To see into the future we first need to look into the past. So we’ll do a brief review on the season so far which requires us going back to decisions made in 2016 and the off-season. The unloading of Francisco Liriano was frustrating at the time. We interpreted it at first as nothing more than a salary dump and a surrender to the season. In hindsight, it was a strategic salary dump and a necessary one. It is difficult to judge the Pirates to other teams with the way MLB structures the Leagues. Each time small market teams find a way to better navigate the rules in place to increase their opportunity to compete, the big market teams find a way to place more obstacles in their path.
The moves to acquire Felipe Rivero and Ivan Nova have turned out to be nothing short of brilliant. The ability to then re-sign Ivan Nova would never have occurred without the dump of Liriano. Rivero and Nova are in large-part the reason the Pirates have been able to hang around in contention in this troubled 2017 season. It is through the Rivero/Nova prism in which I view the whole Jon Niese & Antonio Bastardo (2015 off-season to 2016 season) debacle. Not every decision is going to pan out. Yes, trading Neil Walker for Niese was lopsided in favor of the Mets. But, Josh Harrison was an All-Star this season, not Neil Walker. The risk in the trade was low thus cushioning the complete lack of reward.
The 2017 has so many things going on thus far. Most of this is already well known, so good/bad/ugly bullet-points version:
- Ugly: Jung Ho Kang
- Good: Josh Harrison’s consistency.
- Bad: Gregory Polanco
- Ugly: Starling Marte’s suspension.
- Good: Adam Frazier’s hitting.
- Bad: Andrew McCutchen’s first two months bordered on ugly, but power numbers helped.
- Good (Great): Andrew McCutchen since.
- Ugly: Most of the bullpen.
- Good (Great): Felipe Rivero
- Good: Starting pitching has actually been pretty good, but was exposed during Taillon’s absence. This rating may be a bit generous and weighted towards July performance.
- Bad: The rotation of bad players in the final bench spot and then giving them too many opportunities starting.
- Good: Clint Hurdle’s game management has improved greatly over the years. His lineups can be frustrating at times with the start of players who aren’t performing, but his handling of McCutchen’s struggles was well done. His faith in John Jaso has been rewarded. His willingness to learn from analytics but balance it with real life human beings’ emotions and confidence has been helpful. I’d like to see David Freese get more rest with Marte’s return.
- Good: Josh Bell’s defense and power.
I anticipate the hitting to only get better. I don’t see McCutchen continuing to hit the way he did in June, but I do anticipate him being consistently great the remainder of the season. I think Marte’s return will help Polanco who has already shown signs of breaking out. Marte’s return will also allow Jose Osuna to become the fourth outfielder allowing Frazier to play more at 2b which allows Harrison to spell Freese more at 3b. This should keep more players fresh going down the stretch allowing the offense to flourish.
The bullpen has shown glimpses of rebounding. We’re grateful Rivero didn’t make the All-Star game allowing him a break from the heavy use he has received this season. If the bullpen can pitch in the 2nd half even close to their expectations this team will be in the competition for the division title. The starting rotation has been decent. Much of this has to do with Ivan Nova and the way he attacks hitters. Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl have started to pattern themselves after him and it is paying dividends. The Pirates actually appear to have options for the rotation in AAA too with Steven Brault and Drew Hutchison.
With all the bad luck the Pirates have had this season they’ve been lucky to still be in contention. There is no reason to think they can’t compete for the title down the stretch. We anticipate they will be neither buyers or sellers at the trade deadline. They’ll tinker depending on what overall value they can find. They won’t favor the short term or long term over the other, they’ll simply take the whole into consideration. It will take some luck down the stretch, but we anticipate they’re due for it and they’ll be playing meaningful baseball in September.