Kevin Gorman: Pirates feel ‘something special’ but better have a Plan B
BRADENTON, Fla. — The first practice for Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers and catchers was forced indoors by rain, but the cool temperatures and overcast skies didn’t dampen Clint Hurdle’s spirit.
“It’s a good first day,” Hurdle said Wednesday at Pirate City. “We got the audible early from Plan A and went to Plan B.”
Nothing can cloud Hurdle’s optimism. Not the weather. Not a new double-play combination. Not a loaded NL Central Division. Not the pessimism of Pirates fans focused on one of MLB’s lowest payrolls.
Not on the first day of spring training.
Hurdle saved his big speech for the first full-squad practice, but management’s message already has been sent to a team coming off an 82-win season. Players are preaching the gospel that the Pirates can be a contender and not a latter-day version of the 2011 and ’12 rebuilds.
“There’s more of a feeling that we’re about to do something special,” Hurdle said. “This club right here, I really believe — again, we’ve got to work to do, and we’re going to go out and roll up our sleeves — and our intent is to win our division. If you win your division, that puts you in a pretty good place. I love the fact that there’s hunger in there, and it’s real, for all the right reasons. And I really like our pitching. If you’ve got good pitching, you put yourself in a really good position.”
Hurdle turned to the old baseball axiom that good pitching beats good hitting. That has been the early theme of this spring training: that the Pirates have an abundance of pitching.
Four spots are set in their starting rotation, with Jameson Taillon, Chris Archer, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove. The back end of the bullpen ranks among baseball’s best, with Richard Rodriguez and Kyle Crick the bridge to Keone Kela, the setup man for All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez.
That already promises to be a better rotation than 2018, when Ivan Nova earned the Opening Day start in Detroit, Taillon hadn’t yet lived up to his draft status, Williams and Musgrove were unproven and Archer was still a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. The bullpen is markedly improved from last year, when Vazquez was the only proven pitcher. Crick and Rodriguez didn’t even make the Opening Day roster and Kela was closing for the Rangers.
So there is good reason for the optimism.
No wonder general manager Neal Huntington doubled down on Hurdle’s claim that there is something special in store for the Pirates, even after they pared down their payroll to what projects to be the second-lowest in the majors and their confidence sounds more like false bravado.
“This club has a feel that we can be a postseason team, that we can be a team that can advance deep in the postseason,” Huntington said. “Championship teams are based typically around starting pitching, and you win the games you’re supposed to win because of your back end.
“Then you score.”
Now that could be a problem. The Pirates need Plan A to go perfect, because Plan B leaves little margin for error.
Archer and Musgrove are coming off abdominal surgeries and will be brought along slowly with no promises to be ready for the opener. Starter Chad Kuhl and reliever Edgar Santana are out after Tommy John surgeries. That set up a competition between Jordan Lyles, Nick Kingham and Steven Brault, with the winner earning the fifth starter spot and the others competing with Francisco Liriano and others for roles in relief.
The Pirates are counting on a bounce-back year from first baseman Josh Bell, on Adam Frazier and Erik Gonzalez replacing Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer at second base and shortstop, respectively, on Jung Ho Kang recapturing his 2016 form after two years out of baseball or Colin Moran making major strides at third, on Corey Dickerson and Starling Marte providing Gold-Glove defense and better offense and on Cleveland castoffs Lonnie Chisenhall and Melky Cabrera performing in right while Gregory Polanco recovers from shoulder surgery.
“You look around the offensive diamond … and eight of the nine spots can be better this year,” Huntington said. “That’s an exciting place to be. We recognize that we’re in probably the deepest and most challenging division in baseball, and we had a winning record against that division a year ago. We’ve got to figure out how to be better against the East and West and continue to do well against the Central.”
That’s a lot to ask, perhaps too much to expect.
But Hurdle posed a rhetorical question about whether the Pirates overachieved or were under-evaluated. They barely broke .500 and missed the playoffs but were projected to lose 100 games. Hurdle believes the Bucs set a tone, winning with guts and grit while connecting and learning lessons last season.
“I believe it set us up better for this year,” Hurdle said. “But to say our thought was the same going into spring training … we didn’t win a world championship. We didn’t get to the playoffs. So, those things are off the table. There was some disappointment there.”
On this day, there was no disappointment, only endless possibilities.
The Pirates have a feeling that they’re about do something special, but they better have a Plan B if it rains.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.