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Pregame: Clint Hurdle discusses closing gap with Cubs, importance of 'core'

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David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Closing the Gap

These days, the talk around PNC Park is all about how the Pirates can close the gap with the Cubs heading into 2017. How can they cut into the seemingly wide gulf that now separates the two teams?

After Monday's game, Andrew McCutchen pointed to the importance of a strong starting staff. Tuesday afternoon, his manager echoed those sentiments.

"The game will always start with pitching," Clint Hurdle said. "Always has, always will. I think if you look at it any other way, I think you're confused. For the team's that will finish playing in October, rotation strength plays, it's real."

Heading into the season, the starting rotation was a concern that most analysts and fans pointed to when assessing the team's prospects. As it played out, those concerns were validated. Pirates starters are posting the eighth highest ERA (4.76) in baseball.

"We had to recreate our starting rotation this year," Hurdle said. "As the season went on we found some pitchers that will help us moving forward. We took some chances on some things early that didn't work out like we anticipated."

The "chances" the Pirates took involved relying on Jon Niese, Juan Nicasio and Jeff Locke at the bottom of the rotation, with Ryan Vogelsong coming out of the bullpen. Collectively, the Opening Day bottom three accounted for 49 starts, 270 innings pitched, 5.40 ERA and -4.09 WPA.

With the additions of Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Trevor Williams, Drew Hutchison, and Steven Brault, much of the last quarter of the season has been spent trying to figure out what they have internally.  In trading for Ivan Nova, the Pirates may have stumbled upon one important piece to next year's rotation -- that is, if they can sign him at a reasonable cost.

McCutchen also mentioned the importance of holding together a consistent core. Hurdle agrees, maintaining a reliable core can pay dividends.

"There are some strengths to continuity," Hurdle said. "There is some strength in teams that are building for championships that have a core group of players that stay together and remain together."

But Hurdle doesn't think that changing out members of the core is an excuse for what happened this season.

"I think it is interesting that the player's have their own perspective, their own lens, and I honor that," Hurdle said, when asked about McCutchen's quotes from Monday night. "Sometimes mine might not match up the same way theirs do."

As players grow in their careers, Hurdle said, they tend to have different perspectives of what is necessary for building a winning team. He pointed to the roster transitions that the last two World Series winners made before winning titles.

In the end, Hurdle suggested that the problem is not change itself, but the reaction to change.

"One thing that is certain about our game is that it's going to change and rosters are going to change," Hurdle said. "How you adapt and adjust to change is probably a better question to get answered, then just the fact that we had some changes."

Looking ahead, Hurdle expressed confidence in the team's offseason plans.

"I think we are well aware of what we need to do to improve and to be a championship level team," Hurdle said. "We'll start on that track when the season is over."