Kang, Marte put Bucs behind 8-ball in 2017

Commentary

The Pittsburgh Pirates were doomed by a numbers game in 2017.

The absences of two key players, third baseman Jung Ho Kang and left fielder Starling Marte, laid the foundation for what became an uphill struggle for the Pirates all season long.

Kang, who clubbed 21 home runs in 2016, sat out the entire 2017 season after drawing a suspended sentence following his third driving-under-the-influence charge last offseason in his native South Korea. Kang was unable to secure a work visa into the United States because of his legal problems and is attempting to salvage his career by playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic this offseason.

But Kang’s baseball future with the Pirates, or anywhere in general, remains very much in doubt, and if he can’t return, the Pirates will need to shop for a full-time third baseman before spring training begins in February.

Marte, a National League all-star last season, drew an 80-game suspension in mid-April after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He didn’t return until mid-July and appeared in only 73 games this season.

The absences of Kang and Marte had a negative ripple effect on the Pirates this year. With Kang and Marte gone, the Pirates bench that had been the team’s strong suit over the past several seasons became considerably depleted, as veteran David Freese was forced into an every-day role at third base and Adam Frazier saw regular playing time in the outfield.

Outfielder Gregory Polanco spent considerable portions of this season on the disabled list with a recurrent hamstring problem, managing just a .251 batting average with only 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in just 108 games. That was a big dropoff in production from the 2016 season, when Polanco hit 22 homers and drove in 86 runs.

And catcher Francisco Cervelli also played in only 81 games this year due to various injuries.

It all added up to the Pirates’ offense being, well, hamstrung for most of the 2017 season.

The Pirates’ .244 team batting average was next-to-last in the National League, and their final runs scored total (668) was the league’s third-lowest total — key factors in the Bucs plummeting to fourth place in the National League Central Division with a 75-87 record that left them 17 games behind the first-place Chicago Cubs.

The Pirates fell out of the division race by the end of August and spent a good part of September battling to avoid slipping into last place in the division.

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen recovered admirably at the plate from a miserable start, jacking his season batting average from .203 in late May to .279 by season’s end, with a team-leading 28 home runs and 88 RBIs.

But McCutchen’s long-term future with the Pirates remains very much up in the air entering this offseason.

The Pirates have a 14 million-dollar club option remaining on McCutchen for the 2018 season, but it’s unlikely they’ll extend the five-time all-star beyond that point — if he remains with them for even that long. The Pirates could very well engineer a trade for McCutchen this offseason, or at the very latest, by the non-waiver trade deadline next July. Otherwise, they risk losing the player who has become the face of the franchise to free agency and getting nothing in return.

While McCutchen’s days with the Pirates may be numbered, manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington — who both pioneered the franchise’s renaissance back into the National League playoffs from 2013 through 2015 after a major sports record 20 straight losing seasons — will be staying around for awhile.

In September, team ownership granted both Hurdle and Huntington four-year extensions that will keep them under contract through the 2021 season.

The management continuity could be a stabilizing force for the Pirates, who are pinning their hopes for the future on the fact that the organization has a stable of promising young pitchers at both the major-league and minor-league levels.

On the other hand, whether the window of opportunity has closed on the Pirates, at least for the time being, remains a question that only the 2018 season and beyond will answer.

Just two years ago, Pittsburgh won 98 regular-season games, punched its third straight N.L. wild-card playoff berth, and appeared to be on the pathway to continued success , before dipping to 78-83 in 2016, when the Cubs took the Major League Baseball world by storm and breezed to the N.L. Central title en route to winning their franchise’s first World Championship in over a century.

This year, the Cubs and upstart second-place Milwaukee Brewers took turns leading a Central Division that, for most of the season, nobody appeared to want to win. The Cubs ultimately won the division, finishing with a 92-70 record, six games ahead of the Brewers and nine games ahead of the third-place St. Louis Cardinals.

The Pirates teased their fan base with a short burst of success in July, then gradually fell by the wayside. A 12-2 run from July 4 through July 21 put the Pirates over the .500 mark (49-48) for the first and only time this season before the Bucs went on to lose 24 of their next 38 games. They closed August on a 5-13 skid that left them in fourth place in the division, 10¢ games out of first place, and 9¢ games out in the wild-card hunt — rendering their September baseball games largely meaningless.

The Pirates’ inconsistency throughout the season left them looking up at several teams in both the division race and wild-card chase.

There were some bright spots, though. Infielder/outfielder Josh Harrison, the team’s lone all-star representative, posted a .272 batting average with a career-high 16 homers and 47 RBIs in 128 games before a broken hand suffered from being hit by a pitch ended his season on Sept. 2.

Harrison, however, has three years remaining on a lucrative contract and his versatility could make him one of the Pirates’ most desirable trade chips this offseason.

First baseman Josh Bell had a rookie season to remember. He led the Pirates in RBIs with 90, and his 26 home runs tied a Pirates franchise rookie-season record that was originally set by Jason Bay during the 2004 season. Bell appeared in 159 games while carding a .255 batting average with 26 doubles.

The Pirates’ pitching was a mixed bag this season, as the Bucs finished seventh in the National League in staff earned run average (4.22).

After an injury-plagued 2016 season in which he struggled to a 7-10 record, right-hander Gerrit Cole (12-12) led the staff in wins, but also saw his earned run average balloon to 4.26 while he gave up 31 home runs.

Right-hander Trevor Williams — who earned the fifth starting spot in May after Jameson Taillon underwent surgery for testicular cancer — was dependable, logging a 7-9 mark and 4.07 earned run average in 25 starts.

Following his June 12 return after a five-week absence, Taillon went 8-7 with a 4.44 E.R.A. in 25 starts.

Veteran right-hander Ivan Nova had a first half that was worthy of all-star consideration, logging a 9-6 record with a 3.21 earned run average in 18 starts before the break. The second half of the season was a different story, however, as Nova was just 2-8 in 13 starts. He wound up 11-14 and finished with an earned run average of 4.14 for the year.

Righty Chad Kuhl (8-11 record, 4.35 earned run average in 31 starts) didn’t often go deep into games, but made steady progress as the year went on. The Pirates are still waiting for results from top prospect Tyler Glasnow, a 6-foot-8 right-hander who struggled mightily at the major-league level early this season and spent a good part of the year at Class AAA Indianapolis. Glasnow pitched out of the bullpen after being recalled to the Pirates in September.

Lefty Steven Brault made a cameo appearance with the Pirates in September after an outstanding Class AAA season at Indianapolis in which he was named the International League’s Pitcher of the Year. Brault leads a group of heralded pitching prospects that include current minor-league right-handers Nick Kingham, Clay Holmes and Mitch Keller, any or all of whom could make an impact with the Bucs in the very near future.

The bullpen, which was a prominent strength during the Pirates’ three recent playoff seasons, generally underperformed this year, with the exception of fireballing left-hander Felipe Rivero. Rivero took over the closer’s role in June and converted 21 of 23 save opportunities while carding a 1.67 earned run average in 73 appearances and striking out 88 batters in 75.1 innings pitched.

Veteran free agents-to-be Tony Watson — a bullpen staple during the Pirates’ three playoff seasons — and Juan Nicasio parted ways with the Pirates via trade and waivers, respectively, late this season.

Overall, the Pirates are entering the 2018 season at a crossroads, with plenty of questions to be answered, if the Bucs are to hold out any hope of returning to the type of success that they enjoyed just a very short time ago.

(John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com)

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