Pirates manager Clint Hurdle greets center fielder Andrew McCutchen before the 2015 National League wild-card game.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The sports books in Las Vegas have put the over/under number for Pirates wins this season at 87. If I had two nickels, I would put them on the over. Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle have earned my trust. Ray Searage has earned it. Andrew McCutchen. Tony Watson and Mark Melancon …
You probably remember in 2015 the Pirates won 98 games, second most in baseball behind the St. Louis Cardinals. But did you know they won 280 games in the past three seasons, second most in baseball, again behind the Cardinals (287)? Did you know they are one of just three teams to make the playoffs each of the past three seasons, joining the Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers?
Huntington is the star here. No general manager has done more with less. The 2016 Pirates payroll, as of now, ranks 20th in baseball at $92.3 million, according to Spotrac.com. The Dodgers are at $247.5 million and the Cardinals at $136.2 million.
Many have ripped the Pirates for not spending more in the offseason. If Huntington had a dime for every time someone called Bob Nutting cheap, he could sign Bryce Harper to the $400 million contract that Harper thinks he will get as a free agent after the 2018 season. But I’m not going there. I’m not going to knock the Pirates in any way after all of the fun and excitement they have delivered the past three seasons after 20 years of failure. I always hoped, against what I believed to be great odds, that I would see the team win again in my lifetime. Huntington made it come true.
“Our focus is doing with what we have,” he has said.
It will be a much different Pirates team that starts spring training this week than the one that had the bad break of running into Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs in October. Gone are Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and the 43 home runs they provided. Gone are three-fifths of the starting rotation in J.A. Happ, A.J. Burnett and C.A. Morton.
This brings us back to the “Nutting is cheap” mantra. Many in town won’t let it die, no matter how successful the team is. But do you criticize the Pirates for releasing Alvarez? He couldn’t make a routine play at first base. Walker? He will make $10.55 million with the New York Mets this season and priced himself out of this market long ago. If the Pirates made a mistake with him, it was not doing a long-term deal with him three years ago. Happ? The Toronto Blue Jays might regret giving him a three-year, $36 million contract based on a few good months in 2015.
Let’s follow Huntington’s lead and focus on what the Pirates have. They will line up the best outfield in baseball with the great McCutchen flanked by Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco. The three should help make up for some of the power loss. The lineup will be strong if Jung Ho Kang is ready, as many in the organization expect, for the start of the season. The catching is solid with Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart. First base looks unsteady again, although Michael Morse and John Jaso, who has just two career starts at the position, will give the team better defense than Alvarez. The bullpen with Jared Hughes, Arquimedes Caminero, Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio working in front of Watson and Melancon should be the best in the National League. The Pirates will win most games that they lead after six innings.
The rotation after Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano appears to be the weak link. That’s never a good thing. But that’s where Searage comes in. He is baseball’s best pitching coach for many reasons — Burnett, Happ, Edinson Volquez, etc. Now, he must do his magic with Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong and finally find the right key to Jeff Locke, at least until Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon are ready, perhaps later this summer.
“I embrace the challenge,” Searage said. “I don’t look at it as pressure.”
Hurdle orchestrates all of it. Huntington has said hiring him as manager after the 2010 season was the best move he has made. “He’s been spectacular for us as an organization,” Huntington said.
Baseball America picked the Pirates as its organization of the year in 2015.
“Few, if any, franchises were more effective in finding value in trades and free agency outside their system,” the publication noted. “Internally, there were player development successes like the maturation of a home-grown ace [Cole]. Few teams blend analytics and traditional baseball thought as seamlessly, and arguably no franchise does a better job of compelling different players, field staff and front office personnel to pull in the same direction.”
Again, Huntington is the star.
The Pirates minor league system remains strong. ESPN’s Keith Law ranks it eighth with four prospects in his top 100. In addition to Glasnow and Taillon, first baseman Josh Bell, catcher Elias Diaz and second baseman Alen Hanson could help this summer, outfielders Austin Meadows and Harold Ramirez and shortstop Kevin Newman down the road.
Huntington and Hurdle have been almost defiant this winter when asked about the team’s offseason moves or lack of moves. Each has pointed out no one predicted the Pirates would win 98 games last season or make it to the playoffs the past three seasons. I know I didn’t. They tell me the team is going to be good again this season? A playoff-caliber team in a division with the big-spending Cardinals and Cubs? I believe them until I see otherwise. They have earned that trust.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org. Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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