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Thoughts on the 2019 Pirates

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Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates
This happened occasionally.
Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

I’ve joked that I moved to Pittsburgh primarily so that attending sporting events wouldn’t be a logistical ordeal anymore. There’s something to be said for saying “hey, let’s go to the Pirates game today” and being in your seat with a beer enjoying the view within an hour. Of course, I’d heard the “PNC Park is gorgeous but the Pirates are awful” thing a lot, but in the spring, optimism reigns, and experience has taught me not to freak out about a team’s performance or lack thereof until at least July.

And up until the All-Star break, the Pirates seemed to be doing ... somewhat okay, despite lots of issues. Gregory Polanco and Erik Gonzalez were seriously injured almost immediately with no timetable on their returns. The pitching staff was either hurt or inconsistent, often both at the same time. Francisco Cervelli got the proverbial moon/pizza pie hitting his eye once too often. Clint Hurdle seemingly had no sense of good pitcher-switch timing, and Colin Moran and Jung-ho Kang sometimes looked like they had completely forgotten how to play baseball.

But there were definitely bright spots. Starling Marte was his usual stalwart self. Josh Bell became a beast at the plate. Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman, in their first full seasons in the Show, stepped up as if they’d been major leaguers for years. Joe Musgrove showed encouraging signs of becoming a team leader as well as a reliable starter. Cause for optimism, right?

We sat in the same section for every game we attended, so we became familiar with a lot of season ticket holders, all of whom did not share my positive outlook. They complained about Bob Nutting’s cheapness, Neal Huntington’s personnel floundering, the lack of star power (see aforementioned cheapness and floundering), and the general ineptness of the coaching staff. The main complaint, though, was that Nutting seemed content just to let things go because the team still made money. “The All-Star break’s coming,” sighed one. “Time for the wheels to come off.”

Her prophecy proved correct, unfortunately. Bell’s torrid hitting fell off considerably, and with few exceptions everyone’s batting average plummeted. The pitching staff’s inconsistency continued even when most of them were healthy. There were three clubhouse altercations that were made public knowledge, which begs the question “how many didn’t we know about?” As the final cherry on the Pirates’ implosion sundae, Felipe Vasquez admitted to—and was jailed for—sexual relations with a minor in September.

And the Pirates lost again. And again. And some more. On the last day of the season, September twenty-ninth, Hurdle was fired and the Pirates lost one last time to the Cincinnati Reds at PNC. Only the woeful Miami Marlins saved them from being dead last in the National League, but not by much. Bucs fans heaved one final exasperated sigh and turned their attention to the Steelers and the Penguins.

Hurdle’s departure was pretty much a given, but suddenly something stirred in the Pirates’ executive suite. Longtime president Frank Coonelly departed, and Neal Huntington was fired not long afterwards. Travis Williams, formerly CEO of the Penguins, was named as Coonelly’s successor on October twenty-eighth. He brought in Ben Cherington as GM, who in turn hired his Toronto Blue Jays director of amateur scouting Steve Sanders as his assistant. In the final big move, former Minnesota Twins bench coach Derek Shelton was named as the new manager on November twenty-seventh.

“This past season was by far the most frustrating and challenging season that I have experienced as owner,” Bob Nutting said after Huntington was fired. “It became clear to me as the season progressed that significant change was necessary in order to refresh our entire operations.”

Contrary to what many believe, sports team owners want to win. They want to hoist trophies and get doused with champagne in the clubhouse and all the fun that comes along with winning the Big One. It should come as no surprise that the new Pirates management is made up of people who have worked in small markets and made things happen, not to mention people who have experience building up farm systems. Even the biggest big money teams know now that decimating the minors for the free agent du jour isn’t the smartest thing to do when trying to build a perennial winner.

Let’s see what the new crew does.

And no panicking allowed until July.