My default setting had been to trust the Pirates and their process of recycling other team’s trash pitchers and turning them into treasure until it didn’t work. Well, it didn’t work in 2016, as Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, Jeff Locke, Juan Nicasio, and Ryan Vogelsong all were horrible and Andrew McCutchen suffered through the worst season of his career. That, and copious injuries undermined what had been a strong core of young players into a major disappointment in 2016.
When it was over:
Probably August 24, the day that Gerrit Cole went down for the first time with elbow inflammation. No one player changes the course of a pennant race, of course, but Cole wsa expected to anchor the Pirates staff all year, especially as Jameson Taillon found his footing and the rotating cast of also-rans I discussed above tried to figure out who was going to be Ray Searage’s latest miracle (that turned out to be Ivan Nova, by the way). The Pirates did okay the rest of the way through their rotation. On August 28, the Pirates beat the Brewers to bring themselves to 67-61, just a half-game out of the Wild Card.
But when Cole’s turn came around again, rookie Stephen Brault struggled through four innings and the bullpen fell apart. The Pirates would go on to lose eight straight contests, and 12 of their next 14. By September 12, when Cole returned from the DL and promptly left his start in the second inning after reinjuring his right elbow, the Pirates were four games under .500, and looking up at four teams in the Wild Card standings. It was like losing Cole took all the wind out of the Pirates’ sails, and they were marooned on calm seas.
What went well:
Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco continued to demonstrate that they have dynamic, game-changing talent. Josh Bell debuted and showed off the skills that made him such a terrific hitting prospect. The allegations against Jung Ho Kang are disturbing, full stop. On the field, however, he again made the case that Korean players could thrive in the Majors. Francisco Cervelli bounced back from injury problems to post a .377 OBP in almost 400 plate appearances. David Freese, added at the last moment for $3 million, turned out to be one of the steals of the offseason. Sean Rodriguez and Matthew Joyce both rejuvenated their careers in part time roles.
On the pitching side, Taillon debuted and was fantastic, posting a 120 ERA+ and almost a 6:1 K/BB ratio in 98 innings. Tyler Glasnow debuted and didn’t look lost. Ivan Nova followed the Ray Searage road to success, as did Neftali Feliz. And rookie Chad Kuhl was a delightfully competent surprise when he joined the rotation in late June.
A second opinion:
The Pirates' goal of getting over the wild-card hump was quickly shot down by an otherworldly Cubs team, but the inconsistent Bucs could barely stay in a weak race to even get back in the wild-card game.
That's stuff I can live with, especially after three straight playoff appearances. The thing about 2016, though, was it progressively gave me reason to feel worse about what was supposed to be a promising 2017. Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Francisco Cervelli and even Starling Marte are all guys who, to varying degrees, gave reason for concern for their output next year.
Even worse was the head-scratching dump of Francisco Liriano's modest contract at the trade deadline. That ostensibly gave the team more money to work with in a crucial offseason, but, when you're giving up decent prospects to clear about $18 million, that doesn't bode well for your ability or commitment to put the finishing touches on a contending roster.
What’s in the future:
The Pirates have two more years with Andrew McCutchen before he can hit the open market, and they figure to want to make the most of them. Thankfully, the Pirates do seem like a team who can bounce back nicely from their underwhelming 2016 with a little more luck on the injury front. That core that looked so promising before the start of the season is still there, has been supplemented by the additions of Taillon, Bell, Glasnow, and Kuhl, and has Austin Meadows pounding on the door to be let in as well. So the Bucs will probably keep their foot on the accelerator this winter and, so long as Gerrit Cole can bounce back, they figure to be right back in the Wild Card hunt next Fall.