New-look Pirates hope to push beyond past achievements
April 3, 2017 12:00 AM
Pirates owner Bob Nutting, right, knows what got the team in the playoffs in 2013 will not get them there this season.
By Stephen J. Nesbitt / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
BOSTON — When the Pirates previously played at Fenway Park, the final game of their first series there in franchise history, their lineup card went Lawton-Redman-Bay-Ward-Doumit-Mackowiak-Castillo-Cota-Wilson, and they lost, 8-0. It was June 19, 2005, and just 12 days earlier the Pirates drafted high school center fielder Andrew McCutchen at No. 11 overall.
At that point, smack in the middle of 20 consecutive losing seasons, there were few questions about the caliber of Pittsburgh’s baseball club but plenty about its future. The Pirates’ time to win arrived in 2013 and stayed for three seasons. In 2016, amid myriad of injuries to key players and a deflating down season for former National League MVP McCutchen, they fell back below .500.
The question now is this:
Did the Pirates simply catch lightning in a bottle for three years, or was 2016 an aberration?
The answer, as general manager Neal Huntington often says, likely is somewhere in the middle. Huntington, the ship’s steerer, plans the playoffs as the Pirates’ destination each season. Unlike front offices which have built into their development roadmap some years to flex their financial muscles, adding firepower, and other years to rebuild, the Pirates intend to avoid rebuilds. They stock their minor league system and are cautious spending prospect assets for short-term investments.
“We believe that by continuing to infuse talent into the organization at every level we can, every way that we can, that we can create a sustained, competitive team,” Pirates owner Bob Nutting said earlier this spring in Bradenton, Fla.. “What you need to do is get into the playoffs, when everyone hits the reset button and goes forward. That is part of why it is so important that we’re able to have sustained success and not embrace the wild cycles that some teams have.
“We may be proven wrong at some point. That’s still our target and our goal.”
A 78-83 record a year ago — 20 wins worse than the 98-win 2015 Pirates — was “a great reminder for us of the razor-thin edge between a pretty good team and an elite team,” Nutting said. The takeaway for the entire organization, he added, was “the recognition that there is no entitlement to winning any game, there is no entitlement to winning any season.”
“Entitlement” wasn’t a word the 1993-2012 Pirates used often.
In 2013, the Pirates snapped the streak of losing seasons. They won 94 games. They won two of the first three games of the National League Division Series, and then lost twice. The night of Game 5, a 6-1 St. Louis Cardinals win, David Freese homered off Gerrit Cole, who at 23 was the youngest National League pitcher to start a winner-take-all postseason game. Afterward, in a sullen visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium, shortstop Jordy Mercer remarked, “We fell short. Then again, we feel like we’re just scratching the surface. We feel like we’ll be here, in the same situation, for years to come.” Jason Grilli, the closer, added, “We’re no longer a doormat over here.”
This situation now is similar, but the team isn’t. Freese plays for Pittsburgh. Cole is 26. The Toronto Blue Jays, a team the Pirates played in Montreal over the weekend, now have nearly as many significant pieces of the 2013 Pirates roster — Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano and Grilli — as the Pirates currently have. Their turnover continued last week when right-hander Jared Hughes, one of the longest-tenured Pirates, was released. The first day of spring training, it was Hughes who bounded over to newcomer Daniel Hudson, a right-handed reliever, and exclaimed, “Welcome aboard the Pirate ship!”
Change doesn’t mean the window has closed. It continues, and the 2016 season might have served as a transition year spanning separate cores. Many of the top players in a loaded minor league system were deployed and debuted in the majors. The 2016 promising pitching prospects have arrived en masse, occupying three spots in the starting rotation. For the major players most likely to be lost soon in trade or free agency — McCutchen and closer Tony Watson — the replacements already are nearby — top prospect Austin Meadows and left-hander Felipe Rivero.
Pirates management believes the team underperformed in 2016, and that’s difficult to argue. McCutchen had his worst season. Cole was injured four times. Few regulars outperformed their 2015 numbers, with Starling Marte as the clear exception. The Pirates used a club-record 55 players.
The Pirates announced their opening-day roster Saturday. Only 12 of the 25 players were on their major league roster a year ago. It’s a different team and a new year. These are not the 2016 Pirates, not the 2013 Pirates, not the 2005 Pirates. There is risk on this opening-day roster, and there also is obvious upside.
“What got us into the playoffs in 2013 is not going to be good enough to get us there in ’17, ’18 or ’19,” Nutting said. “We need to focus on how we move forward, how we push, how we deliver a level of excellence beyond what we’ve done in the past.”
Stephen J. Nesbitt: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.
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