BRADENTON (93-7 THE FAN) – As the equipment room at Pirate City gets set up for a roster of 60+ to roll in to town this week, with pitchers and catchers expected to report on Monday and the first, full-team workout scheduled for February 17th, it seems as good a time as any to start an analysis of which of these guys will be most important to the Buccos’ success – or lack thereof – in 2017.
Coming off of a disappointing down year following three consecutive Wild Card appearances, it’s safe to bet that late acquisitions such as righty reliever Pat Light and utility infielder Phil Gosselin aren’t the kind of splashes fans wanted to see General Manager Neal Huntington make this offseason. After squashing any hopes of a last-minute deal with the Chicago White Sox for Jose Quintana during his appearance with The Fan Morning Show on Friday, it’s also safe to bet that this is more-or-less the Pirates’ team you’ll be rooting for when they open the season at Fenway Park in seven weeks.
All that said, which people in the organization can be expected to have the biggest impact on how ’17 turns out? Not just players, but members of the coaching staff and management, are included in this ranking of the Top 10 Most Important Pirates in 2017.
10) Gregory Polanco, Left Fielder
Above and beyond a position change that will require he cover almost twice as much ground as he did in his first 2 ½ seasons in the Majors, it has to be assumed that Polanco will also be counted on to hold down the high-impact, middle-of-the-order role he was able to grow in to in 2016. With his OPS jumping nearly 90 points in his sophomore season (.702 in 2015 to .789 in 2016), and his power numbers more than doubling (9 HRs in ’15 to 22 HRs in ’16, in 68 fewer plate appearances), Polanco has the ability to become an Edwin Encarnacion-level slugger if he continues his meteoric offensive growth. His biggest challenges will be cutting down on the swings and misses while not losing the ability to yank balls out over the Clemente Wall, and continuing to mature offensively while learning a new defensive role.
9) Neal Huntington, General Manager
“What?!?” you’re thinking. “The GM is only the 9th most important person in the organization this season?!? You’re NUTS!”
While my level of sanity is debatable, what’s not is what we outlined above in the opening: Short of a surprise fleecing of the White Sox to get Jose Quintana in black & gold before April 3rd, this is the roster the Bucs will ride-or-die with through the first couple of months of the season. Huntington has decided to trust the core position players on his team – for the most part unchanged from the team that qualified for the 2015 Wild Card Game – to regain prime form and/or improve. The bullpen, while not having the dominant closer it had a year ago, has depth with Daniel Hudson and Felipe Rivero ready to jump on the closer’s role should Tony Watson stumble, and the rotation is solid 1 through 3, with no fewer than six arms – led by Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow – battling for the last two spots.
Are they as good as the Cubs on paper?
But who the heck is, honestly?
It will be Huntington’s job to evaluate his starting pitching over the first 4-6 weeks and decide if what he has in-house can compete not just throughout the summer, but come autumn as well. That’s when the real push needs to be made – in June and/or July – to add another impact starter before the trade deadline. And that’s when Huntington’s shrewd ability to admit mistakes and learn from them will either lead him away from two consecutive springs of starting with 60% of a Major League rotation to make a big move, or will lead him to continue believing that the core he’s chosen to trust as the spring of 2017 starts to bloom can outweigh any rotation deficiencies to get the Pirates back to the Postseason.
After all, he’s only got one year left on his contract after this season, and having “4 Postseason appearances in 5 years” at the top of his resume may garner him some serious attention from those big market clubs with fat wallets.
8) Josh Bell, First Baseman
Clint Hurdle didn’t explicitly say it on Thursday when he joined Starkey & Mueller on 93.7 The Fan, but for any one reading between the very faint lines, the skipper expects Bell to be his everyday first baseman in 2017.
Once done rehabbing from a minor knee procedure in February, it’s expected he’ll take over at first as he continues to learn the position on-the-job at the Major League level. For a team making a concerted effort to improve their defensive metrics back to 2015 levels, that may be a difficult decision to make. However, it’s the only option for a ball club that simply has to have Bell’s bat in the lineup if they’re going to keep pace early on with the high-octane World Series Champs at the top of the N.L. Central.
The question? Where in the lineup will we see Bell’s bat?
With his high contact rate and still-developing power, spending most of his Major League time in ’16 in the 2-hole made sense. Will the team decide to keep him there, hoping that a resurgent Andrew McCutchen behind him the 3rd spot will provide better pitches to see? Or will they seek to protect him from a league that will undoubtedly “punch back,” as Clint Hurdle likes to put it, and drop him into the 6th spot?
Perhaps that will depend entirely on whether the opposing pitcher throws baseballs with his left hand or right hand on a given day, but with his patience and willingness to spray the ball the other way, Bell needs to play everyday if the Pirates truly want to have any hope of further improving on their Hurdle Era-best .332 OBP of 2016. And if Bell somehow can provide a little extra punch, bringing his power rate back up toward what he produced in Indianapolis, and he can provide closer to 15-16 HRs rather than the 10-12 that should more realistically be expected, than it’s a bonus.
Just get the bat in the kid’s hands.
7) Jameson Taillon, Starting Pitcher
After Gerrit Cole went sideways in 2016 due to injuries and ineffectiveness, Taillon stepped up and took charge of the Pirates’ rotation for much of the summer.
For a guy who wasn’t called up in time for most fans, it wasn’t necessarily surprising, given his pedigree. To see a rookie provide the kind of stability – and efficiency – at the top of a playoff-contending rotation the way Taillon did though, was a surprise. A pleasant one, at that, but one that has set the bar for the top of the rotation somewhat high going in to 2017.
We’ll get to Cole more specifically as we get closer to the top of the countdown, but assuming the perceived ace of the Pirates’ rotation pitches like one again in ’17, it means Taillon continuing his growth and pitching anything like he did last year makes that argumentative ‘ace’ role more of a co-op. After all, Taillon gave up 4 or more earned runs in just 3 of his 18 starts last year. Cole? 6 times in just 21 starts.
Taillon will have to battle with batters developing a larger-and-larger ‘book’ on him, and adjusting to what he used so successfully in 2016. If that’s the worst that we have to fear in regards to Taillon in 2017 though, then the hope is that another guy we’ll get to later in the countdown – Ray Searage – will help him make those adjustments once Major League hitters finally figure out that Taillon is going to hit the zone early and often and put them on their heels.
6) Starling Marte, Center Fielder
There is no question: Marte has not just supplanted Andrew McCutchen as the organization’s center fielder, but also as the best all-around baseball player on the Pittsburgh Pirates. The arm, the speed, the power, they’ve all shown themselves throughout his career.
So why is he in the bottom half of this Top 10 list?
Quite simply, it’s because of his consistency. The 4th best base stealer in the Majors over the past 4 years, Marte’s power numbers dropped dramatically in 2016 despite spending more time in the 4th and 5th spots of the order than ever before. That’s the only major flaw to be found in his game. His plate discipline has improved year-after-year, and his career-best .818 OPS was achieved despite his single-digit home run performance.
All of that means that if Marte goes out and has another Marte-standard season of gunning out runners looking for an extra base, adding an extra base whenever possible, and getting on at least 35% of the time, he should continue to be the best player this team has, regardless of whether McCutchen returns to All Star form or not.
The only other question mark as far as Marte is concerned is another lineup-related one: Where do you bat the best all-around offensive player on your team? Marte didn’t hit leadoff once in 2016, and the club struggled, ending up in the bottom half of the Majors in OBP from the #1 spot, down from 11th in 2015 and 12th in 2014.
While Clint Hurdle is another name we’ll get to later in the countdown, there’s no denying that if he’s willing to let Marte lead off in front of Bell and McCutchen on a regular basis, all three – and the Bucco offense as a whole – will be better off for it.
5) Clint Hurdle, Manager
And now we get to the bench boss.
Hurdle has been everything Pirates fans could have expected of him when he first arrived at PNC Park in 2011, looking to “rebond the city with baseball.” Does his situational use of the sac bunt – or lack thereof, depending on the situation – infuriate some fans? Yes, me included. Is he entirely too married to the traditional use of closers rather than the new, more effective, “fireman” method being used by winning ball clubs in 2016? Yes, but so are the majority of managers in MLB.
Hurdle is not without his flaws.
He’s also embraced new methods, however, including an expanded use of the shift that made the Bucs’ defense one of the best in baseball prior to 2016. He was also exactly what the franchise needed in the motivation and inspiration departments, as he connected with youngsters who knew nothing of, and had no essentially no connection to, the Pirates two decades-long death spiral. All while still commanding the utmost respect of experienced veterans like A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin.
He delivered by rebonding a city with baseball, culminating in a madhouse on October 1st, 2013, and the first ever recorded instance of a crowd hitting a home run off of a rattled postseason starting pitcher.
Is Hurdle, for all his energy and enthusiasm, the right manager for an increasingly experienced core of players looking to take the next step, though? Can a man, with all the leadership skills of Hurdle, yet the lack of championship experience, steer a team full of talent to overachieve in such a way they not only catch the Cubs, but overtake and/or beat them? He’s twice been to the World Series, once as the Colorado Rockies’ manager, and again three years later as the hitting coach for the Texas Rangers, but lost each time.
Is Clint the kind of manager needed to push this bunch over their final ‘hurdle’?
Terrible puns aside, there may not be a lot of time to find out, as the skipper didn’t commit to anything beyond his current contract, which ends after a club option for 2018, when asked by Joe Starkey. As two possible managers-in-waiting sit on his bench this year in Tom Prince and Joey Cora, will Hurdle adjust his ways to try to squeeze the last bit of excellence out of the Pirates he can? Or does he keep doing what he’s always done and finally see his approach pay off to bring Pittsburgh its first World Series Champion in almost four decades?
4) Jung-ho Kang, Third Baseman
There is no person in the organization with cumulatively more questions surrounding him than Kang. And there is no person that, after last season, seems less equipped to handle the distractions that come with the intense media scrutiny of an entire country, than Kang.
After a trip to Wrigley Field in June, Kang went in the tank, hitting just .180 in his next 99 plate appearances, with just 2 HRs. We later found out that he’d been accused of a sexual assault taking place during that trip to Chicago, and while the accuser seems to have decided not to entirely cooperate with the investigation, Kang’s off-field struggles were only just beginning. A DUI in Seoul turned out to be his 3rd, and the public backlash in South Korea got him un-invited from his home nation’s World Baseball Classic team. Nonethelees, a Spring Training interruption may still be in Kang’s future, as a February 22nd court date may or may not be deferred.
If Kang can somehow overcome all of the distractions and focus on baseball, as he did when he first arrived in the U.S. in 2015, he could be the other half of a Bash Brothers-like combination in the middle of the Pittsburgh lineup with his good friend Gregory Polanco, as both appear capable of at least 30 HRs over the course of a full season. Sandwich those two between a resurgent McCutchen in the 3rd spot and the burgeoning run production of Jordy Mercer in the 6th spot (Mercer cracked a .700 OPS for the first time in his career last season), and you’ve got one of the more potent lineups between Wrigleyville and the Fens.
However, Kang has to know that behind him are a pack of ravenous dogs looking to vulture playing time should he stumble: David Freese, Adam Frazier, Phil Gosselin, Alen Hanson, and even John Jaso would all stand to benefit from Kang looking as distracted and lost at the plate as he did last July.
Not that anyone is rooting for that happen. Because without a productive Kang in the middle of the order, the Pirates’ power production will continue the decline it’s seen over the last three seasons, from 6th in home runs in MLB in 2014 to 26th in 2016.
3) Gerrit Cole, Starting Pitcher
The much ballyhooed and even more debated term “ace,” as we mentioned earlier in discussing Jameson Taillon, is a nebulous word when it comes to Cole.
Is he the Pirates’ ace? When he pitches as he did in late 2015/early 2016, no doubt.
Can he be a league-wide ‘ace,’ like a Clayton Kershaw/Madison Bumgarner/Jake Arrieta? Yes, it’s in there.
Does he need to be both if they’re going to win a World Series? No doubt.
Will he ever find it, though?
Cole’s experience – both positive and negative – seems to have finally caught up to his incredible talent. He also has an equal in the rotation, in Taillon, to push him in a competitive sense to be better, and it could be argued that hasn’t existed in Pittsburgh since the end of that All Star, Cy Young-nominated 2015 season, when he had A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano battling him each time through the rotation to see who could outduel the others.
The hope is that injury issues were the reason Cole scuffled in 2016. If he finds himself healthy and pitching at the pinnacle of his ability again, and the Pirates get sophomore slump-avoidant Taillon, the Pirates’s top two starters will be on par with some of the better rotation-topping pairs in baseball. If Cole struggles though, and Taillon gets punched back on by the league as was discussed earlier, things could get very ugly very quickly.
Which, coincidentally, brings us to…
2) Ray Searage, Pitching Coach
Has there been any other more highly lauded positional coach in Pittsburgh sports history than Uncle Ray? Outside of former Steelers’ Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau, I can’t think of one, and it’s no coincidence that they each give off a genuine air of caring about the players they coach. LeBeau took unheralded and undersized defensive ends and helped turn them in to pass-rushing behemoths at the outside linebacker spot. Searage has taken arms no one thought possible of achieving greatness – even if it existed in their recent past, as it did with A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano – and turned them around.
The list is lengthy and most recently populated by Ivan Nova, who will hold down the 3rd spot in the Pirates’ rotation as one of the better 3rd starters in the game if he continues to pitch as he did once he came over from the Yankees last season. Credit the ballpark if you like, and perhaps point out that younger pitchers have had to work more diligently through rough patches than veterans in bouncing back from hardships under Searage, but the results can’t be argued with.
If Searage can take the 2nd half of ’16 he got from Nova and extend it through 2017, or get Cole back to that magical 2nd half of ’15, or finally help Tyler Glasnow add some effective off speed pitches to his repertoire, or help Daniel Hudson, Felipe Rivero, & Tony Watson become the new edition of what Watson, Mark Melancon, & Jason Grilli were in 2013, or perhaps pull off ALL of that, then the Pirates’ pitching staff will be World Series-caliber.
And the credit will rightfully go in large part to Searage.
If however, Glasnow’s and Cole’s struggles continue, and Nova crashes back to earth, and the bullpen falls apart, then the Bucs will miss the playoffs and end up nearly 30 games back of the division winners again.
And the blame will rightfully go in large part to Searage.
Either way, the Pirates’ King of Reclamations will be a key component to reclaiming a spot in postseason after 2016’s absence.
1) Andrew McCutchen, Right Fielder
There is no one person on earth right now more integral to the success of the Pittsburgh Pirates, both in 2017 and beyond, than the man who is the face of the franchise and the singular human representation of the resurrection over the past half decade of what was once professional sports’ most moribund franchise.
McCutchen will forever be the smiling face of that team that Clint Hurdle “rebonded” with its city. Whether his departure brings in a bevy of prospects that spin the organization into the post-Cutch era or his reappearance as an All Star-level middle-of-the-order bat breathes new life into a team that is looking for the catalyst to propel it from simply ‘good’ to truly ‘great,’ McCutchen’s future will be tied to how this franchise performs over at least the next 5-10 years.
Last year, the opinion that Cutch’s MVP/6-8 WAR years are behind him despite his capability of being an All-Star-level 3-4 WAR player is one that I shared in. He can still be the face of the franchise while not being its best player and while not playing centerfield. He can still be an important part of the Pirates’ first championship since Willie Stargell was serving up chicken on the Hill. If he can be that steady, .275ish-hitting with 25 HRs #3 hitter between a the emerging talents of Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco, and do it while becoming the veteran voice this team hasn’t had since Burnett departed, it will be a reclamation story on par with those of the many pitchers Ray Searage has turned around. It could even become the kind of comeback story on par with Rod Woodson coming back from a torn ACL to play in Super Bowl XXX, or the ultimate Pittsburgh comeback: Mario Lemieux’s chasing down of Pat LaFontaine for the ’93 scoring title after battling Hodgkin’s disease.
If though, McCutchen either falls back in the tank, grows restless with his diminished role in right field, or both – or worse, is traded before getting an opportunity to reclaim even part of his former glory – it will spell the death knell of the Cutch Era in Pittsburgh and a turn towards an on-the-fly rebuild that will count on the prospects Neal Huntington has hoarded in favor of dealing in exchange for win-now players like Jose Quintana.
As Andrew McCutchen goes, so go the Pirates. And that’s why he is the singular most important person in the Pirates organization not just for 2017, but beyond.