PITTSBURGH (TNS) – The Pirates have made a living in recent years by augmenting a strong core with the baseball equivalent of spare parts, players who Pirates scouts thought could reach their previous levels of production.
But after a season in which 98 victories garnered only a wild-card spot in a tough division, after losing quality innings from their rotation and power from their lineup, can the Pirates continue to compete in this fashion?
“We’re never going to win an offseason hot-stove contest,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “We’re never going to swoop in and win the free-agent market contest. We have a process where we’re going to spend and allocate our money, that has proven successful and worked for us.”
Let us not understate the Pirates’ core, which will begin to reassemble when pitchers and catchers report for spring training this week. They still have Andrew McCutchen, an All-Star five seasons running who finished in the top five in MVP voting each of the past four years and won the award in 2013. They still have a strong ace and No. 2 starter in Gerrit Cole, who finished fourth in Cy Young voting, and Francisco Liriano, who in 2015 struck out 205 batters in 186 2/3 innings with a 3.38 ERA.
Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco still man the corner outfield spots. Once Jung Ho Kang returns from his knee surgery, the Pirates should have above-average production at second and third base, and catcher Francisco Cervelli just had the best season of his career.
The late-inning duo of Mark Melancon and Tony Watson, Arquimedes Caminero and Jared Hughes return to a bullpen that led the majors in ERA in 2015. The Pirates also added Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio to the unit.
But while the core is strong, the Pirates went bargain hunting for their spare parts.
They do not return the same rotation that finished fifth in MLB with a 3.53 ERA. Between the retirement of A.J. Burnett and J.A. Happ’s departure in free agency, the Pirates lost 227 2/3 innings, 37 starts, 212 strikeouts and a cumulative 2.81 ERA.
“Every team looks to, No. 1, build innings within your starting rotation,” Hurdle said. “To know that we have some men in place that need to step up, and we’re confident that they can. In the case that they may not, you continue to look for a couple men in that bullpen that can pitch multiple innings. You continue to find ways where you shorten games, you win the games that you’re ahead of.”
To complete the rotation, the Pirates traded for left-hander Jon Niese, who had a 4.13 ERA in 176 2/3 innings last season, and signed Ryan Vogelsong, who had a 4.67 ERA in 135 innings and will turn 39 in July.
Combined guaranteed cost: $11.5 million.
“As you look back at where our rotation was going into 2015, with Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, A.J. Burnett coming off a down year, Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, I don’t think anybody would have projected that rotation was going to put us in a position to win 98 games,” general manager Neal Huntington said when Vogelsong signed.
By cutting ties with Pedro Alvarez and trading Neil Walker for Niese, the lineup also lost 43 home runs. Hurdle said the team would stress an offensive approach that emphasized decreasing strikeouts, putting the ball in play and extending plate appearances – similar to what the World Series champion Kansas City Royals did.
“When you’re working in an industry where the strikeout rate is 20 percent or higher, as an industry, for us, it’s unacceptable,” Hurdle said. “We’re going to work to find ways to drop that number down.”
Top pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, and first-base prospect Josh Bell, could all debut this season. But counting on prospects is risky.
Young pitchers get hurt – Taillon already had Tommy John ligament replacement surgery and a hernia procedure – and can struggle to adjust to the majors. Bell’s defense at first base, a position to which he transitioned from the outfield, needs work.
The Pirates’ opening-day payroll projects to be roughly $96 million to $98 million for their 40-man roster – not counting about $3 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Michael Morse trade. That amount is similar to the $95.9 million mark in 2015.
“We’re not going to lament about what we don’t have,” Hurdle said. “We’re going to focus on what we do have and how we increase the strength of it. Our guys love playing the game. Once the season started, we’ve gotten much better at playing games and winning games the last three seasons.”
The Pirates have made the playoffs with this formula before. Liriano hadn’t been good for two years when the Pirates signed him; he had a 5.34 ERA in 2012 and was moved out of the rotation. He has a 3.26 ERA and 9.6 strikeouts per nine innings in three seasons with the Pirates.
Remember Edinson Volquez? He led the league in earned runs allowed in 2013. For $5 million, the Pirates got 192 2/3 innings and a 3.04 ERA, and Volquez turned that into a $20 million contract and a World Series ring with the Royals.
Happ had a career 4.24 ERA before 2015 and a 4.64 mark with the Seattle Mariners before the Pirates traded for him. He got to Pittsburgh, had a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts and signed a $36 million contract this winter with the Toronto Blue Jays. Cervelli never seemed to stay healthy with the New York Yankees, but set career highs in games played and plate appearances in 2015 while hitting .295 with a .370 on-base percentage.
Between pitching coach Ray Searage’s ability to wring the best out of pitchers, the Pirates’ blending of analytics, biometrics and outside-the-box thinking, and a Hurdle clubhouse universally described as harmonious, maybe the Pirates know something we don’t.
But despite the Pirates’ 98-64 record in 2015, the second-best mark in baseball, they still finished second in the NL Central to the St. Louis Cardinals, who won 100 games. The Cardinals lost Jason Heyward and John Lackey, and Lance Lynn will miss all of 2016 because of Tommy John ligament replacement surgery. But the Cardinals replaced Lynn with Mike Leake, an NL Central veteran who is as consistent as they come, on a five-year, $80 million contract.
A healthy roster will bolster the Cardinals. They won 100 games in a season when Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams and Jordan Walden all missed significant time. They also have young budding contributors in Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha.
The Pirates’ 98 victories earned them second place in the division by one game – the Chicago Cubs rounded into shape in a hurry and won 97, then beat the Pirates in the wild-card playoff. The Cubs gave Heyward eight years and $184 million, Lackey two years and $32 million and Ben Zobrist four years and $56 million. They made a strong play by taking two free agents from a division rival, and a young lineup featuring Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Jorge Soler and Addison Russell should have the team contending again in 2016.
The Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds are rebuilding, but the Cardinals and Cubs can take advantage just as much as the Pirates can, and even bad Brewers and Reds teams have given the Pirates trouble in the past.
Seven weeks remain until opening day, so there’s plenty of time to add to the roster. If the Pirates don’t, they will once again need a lot to go right.
They are better at making that happen than most, but it’s only getting harder.