Fresh off their first non-playoff season since 2012, the Pirates will prioritize improving their run prevention over the winter, reports Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. In 2015, when the Pirates won 98 games, they finished third in the majors in runs surrendered (596). That figure skyrocketed during a 78-win 2016 campaign for the Bucs, who allowed opposing teams to cross home plate 758 times (22nd in the league).
The better your pitching, the better your chances of stopping rivals from scoring, but general manager Neal Huntington isn’t optimistic about ameliorating the team’s staff via free agency. As Sawchik notes, the average starting pitcher deal during free agency last offseason was worth $10.02MM. Now, with so few appealing options set to hit the market, “it will be worse this year,” Huntington told Sawchik. “It is a reminder of how important it is for us to develop our own starting pitching,” the GM added.
The Pirates have one of the league’s top soon-to-be free agent rotation pieces in right-hander Ivan Nova, whom they acquired from the Yankees at this year’s trade deadline. Nova was a revelation in Pittsburgh and now looks primed to land a richer deal than anyone would have expected before he joined the Pirates. The club is trying to re-sign him, but the likelihood is he’ll hit the market, according to Sawchik.
With Nova perhaps on the brink of departing, Huntington opened up about the difficulties of working with a low payroll, saying that “every significant contract is a risk. When you look at Francisco Liriano at $13 million, when he performed well it is an affordable contract. But it’s the equivalent of $30-$40 million (per year) for the Dodgers. Percent of payroll is real. It’s not an excuse. When a contract is 13 percent of your payroll versus 4 percent, the level of risk tolerance is so very different …. How far do you stretch? It is a case-by-case situation.”
Huntington’s spending limitations played into the Pirates’ inability to re-sign left-hander J.A. Happ and add fellow southpaw Rich Hill last year. The Pirates lost out by $500K on Hill, whom the Athletics signed for $6MM.
As for Liriano, the Pirates traded him to the Blue Jays at the Aug. 1 non-waiver deadline. Liriano was outstanding with Pittsburgh in 2015, the first of a three-year, $39MM deal, but that wasn’t the case this season. As a result, the payroll-challenged Bucs dealt two prospects along with Liriano in exchange for $18MM in savings and right-hander Drew Hutchison.
With none of Happ, Liriano or Hill in the picture, the Pirates unsurprisingly have rotation questions going forward. Righties Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are sure to fill two rotation spots for the club. Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault, Trevor Williams and Hutchison are among their other potential in-house rotation candidates. They’re not the most confidence-inspiring choices, which Huntington addressed.
“Some will continue to progress. The real world shows us some will regress,” he said.
If Huntington decides he’s not content with that group, he revealed that dealing position pitchers to “strengthen” his team’s rotation is a possibility. It’s unclear which players Huntington could part with, though center fielder Andrew McCutchen’s name has come up of late. While the longtime face of the franchise is a five-time All-Star and one-time NL MVP, his all-around performance drastically fell off last season and he especially hindered the Pirates’ ability to prevent runs. McCutchen’s minus-27 Defensive Runs Saved “catches your attention,” said Huntington, who attributes some of the 30-year-old’s fielding woes to the shallower alignment the team deployed this season. The Pirates are now evaluating how they’ll align their fielders in the future, per Sawchik. One thing that will remain is an emphasis on inducing ground balls.
“(The ground ball) is something that we’re going to keep as one of our cornerstones,” manager Clint Hurdle told Sawchik. “We’ve had a recipe for success and we want to follow it.”
Pittsburgh’s ground-ball percentage fell from 50.4 in 2015 to 46.9 this year, but the team still ranked third in the majors in that department. However, only nine clubs were worse at turning grounders into outs, StatCorner indicates . The Pirates ranked a far superior 12th at killing grounders the previous year, when they were a much better defensive team in general. Now, Huntington is trying to figure out how to restore the Pirates to their 2015 ways.