As the 2016 Major League Baseball season came to a close, the Pittsburgh Pirates had a bit of an identity crisis. While division rival Chicago Cubs powered their way to a historic World Series win, the Pirates posted a disappointing 78-83 record — 20 wins fewer than their impressive 98-win campaign in 2015 — despite returning the bulk of their roster from the previous year, including Andrew McCutchen, their best player, who was a shell of his former-MVP self last year.
While the Pirates of 2013-15 thrived on getting the most out of their players, the 2016 Pirates were riddled with injuries and inconsistency. Even McCutchen, who had been as reliable as any player in the league prior to last season, wasn’t immune to the team-wide malaise, as his batting average dropped 34 points, his OPS more than 100.
Pirates owner Bob Nutting said the first week of spring training that last season’s struggles show “the razor-thin line between a pretty good team and an elite team.”
That claim is pretty well-supported by their numbers. Take a look at how Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) — designed to summarize a player’s total contribution to the team — measures the production of these key Pirates from 2015 to 2016. (For reference, a 5-WAR player is an All-Star, a 2-WAR player is league average, and a 0-WAR player is replacement level)
Pirates WAR 2015 vs. 2016
There were circumstances for some of the drops. Cervelli broke the hamate bone in his right hand and never fully recovered. Cole dealt with rib, triceps and elbow injuries and was lucky to have escaped the season without going under the knife. Liriano is notoriously mercurial and was so bad in ’16 that the Pirates had to surrender two interesting prospects, Reese McGuire and Harold Ramirez, to convince the Toronto Blue Jays to take the lefty in a trade (the Pirates received starter Drew Hutchison in the deal, as well). Kang hit well when he returned from knee surgery in May, but faded down the stretch when sexual assault allegations cast a dark cloud over the South Korean third baseman’s season.
Just Cutch It
And then there’s McCutchen, the former MVP and face of the franchise that just so happens to be coming off of the worst season of his career.
No player of McCutchen’s caliber has ever had a worse season at age 29, according to an August 2016 ESPN article. McCutchen struggled to make hard contact at the plate and struggled even more to catch up with hard-hit balls in center field.
McCutchen’s abrupt decline placed the 30-year old outfielder at the center of the league’s trade rumors this offseason. The Pirates reportedly received interest from several teams, but after all of their potential suitors found other non-McCutchen answers to their outfield problems, general manager Neal Huntington effectively pulled the plug on the trade talks.
“Our intent coming in here was to have Andrew McCutchen in our lineup going forward. No one changed that,” Huntington said on December 8, 2016 after a flurry of trade rumors. “It’s unlikely that someone changes that going forward. We’re not going to close the door, but we’re not going to be making any calls.”
While McCutchen is still in Pittsburgh, it’s become readily apparent that the front office views the most productive Pirates player since Barry Bonds much differently than they did last year. At this time last year, McCutchen was still indisputably a superstar. The spring training topic du-jour regarded whether or not the Pirates should sign McCutchen — who was coming off of another MVP-caliber season and is under team control through 2018 — for the rest of his career. The topic generated enough smoke that team owner Bob Nutting was forced to respond.
“I’m not sure if we’re allowed to sign lifetime agreements, but I’d love to see [McCutchen] stay with us forever,” Nutting said in January 2016.
One only has to look at Nutting’s frugal ownership tendencies to know that there were plenty of strings attached to that quote, but there was optimism, nevertheless. McCutchen was the face of the franchise, after all. Even though the Pirates had plenty of question marks heading into last season, at least they could count on “Cutch” to “Just Cutch It.”
But then 2016 happened and McCutchen’s once ironclad productivity is now the subject of legitimate concern. The Pirates announced in early February that McCutchen will move away from center field in 2017. Gold Glove left fielder Starling Marte will slide over to center and Gregory Polanco will shift from right field to left. The change will likely help McCutchen extend his career in the long run — right field is much less demanding than center — but it also serves as an ominous reminder that the Pittsburgh Pirates Andrew McCutchen Era (™) is likely coming to an end.
The Players’ Tribune piece that McCutchen recently wrote, “Dear Pittsburgh,” was more than a charming tribute to the city that helped make him famous; It was the beginning of his farewell tour. In the article, McCutchen admitted to Googling his name in search of transaction news and claimed that he “honestly didn’t know where [he] was going to play baseball in 2017” while acknowledging that he was not the one who was in control of his future.
“It was definitely a shock when I spoke with upper management a few weeks ago and they told me that they were shaking things up in the outfield and that they would be moving me to right,” McCutchen wrote. “And they weren’t asking me. They were telling me.”
Like in 2016, Nutting began this year’s spring training by talking about McCutchen. Only this year, Nutting’s focus was less about keeping Cutch around forever and more about justifying his imminent departure.
“If we have the appropriate goal set of making the team better, doing what’s right for Pittsburgh, doing what’s right for the Pirates,” Nutting said Feb. 20, “then it allows you to make some tough decisions that you know are the right thing to do.”
The 2017 Pirates … ?
While McCutchen’s future with the Pirates is becoming clearer, Pittsburgh’s roster in 2017 contains plenty of question marks. The gap between Pittsburgh’s 2015 and 2016 seasons reflects the uncertainty of small market baseball. It’s pretty simple: If a small-market team’s star players are not performing, then that team has a very small chance of remaining competitive.
The Pirates have never had a substantial free agent budget and, with a weak free agent class and few willing trade partners, this offseason was no exception. They re-signed midseason trade acquisition Ivan Nova to a three-year, $26 million contract to fill a spot near the top of the rotation. They signed reliever Daniel Hudson in hopes that he is better than his 5.22 ERA last season indicates. They traded for backup infielder Phil Gosselin.
And that’s pretty much it.
Regardless of whether or not the Pirates were aggressive enough in the offseason, the team’s lack of activity certainly made a statement to the guys in the clubhouse: Do better or lose.
The good news is that this team is not far removed from a 98-win season. In his Players’ Tribune article, McCutchen wrote that he spent his offseason rebuilding his swing “from the ground up” and taking batting practice until “his hands bled.” McCutchen’s fall from grace in 2016 was unprecedented, but most unprecedented occurrences in baseball end up being fluky. The Pirates certainly hope to have a finer vintage of McCutchen in their lineup come April.
It’s nearly as important for the Pirates to get a healthy Cole onto the mound in 2017. Team trainer Todd Tomczyk said at the end of last season that Cole would be “shut down for an extended period of time” in the offseason to prepare him for spring training. What we learned when Cole tossed 208 stellar innings in 2015 was that, when healthy, the Pirates righty is as good as anybody else in the league. Despite a rough 2016, there’s no reason to doubt that’s still the case.
Since Kang’s captivating 2015 debut with the Pirates, the third baseman has torn up his knee, been accused of sexual assault, and drunkenly jumped his car over a barricade and drove into oncoming traffic. Yonhap News Agency reported Thursday that he received an eight-month prison sentence that will be suspended for two years. “The ruling clears the path for Kang to travel to the United States and join the Pirates in spring training long underway,” per Yonhap, though the Post-Gazette notes that it’s unclear how the case will affect his visa. The 29-year old Korean promised to be an “exemplary player” this season and is the team’s biggest power threat — if-and-when he gets back onto the field.
In 2015, Cervelli adequately filled a Russell Martin-sized hole behind the plate and became every single (and not-so-single) 40-year-old Pittsburgh woman’s favorite ballplayer in the process. His success earned him a three-year contract extension, but he only hit one home run last year as he nursed his broken right hand. A healthy and productive Cervelli would certainly aid the Pirates’ chances.
A step back to step forward
It’s easy to be discouraged by a 78-win season, especially when a team does little to improve upon that roster in the offseason. The Pirates have invested most of their resources in building a core of players that has recently provided a pretty good return. Nutting remains confident that this team can continue to compete despite their discouraging 2016 campaign.
“You need to have the step back before you take the step forward,” the owner said. “I love that phrase. We certainly had a step back. We underperformed last year to the abilities of our club. I believe that’s been good for the organization. I believe it’s been good individually for some of the players, and it’s refocused us and improved our commitment.”
Refocus. Improve. It’s easier said than done, certainly. But this is a Pirates team that has routinely conquered adversity. Last season didn’t work out, but the front office has indicated that they are not yet willing to blow things up and start over. For this team to succeed, their star players will have to anchor their lineup. All that’s left to do now is watch how it unfolds.