On the bright side for the Pirates and their fans, they won’t have to deal with another painful Wild Card loss this season. However, on the other side of the coin, there’s this: Pittsburgh will completely miss the playoffs, and will perhaps finish under .500, for the first time since the 2012 season. The main cause of the Pirates struggles this season? Injuries. Well, injuries and a starting rotation that was never able to really put three strong starters together all season.
Preseason Prediction: The Pirates are not going to all of a sudden be a laughing stock this season. They are still going to win a lot of ballgames and Clint Hurdle is a fantastic manager. They are in a tough division and even though they won 98 games last season, many people are penciling them in at the three spot behind the Cubs and Cardinals. Well, guess what, so is this writer. Beating last season’s performance is going to be tough and if the Pirates were in the NL East maybe that could happen. The Cubs have improved too much on paper and the Cardinals are too “Cardinal-like” for the Pirates this season. Bucs finish in third place with 87 wins and contend for the second Wild Card spot in the NL. (Cordell Oberholtzer, March 10th)
What Went Right: Saying that not a lot went right for the Pirates sounds like a snarky thing to say…but in reality, not much went right for the Pirates in 2016. Starling Marte had another good year at the dish, hitting .311/.362/.456 with nine homers (a career-low) and 47 steals (a career-high). Gregory Polanco had the breakout season Pirates fans have been hoping for, launching 22 homers, stealing 16 bases, and slashing .262/.325/.471. David Freese had a strong year after being signed off the bargain bin, putting together a .269/.352/.411 line with 13 homers. Matt Joyce also homered 13 times and hit .241/.399/.469 in a strict platoon role.
On the mound, rookie Jameson Taillon pitched to a 3.49 ERA in 98 innings, striking out 81 and walking just 14. After coming over from the Yankees at the trade deadline, Ivan Nova dazzled, notching a 3.49 ERA of his own in ten starts, punching out 47 and walking just three. Closer Mark Melancon had another good year before being dealt to the Nationals in July, saving 30 games while pitching to a 1.51 ERA.
What Went Wrong: Gerrit Cole made just 21 starts and largely disappointed, pitching to a 3.88 ERA over 116 innings. Francisco Liriano was a disaster, notching a 5.46 ERA over 21 starts before he was dealt to the Blue Jays in July. Jeff Locke stunk yet again, and his 127 1/2 innings will be the highest total on the team this season. The Jon Niese experiment was a disaster. Neftali Feliz, Jared Hughes, and Tony Watson all posted solid ERAs, though their underlying stats scream DANGER DANGER DANGER.
Andrew McCutchen will likely be the only Pirate to record 600 plate appearances, and his overall slash line of .258/.339/.436 with 24 homers doesn’t convey how disappointing his first half was. Josh Harrison hit .283/.311/.388 with four homers and 19 steals, his worst offensive year since 2012 (when he was still a bench player). Francisco Cervelli’s three-year extension is still a great bargain, but his overall .264/.377/.322 line with one home run isn’t what the Pirates expected.
Most Surprising Player: There aren’t many possible options here, so I’ll give the nod to Matt Joyce. He got into 136 games with the Pirates this year, but only logged 283 plate appearances – one fewer than he did last year with the Angels, who played him in just 93 games. But the strict platoon worked – Joyce walked in 20.1% of his plate appearances, by far a career high, and hit .241/.399/.469, which led to a career-best .375 wOBA and 137 wRC+.
Clint Hurdle put Joyce into a position to succeed more often than not – just 31 of his plate appearances came against lefties. In the 244 plate appearances against right-handers, Joyce hit .244/.402/.482. Joyce went from a guy who was one of the worst players in baseball last season to one of baseball’s most valuable bench players. Good job, Pirates.
Most Disappointing Player: This has to be Liriano, a guy who was mostly brilliant during his tenure with Pittsburgh. The 32-year old’s magic ran out this season, as his walk rate spiked to 5.46 batters per nine innings this year, the highest mark of his career (though it has fallen to a shade over three batters per nine in Toronto since the trade).
Liriano also suddenly became more homer-prone this season, giving up 19 long balls in his 21 starts with Pittsburgh after allowing no more than 15 in any of his prior three years with the Pirates. His struggles resulted in the Pirates dumping his contract onto the Blue Jays (along with a pair of prospects) for failed prospect Drew Hutchison, who has failed to impress since the trade.
The Future: The Pirates are in a very strange place this offseason. The only key free agents they’re losing are Nova, who has been their best pitcher in the second half, Joyce, and Sean Rodriguez. But with the strength, youth, and still-opening window the Cubs have, it’s doubtful that the Pirates will be able to content for a division title next year. Will Pittsburgh try to add to their team, with roughly $40 million in payroll to play with this winter? Will they keep buying low, which could be extremely difficult in this offseason’s weak free agent market? Will they blow it all up and start over?
I’d bet on that “buy low” option, especially after the team retained veterans Freese and Cervelli through extensions. But Pittsburgh really needs to do something about that rotation if they want to throw themselves back into the playoff hunt next year, and that’s not an easy task.