Hurdle opens up about new deal, Bucs during SFU visit

By John Hartsock

jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

LORETTO — The Pittsburgh Pirates faced more than their share of obstacles in 2017, and they’re going into this offseason facing more than their share of question marks.

Among those question marks, however, will not be the status of either general manager Neal Huntington or field manager Clint Hurdle. Both accepted four-year contract extensions in September that are binding through the 2021 season.

Hurdle appeared at Saint Francis University Thursday night and expressed his satisfaction with the turn of events that will keep him in a Pirates uniform for four more seasons.

“I’m humbled and I’m grateful, I’m proud to be a Pirate, I love being a Pirate,” Hurdle said before giving an inspirational speech on his life in and out of baseball at the St. Francis JFK Student Center. “I look forward to working with Neal (Huntington), (Pirates president) Frank (Coonelly), and (team owner) Bob (Nutting) toward getting this organization back to our winning ways, and to bringing postseason playoff baseball back to Pittsburgh.”

After reaching the postseason as a National League wild-card entry three straight seasons, from 2013 through 2015, the Pirates have taken a step backward in both of the past two seasons. They were 78-83 in 2016 and this past season, they finished in fourth place in the National League Central Division with a 75-87 record.

The 2017 season was a year fraught with difficulty and littered with obstacles. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang missed the entire season after getting charged with his third DUI in his native South Korea last December. In April, outfielder Starling Marte, an all-star in 2016, incurred an 80-game suspension by Major League Baseball after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

“To lose two of the players who were going to bat in the top four spots in your lineup — one who never got to spring training (Kang) and the other who, two weeks into the season, you lose for half of the season (Marte), were hard challenges to overcome,” Hurdle said.

But Hurdle, an irrepressible optimist and half-full kind of person, was quick to find a silver lining.

“It gave some of our (other) men opportunities to play, and the fact that we invested in those men and they got that experience should make them better next year,” Hurdle said.

What next year will bring for the Pirates, however, is anybody’s guess. McCutchen’s long-term status with the club is one of the top questions on everybody’s mind heading into this offseason.

The five-time all-star and 2013 National League Most Valuable Player has a 14 million-dollar club option remaining on his contract for 2018, and it’s likely that, after he led the Pirates in homers (28) and was second in RBIs (88) this past season, the Bucs will choose to pick up that option.

But it’s also possible that McCutchen could be traded this offseason, before he becomes a free agent next fall and can walk out the door with the Pirates getting nothing in return.

“In a perfect world, we’d like to keep Cutch forever as a Pirate,” Hurdle said. “But the deal has to be done by both sides (player and upper management). We have an option on him for next year that I’m pretty sure that we’re going to pick up.

“But I don’t make those decisions,” Hurdle said. “I love what Andrew stands for, and I love what he’s done for the organization. It’s tough when anybody of that caliber doesn’t have an opportunity to continue to play where he’s been. But every organization usually runs into one of those situations. This isn’t the 1950s any more. Nothing has been finalized, but we’d love to keep him.”

Kang is playing baseball in the Dominican Republic this fall. Hurdle said that he plans to meet with Kang in the Dominican in November, but Kang’s future — with the Pirates or any other major-league organization — is a big question mark as well.

“We don’t have a definitive outlook (regarding Kang),” Hurdle said. “We’re going to take it one day at a time and see if the opportunity to bring him back does exist when we get to spring training.”

If it doesn’t, the Pirates will be on the market for a full-time, power-hitting third baseman. It’s a possibility that Hurdle and Huntington will begin to examine as early as this upcoming week.

“I’ll be talking with Neal and we’ll be meeting as an organization on Monday to discuss all the different options and opportunities that we’re going to need to talk about,” Hurdle said.

The Pirates’ young pitchers acquitted themselves well in 2017. Right-handers Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams made 31 and 25 starts, respectively.

But three stints on the disabled list for outfielder Gregory Polanco, along with the absences of Marte and Kang, left the Pirates floundering offensively. Their .244 team batting average and 668 total runs scored were near the bottom of the league in both categories.

“We need to add some offense, but the pitching is always going to be the motor,” Hurdle said. “We really invested a lot of innings in our young starting pitching this year. I believe our starting five (right-handers Gerrit Cole, Ivan Nova and Taillon, along with Williams and Kuhl) are going to be better going into next season, and we also have depth from some of the guys who are going to be coming up from the minor leagues.”

Managing a World Championship team in Pittsburgh has always been Hurdle’s goal since he inherited a 105-loss Pirates team at the start of the 2011 season. It still is.

“The ultimate goal is to win a sixth World Series for the Pirates,” Hurdle said. “We want to bring a World Championship to the city of Pittsburgh.”

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