Fresh start: Five things to watch at Pirates spring training
BRADENTON, Fla. — A tumultuous offseason that saw the Pirates trade the ace and face of their franchise included fan backlash in which more than 60,000 signed a petition asking MLB to force owner Bob Nutting to sell team.
The Pirates finally can focus on baseball when spring training opens Wednesday at Pirate City.
They no longer have five-time All-Star Andrew McCutchen in center field or former No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole anchoring their starting rotation, so this is a new look for a lineup now looking for new leadership.
Dealing Cole to the World Series champion Houston Astros and McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants in a three-day span prompted a public trade request by two-time All-Star Josh Harrison, which only complicated matters for the clubhouse.
Third baseman Jung Ho Kang has yet to resolve the visa issues that forced him to miss last season.
Even so, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said the McCutchen and Cole trades did not “change the intent of being a winning baseball team and being a playoff-caliber baseball team as soon as possible.”
Here are five storylines to watch this spring training:
1. Replacing Cole and Cutch: Two of the cornerstones remaining from the three consecutive playoff teams from 2013-15 were dealt for six players.
Problem is, none of them were direct replacements for Cole and McCutchen.
The Pirates are prepared to promote from within, as two-time Gold Glove winner Marte moved to center before his suspension last season and started the 2016 season batting third in the order.
But after an All-Star campaign, Marte must be more productive at the plate after batting .275/.379/.712 with only seven home runs and 31 RBIs in 77 games last season. He has only 16 homers over the past two seasons after hitting 19 with 81 RBIs in ’16.
Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, has been groomed to become the staff ace. The 26-year-old right-hander was 8-7 with a 4.44 ERA last season, when he was sidelined for six weeks by testicular cancer surgery, and must prove he can stay healthy.
2.What happens to Harrison?: The super-utility player who can start at second base, third base and as a corner outfielder was a hot commodity at the trade deadline last season.
The Pirates chose to keep him then but could be receptive to the right deal. Harrison ended the season with a broken hand, and Adam Frazier could be a possible replacement at second base.
Harrison’s contract could be an issue, as the 30-year-old will make $10.25 million this season and is owed $10.5 million in 2019 and $11.5 million in ’20, and the Pirates could have to pick some of his salary to complete a deal.
3.Corner outfield concerns: Keeping Harrison could help alleviate one of the major holes in the field. Even if the Pirates move Marte to center and Gregory Polanco to left field, they are still missing a starting corner outfielder.
The Pirates need a more productive year from Polanco, whose talent supercedes his .251/.391/.712 slash line and who dipped from 22 homers and 86 RBIs to 11 and 35 in an injury-plagued season. Polanco never has hit better than .258 in the majors, either.
Harrison has played both corners. Frazier also is an option, although the Pirates would prefer to play him at second base. Sean Rodriguez could be a consideration, but that subtracts from his strength as a super-utility player.
4.An answer at third base: Kang’s DUI arrest and subsequent visa denial forced David Freese to play 130 games, but the Pirates prefer not to use him as an everyday player at third base.
The answer at the hot corner could be Colin Moran, one of the centerpieces of the Cole trade and a promising prospect whose path to the majors was blocked in Houston.
Moran, 25, is a 2013 first-round pick of the Miami Marlins who batted .290 in the minors and hit 15 home runs last season in Triple-A Fresno.
Moran adjusted his swing and approach at the plate, and Huntington believes the left-handed hitter’s increased power production could play well at PNC Park’s short right-field porch.
But if the Pirates trade Harrison and Moran falters, their best option at third base might be Rodriguez, which could be a problem if he’s forced into a starting role in right field.
5. Prosperity in pitching: Beyond Taillon and Ivan Nova (11-14, 4.14 ERA) and closer Felipe Rivero, the Pirates should have competition for spots in the starting rotation and bullpen.
They have plenty of options, with returning starters in Chad Kuhl (8-11, 4.35) and Trevor Williams (7-9, 4.38), as well as Tyler Glasnow (2-7, 7.69) and Steven Brault (1-0, 4.67), the lone lefty.
The key could be how Joe Musgrove, also acquired from the Astros, fits into the rotation. A 6-foot-5 right-hander, Musgrove went 7-8 with a 4.77 ERA last season and is expected to fight for a spot in the middle of the rotation.
Problem is, none of the starters had an ERA below 4.00 last season. And Nova needs to prove he can put two good halves together in the same season.
The bullpen is another issue. Rivero had 21 saves, an 0.889 WHIP and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings, but the Pirates must replace setup men Tony Watson and Juan Nicasio.
They are counting on a bounce-back season from Daniel Hudson and for two of their newly acquired relievers, Kyle Crick (from the Giants) and Michael Feliz (from the Astros) to fill those spots, not to mention the possibility of a pitcher who loses out on a spot in the rotation.
The Pirates are undergoing a major makeover and didn’t sign any free agents to major-league contracts to fill their voids, yet Huntington promised to field a team that will “play with passion” and “be hungry.”
“There is a young, talented team here that’s going to be fun to watch,” Huntington said last month, “and they’re going to go out and fight every single night to honor those fans and to respect and appreciate the anger that they feel right now and turn that anger into a sold-out, loud playoff PNC Park.”