Pirates’ pitching may provide reason for 2019 optimism

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2018 season was a roller-coaster ride that ended on a positive upswing.

Left for dead by just about everybody outside the organization in the preseason following the trades of team cornerstones Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, the Pirates rode a 16-10 month of September to wind up with just their fourth winning season in the past 26 years and their first since 2015, by compiling an 82-79 record.

The Pirates finished in fourth place in the National League’s Central Division, 13 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers, who won a tiebreaker game with the Chicago Cubs, 3-1 for the division title on Monday.

The Pirates — who also finished eight games out of the wild-card playoff hunt — exceeded expectations this year with a revamped pitching staff and bullpen that could also lay the foundation for the club’s marked improvement in 2019 and beyond.

The 2018 calendar year started amidst talk of a massive Pirates’ rebuilding project last January, following the trades of center fielder McCutchen and right-handed pitcher Cole, two players who were the centerpieces of the Pirates’ return to the National League playoffs in 2013, 2014 and 2015 after a 20-year absence.

The Pirates shipped McCutchen — a five-time all-star and the 2013 National League Most Valuable Player — to the San Francisco Giants last January 15 in return for reliever Kyle Crick and minor league outfielder Bryan Reynolds.

The trade of McCutchen, who had been the face of the franchise for several years and had helped bring the Pirates back into the good graces of their fan base after a major-league American sports record 20 consecutive losing seasons, marked the end of a distinguished era for the Bucs.

It came just two days after Cole, a number one draft pick by the Pirates out of UCLA in 2011, was dealt to the Houston Astros in exchange for four players — third baseman Colin Moran, pitcher Joe Musgrove, relief pitcher Michael Feliz, and minor league outfielder Jason Martin.

Internally and externally, speculation abounded that the Pirates were blowing up the last remnants of the team that had brought playoff baseball back to Pittsburgh just a few years earlier.

Doom and gloom was projected for the Pirates in 2018 and for many years to come, but the organization insisted that the trades of McCutchen and Cole were financially expedient moves that were the product of a retooling, rather than rebuilding, process.

General manager Neal Huntington and team ownership seemed to reinforce that fact at the July non-waiver trading deadline, with the blockbuster acquisition of veteran right-handed pitcher Chris Archer, a two-time American League all-star, from the Tampa Rays. The price for Archer, one of the most coveted chips in this year’s trade market, was high — the Pirates parted with prized outfield prospect Austin Meadows, who had some shining moments in a cameo rookie appearance with the Bucs this season, and one-time highly-touted pitching prospect Tyler Glasnow, who never developed into the starting ace that the Pirates envisioned that he could be. The Pirates also traded their top draft pick of 2017, pitcher Shane Baz, to Tampa in the deal.

But the acquisition of Archer — as well as the pick-up of talented reliever Keone Kela the same day from the Texas Rangers — helped the Pirates send notice to their fans that the club was planning on contending sooner rather than later.

The Pirates started off 2018 as one of Major League Baseball’s big surprises, perched in first place in the NL Central by one-half game with a 26-17 record at the conclusion of play on May 17.

A downturn followed, as the Pirates went just 14-31 in their next 45 games to fall to fourth place in the division, 12¢ games off the pace, with a 40-48 record on July 8.

An 11-game winning streak from July 11-24 moved the Pirates to 53-49 and back into the thick of both the division and wild-card playoff hunts, before they staggered through a 10-17 month of August that took them back out of contention, 13¢ games out of the division lead and 9¢ out of the wild-card chase.

The Pirates’ September games had little bearing on what had become their dim playoff chances, but the Bucs did close out the year strong, playing the spoiler’s role quite effectively in games against both the Cubs and Brewers.

Optimism abounds for next season, based primarily on the Pirates’ promising pitching outlook. After a slow start with the Pirates, Archer became more like his American League All-Star self late in the season, posting wins in three quality starts — six innings pitched, three runs or less –in September.

Even more impressive was the progress and development experienced by young right-handers Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams.

Taillon wound up with a 14-10 record and an earned run average of 3.20 in 32 starts, and his consistency was awe-inspiring. Taillon, who went 5-1 in his last eight starts, put together a string of 22 straight games from May 26 through Sept. 29 in which he allowed three earned runs or fewer. It was the best such streak by a Pirates pitcher since Bob Friend racked up a 23-game streak in 1963.

Williams was just as reliable as Taillon, if not more so. Williams had a hand in nine of the Pirates’ 16 shutout victories this season, compiling a 14-10 record and 3.11 earned run average in 31 starts. In 12 starts after the all-star break, Williams was 7-3 with a microscopic ERA of 1.38.

Archer, Williams and Taillon, it would appear, give the Pirates, going into the 2019 season, three starting pitchers who can match up against any other top-of-the-rotation trio in Major League Baseball.

They will be complemented by Musgrove (6-9, 4.06 ERA in 19 starts) and veteran Ivan Nova (9-9, 4.19 in 29 starts). Highly-touted right-handed prospect Mitch Keller, who spent most of this season at Class AAA Indianapolis, will probably reach the major leagues next summer as well.

The bullpen, led by left-handed closer Felipe Vazquez — who changed his surname from Rivero prior to the start of this season — is also stout, solid and stable. Vazquez, who converted 37 of 42 save opportunities and carded a 2.70 earned run average in 70 appearances this season, was selected to the National League All-Star team.

Bridging the way from the starters to Vazquez were four relievers who proved effective in the late innings this season — right-handers Crick (2.39 ERA in 64 appearances), Edgar Santana (3.26 in 69), Richard Rodriquez (2.47 in 63), and Kela, a former elite closer with the Rangers, (2.93 in 16).

Santana, however, will miss the entire 2019 season after recently undergoing Tommy John surgery.

As promising as the pitching looks for next season, the Pirates’ batting order poses its share of question marks, though, as the Bucs were shut out a National League-worst 17 times this season and hit only 157 home runs, which ranked them third-worst in the NL.

That cost hitting coach Jeff Branson and assistant hitting coach Jeff Livesey their jobs, as both were dismissed by the club on Monday.

Right fielder Gregory Polanco enjoyed a bounce-back season in 2018, leading the Pirates in home runs (23) and RBIs (81) in 130 games, but suffered an injury to his left shoulder while sliding into a base that ended his season Sept. 7. The injury required surgery, and it could be until next June before Polanco is finally cleared to return.

That takes a potent bat out of a lineup which struggled to score runs over long stretches this season, lending credence to the idea that the Pirates could be active in the offseason attempting to acquire a power hitter to fill the void left by Polanco’s absence.

Infielder Jung Ho Kang — who hit 21 home runs for the Pirates two years ago, and finally returned to the organization this season after experiencing work visa problems following a 2016 DUI arrest in his native South Korea — could be part of the Pirates’ 2019 plans. Kang played most of this year at Indianapolis, was recalled to the Pirates for the team’s final three games of the season, and has an affordable $5.5 million contract option for next season.

Two big contributors in the Pirates’ playoff years, second baseman Josh Harrison and shortstop Jordy Mercer, aren’t likely to be re-signed by the club, with Mercer due to become a free agent and the Bucs unlikely to pick up Harrison’s $10.5-million contract option.

Adam Frazier, who rebounded from a midseason demotion to Class AAA Indianapolis, batted .306 after the all-star break, got most of the playing time at second base in September, and is expected to retain that position in 2019.

The Pirates got a long look at young prospects Kevin Newman and Kevin Kramer at shortstop this year, but they could also be exploring the trade market this offseason for a veteran replacement there for Mercer.

Left fielder Corey Dickerson, acquired in a late trade last offseason with Tampa Bay, did an admirable job this year, batting .300 in 135 games with 13 homers and 55 RBIs.

Moran was respectable in his rookie year at third base, belting 11 home runs, knocking in 58 runs, and batting .277.

Center fielder Starling Marte was second on the team in home runs (20) and RBIs (72) while batting .277 and stealing 33 bases. Marte became just the third player in Pirates’ history — joining Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke — to hit as many as 20 home runs and steal as many as 30 bases in the same season.

First baseman Josh Bell experienced a sophomore slump this year after an outstanding rookie season in 2017 in which he hit 26 home runs and knocked in 90 runs. Bell hit just 12 homers and drove in 62 runs this season.

The future of Francisco Cervelli (12 home runs, 57 RBIs) as a full-time catcher appears to be in jeopardy after he experienced further issues with concussions this season.

But, question marks elsewhere aside, pitching stirs the pot. It always has, and it always will. And, because of their pitching, after three straight non-playoff seasons, the Pirates could very well be back in contention in the National League in 2019.

John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com