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At 2018’s halfway point, the Pittsburgh Pirates have more questions than answers

At this point, we expected to know more about the Pittsburgh Pirates than this.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Pittsburgh Pirates Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

At the halfway point of the 2018 season, it would appear that we know less about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ future than we hoped we would.

No one expected that the Pittsburgh Pirates would be serious contenders in 2018.

Many, like myself, thought of the club as talented. Heck, they could maybe even steal a few series here and there, perhaps ending with a winning record and as many as, say, 84 wins or so. (That was my prediction, by the way. Please hold me accountable.)

One thing that many agreed on is that this season should have provided us with at least some answers about the future of this club.

But in reality, this season has only piled up more questions on the heap of uncertainty the Pirates are facing.

But there have been some answers

Before we shed light on those, let’s review some answers that have come to light over the season’s first half.

First, Austin Meadows looks legit. I wrote as much recently, and my feelings have only been reinforced watching him work through his first taste of adversity at the big league level. Even though he has been striking out a bit more as of late, one can easily look at the youngster’s approach in the box as reassurance that he is going through normal growing pains, and nothing more.

We’ve also seen a considerable stride from Elias Diaz, to the point where many now feel comfortable leaving backstop duties in his hands going forward. Indeed, Diaz has shown to be a completely different player at that plate than was expected. He’ll need to show that he can maintain that type of production in true regular duty — whenever that might occur — yet to this point Diaz has at least answered the question as to if he can be a regular major league catcher.

We have seen Nick Kingham come up to the majors and looks as if he can belong. We have seen Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, Joe Musgrove (more on him below) and Kyle Crick prove to be capable major league pieces at the very least.

Organizationally, we have seen Mitch Keller do everything that’s been asked of him — working on his offspeed pitches and dominating at the Double-A level. We have seen Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer jump up a level and not miss a beat. Though these aren’t “answers” per se, these can be seen as reassurances, if you will, that there is some talent in the system.

And now, the doubts

But for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the questions are not only greater in number than the answers; The shadows they draw loom quite large for the club’s future.

Can anyone explain Gregory Polanco’s ultimate makeup as a player? The long slumps and the bad defensive stretches have put a damper on what is actually turning into a fine season. Is it fair to ask anymore of Polanco than this? Was his watershed 2016 season a definitive look at his ceiling?

What has the club done to Corey Dickerson? Homerless since May 4th, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ newly acquired power threat has turned into a quasi-singles hitter, with just three extra base hits in June; 11 since that May 4th date. With the organization valuing solid contact over selling out for power, they seem to have completely neutered the veteran.

Can Joe Musgrove stick as a starter? General manager Neal Huntington threw his weight behind sticking with Musgrove as a starter. That is the right move, in my opinion, as a fully realized Musgrove in the rotation for the next five years would put the club in good position to lay claim to getting a good return for Gerrit Cole. Right now, however, hitters are having no problem squaring up on the “kitchen sink” (Huntington’s words) of pitches that he is offering up.

Is this the real Josh Bell? Is this 2018 season more of what we can expect from the Pirates’ first baseman rather than the productive 2017 he put up? So much of the club’s future run production depends on Bell’s maturation as a hitter, to say nothing of his still-lacking at times defensive capabilities.

What about Tyler Glasnow’s future? Are the Pirates so desperate for something positive from their former top prospect that they will simply throw away a potential front of the line starter to keep him as a bullpen arm? What does this rotation look like next year? In two years? Jameson Taillon seems to have straightened himself out, but what of Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams? Can the Pirates truly contend within the next few seasons with a rotation built around those three?

Felipe Vazquez signed an extension over the offseason, which is normally a sign of stability and certainty. His season has provided anything but, and hitters are not as afraid of him as they used to be. Which Vazquez will the Pittsburgh Pirates see over the course of their commitment to him?

It’s the most talked about question of the season for Pittsburgh Pirates fans, but are the times passing Pittsburgh by? The Pirates insist on heavy fastball usage in an era with near-irrefutable evidence that more break equals better success in today’s baseball. And that swing for contact approach mentioned earlier? In a three-true-outcome era, this approach seems antiquated at best, foolish at worst.

The biggest question of all

What about the leadership?

Is Clint Hurdle the right manager for this particular club? The cynic will say that it does not matter. The team has committed to him over the next few years, so any discussion otherwise is a moot point.

That is probably correct, but it does not mean that we shouldn’t ask it. Hurdle has deferred to veterans at the expense of development. He has made questionable lineup choices. He is capable enough as an in-game manager despite some shaky bullpen choices, yet for this particular Pittsburgh Pirates club, the manager’s best contributions come off of the field.

One could point to Hurdle’s lieutenants as more culpable. Ray Searage’s reputation has certainly taken a hit over the past few seasons, and it is no coincidence that the club brought in a younger voice in Justin Meccage. Hitting coach Jeff Branson is a popular target in social media circles, but one wonders if his hands are tied by organizational approach.

No discussion on leadership can be complete without some mention of the Neal Huntington regime. For the most part, Huntington has played his hand for 2018 correctly.

Playing a hand correctly does not always mean it would work out. But Huntington did bolster the club with the Dickerson trade, stockpiled the team with options in the Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen trades and has been aggressive through the minor leagues with the smart way in which he managed Keller’s ascent along with the promotion of Meadows.

The question becomes if Huntington is the right general manager for this club at this particular point in time. He is notoriously risk-adverse in trades and signings. Much like the team’s hitting approach, he might have to swing and miss more than he would like.

Certainty is the most valuable commodity in baseball, valued far greater than the hot new flamethrower or the most feared slugger.

Right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates have less certainty than the should at what appears to be a turning point for the franchise since the Huntington and Hurdle regime began.