PITTSBURGH (93.7 The Fan) – The Pirates have wrapped up the home portion of their 2017 schedule on a 4-game winning streak, and while that and an Andrew McCutchen grand slam will get you some positive feels, they won’t get the Bucs back into another postseason.
What will push them in the right direction in 2018? And what should you be watching for this winter?
Here are the five biggest issues to watch for in the offseason.
1. Strategy: Will it be a minor re-tooling that could involve the move of a recognizable name or two? Could there be additions to what’s already in place to take a run at the top of the highly competitive N.L. Central? Or will the 4-year contract extensions agreed to by GM Neal Huntington and Manager Clint Hurdle give them the job security necessary to rip it down to the studs and start from scratch?
Your first serious signs of what’s to come may not take place until the Winter Meetings start Dec. 10 in Orlando, Florida.
2. Andrew McCutchen: The multiple ovations handed to the face of the franchise throughout the team’s final series at PNC Park this year certainly indicated that fans believe this could be McCutchen’s final season as a Pirate.
Manager Clint Hurdle was asked about McCutchen’s future following Wednesday’s final home game of the season.
“I have no more reason to go there right now. It’s all innuendo, lots of speculation, See how it plays out. We’ve got four more games to watch him play in Washington,” Clint Hurdle said.
The $14.5 million club option for next season will almost certainly be picked up, but the question then is whether Huntington feels like he can get the kind of value for a former MVP entering his age 31 season that he couldn’t get last winter when McCutchen was a year younger but also coming off of the worst season of his career.
3. Wither The Dingers?: Chris Mack wrote about the Pirates Power Outage way back in February, and to wit, nothing was ever done about it, even before Jung Ho Kang was told to stay out of the United States. Short of Kang being handed a work visa this offseason – something no one in Pittsburgh is holding their breath on – the organization has no answers for how they may replace the power they’ve lost over the past 2-3 off-seasons.
If McCutchen’s nearly 30 HRs are also in a different uniform come spring, this will be a team in danger of having the least amount of power in the lineup in years in MLB. The only way to acquire power is going to be a bold move – either going out and signing a free agent or making a big trade.
4. Gerrit Cole: If the Pirates are to make the kind of trade that could land them a middle of the order power bat to play 2nd or 3rd base and add to what McCutchen and Josh Bell already provide in the 3 and 4 spots, they’ll have to seriously consider moving their No. 1 starting pitcher. Cole has two years remaining on his contract and despite arbitration in each of the next two off-seasons, will be eminently affordable as compared to his production. Plus, he’s just 27 years old. This makes him Huntington’s biggest possible trade chip this winter, bigger than even McCutchen.
With a handful of young starters, some of whom looked impressive at times at the Major League level this year, could the Bucs afford to part with a top of the rotation arm? As good as Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams, and Chad Kuhl may be some day, none of them appear to have the dominant stuff that Cole has flashed in the early stages of his career.
5. Financial Flexibility: A firebrand of a pithy phrase Huntington will never live down, whether you like it or not, money will always be a huge part of the equation for the Pirates, especially if their payroll is constantly adjusted based on the previous year’s attendance. If 2016’s 10 percent dip in attendance caused a 4 percent dip in Opening Day payroll from 2016 to 2017, what will 2017’s 15 percent dip in attendance cause 2018’s payroll to look like? If you correlate last year’s decline, we could be looking at a $90 million payroll at the beginning of the season, possibly vying for the lowest in the game.
How does a team looking to rebound from consecutive losing seasons get better while cutting salary? The only possibilities lay in getting out from under some contracts that probably look much worse in hindsight than at the time they were signed. The $10.5 million committed to Francisco Cervelli looks questionable due to his durability concerns and isn’t going anywhere. The $5.5 remaining on Daniel Hudson’s deal is an albatross for a reliever that doesn’t look equipped to pitch any later than the 6th or 7th inning in low leverage situations. And Gerrit Cole, Jordy Mercer, George Kontos, and most importantly, Felipe Rivero, are all due raises through arbitration.
Simply put, if the Pirates do not spend more money in 2018 than they did in 2017, they will be a worse ball club, regardless of how financially flexible they may be.