 89 wins will get them to the playoffs. That means 43 more wins, .589 baseball.
I'll be back at the end of the week with a look at the important personnel decisions and roster management issues confronting Neal Huntington with just over two weeks to go until the trade deadline.
Cross-posted from DT Bangin' on the Bucs.