Firing, arrest cap woeful year
The 2019 season was an unmitigated disaster for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and ultimately, manager Clint Hurdle’s firing Sunday was a change that needed to be made.
On and off the field, the Pirates endured more calamity in a six-month stretch than many teams do in a decade.
This season ended with the Pirates firmly in last place in the National League Central Division, and their two-time all-star closer, Felipe Vazquez, behind bars after being arrested September 17 on multiple felony child sex charges filed in Pennsylvania and Florida involving a girl who was only 13 years old when the alleged incidents began in 2017.
The Pirates’ meltdown on the field in the second half of the season, coupled with the fact that three separate in-house incidents between players and or/coaches took place since July, indicated a corrosive atmosphere in the clubhouse and screamed for movement at the top.
Hurdle was relieved of his duties after nine seasons as the Pirates manager, but many others in the Pirates’ organization are also to blame for the team’s failings.
Among them is Neal Huntington — who the Pirates have announced will stay put as the team’s general manager.
Huntington admitted as much after Hurdle’s firing, saying that “We’re all in this.”
However, Hurdle, 62, was on the front lines with the players, and his head was the first to roll. Hurdle helped reconnect the Pirates with their fan base after being hired in 2011 following the Pirates’ major American sports-league record 20 consecutive losing seasons, but all the drama and turmoil of the second half of this season was too much to look past.
This, in spite of the fact that Hurdle, like Huntington, has two years remaining on a contract extension that the Pirates tendered in 2017.
Hurdle led the Bucs to three consecutive playoff appearances as a National League Wild-Card team from 2013-15, and had a winning 735-720-1 record in nine seasons, but the team averaged only 76 wins over the past four seasons.
As Hurdle — who declined the Pirates’ offer to manage their final game Sunday — was known to say, it’s important to connect all the dots.
The Pirates collapsed after the All-Star break, winning just four of their first 28 games and 25 of 73 games overall to finish at 69-93 and in the NL Central basement, 22 games behind the division champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Just over a week prior to Vazquez’s arrest, the pitcher had been involved in a clubhouse fight with reliever Kyle Crick that resulted in Crick suffering a season-ending injury to the tendon on his right (pitching) index finger that required surgery.
In July, Crick and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas were involved in a physical altercation that resulted in a two-game suspension for Rojas. Coincidentally or not, the Pirates’ pitching staff that began this season with such high expectations laid a collective egg, finishing second-to-worst in the NL in team earned run average (5.18), better only than the Colorado Rockies’ (5.58).
Also in July, reliever Keone Kela drew a two-game suspension from the Pirates for his role in a verbal altercation with Hector Morales, who is employed by the Pirates as a peak performance coach and director of cultural readiness. According to published reports, Kela verbally berated Hurdle after the manager had intervened.
Hurdle maintained in published reports as recently as last Wednesday that the Pirates had assured him that he would return as manager in 2020, but this team’s present culture demanded a change.
The Pirates clearly faced more collective internal trouble this year than in any season since the infamous drug scandal surrounding the 1985 team. That woeful squad produced a wretched 57-win season that ushered out the late Chuck Tanner as manager and brought about the arrival of Jim Leyland in 1986.
That 1985 team totally lacked desire and heart. This year’s team generally played hard, but was fundamentally unsound on numerous occasions, was beset by injuries, and its pitchers generally let it down terribly.
Injuries are not excuses, but the Pirates placed 22 players on the injured list by Memorial Day, and used 12 different starting pitchers through June 15.
Among the most grievous of the injuries was sustained by ace right-handed pitcher Jameson Taillon, who was put on the injured list with a right (pitching) elbow flexor strain in early May and wound up missing the rest of this season.
To add insult to injury, doctors determined when opening up Taillon’s elbow in August that he would need Tommy John elbow surgery — the second of his career — and will likely be forced to sit out the entire 2020 season.
It was the latest in a series of devastating personal health setbacks for Taillon, a cancer survivor who had carded a 14-10 record and 3.20 earned run average during a healthy 2018 season in which he put together a string of 22 straight games in which he allowed three runs or fewer.
Right fielder Gregory Polanco, who hit 23 home runs and drove in 81 runs in 2018 before a September left shoulder injury ended his season, suffered from inflammation in that shoulder and appeared in only 42 games this year, hitting just six homers and driving in 17 runs. Polanco’s once-powerful throwing arm was noticeably affected by the injury, which required surgery and a nearly eight-month period of rehabilitation.
The Pirates finally parted ways with catcher Francisco Cervelli, a former team anchor who suffered his sixth career concussion in late May and didn’t return to major league action until August, when he was traded to the Atlanta Braves.
The renovation plans for infielder Jung Ho Kang also ended poorly, as he was designated for assignment in early August after batting just .169, albeit with 10 home runs, in 59 games.
Another casualty was right-handed pitcher Chris Archer, who was shut down in mid-August with right shoulder inflammation. One of the most coveted players on the Major League Baseball trade market in July 2018 when the Pirates acquired him for three of their most highly-touted prospects — outfielder Austin Meadows and pitchers Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz — Archer continued to make that deal, and Huntington, look bad for the Pirates in 2019, when he struggled to a 3-9 record and 5.19 earned run average in 23 starts.
Right-hander Trevor Williams was one of MLB’s most effective pitchers in the second half of last season, when he won 14 games and carded a .311 in 31 starts. He took a step back this season, however, finishing with a 7-9 record and 5.39 ERA in 26 starts.
Right-hander Joe Musgrove (11-12, 4.44 ERA in 31 starts), acquired from the Houston Astros in the Gerrit Cole trade in January 2018, was up and down this season, and lefty Steven Brault (4-6, 5.16 ERA in 19 starts) won back a rotation spot in the middle of the season after righty Jordan Lyles was traded back to the Milwaukee Brewers in July.
Prize right-handed pitching prospect Mitch Keller was called up to the Pirates from Class AAA Indianapolis and got his feet wet at the big-league level, logging a 1-5 record in 11 starts, while another young righty, Dario Agrazal, was 4-5 in 14 starts during his debut season. Right-hander James Marvel, who, like Agrazal, began this season with the Altoona Curve, got a cameo appearance with the Pirates in September, carding an 0-3 record in four starts.
With the exception of Vazquez — who converted 28 of 31 save opportunities, had a 1.65 ERA in 56 appearances, made the all-star team, and was a sought-after player at this year’s trade deadline — the bullpen generally greatly underperformed.
The Pirates may be counting on Kela — who missed a sizeable chunk of this season with shoulder inflammation — to take over the closer’s role in 2020, but they should also be looking for help in both the bullpen and starting rotation this offseason.
The addition of a front-line catcher could also be a possibility, despite the fact that Jacob Stallings and Elias Diaz were adequate in sharing that role this season.
Among the few roses in this year’s bed of thorns for the Pirates was the play of two rookies, outfielder Bryan Reynolds and shortstop Kevin Newman, who both capitalized on opportunities that were presented when other players were sidelined with injuries.
Both finished among the NL’s batting leaders. Reynolds put up a decent challenge for the NL batting title, hitting .314 with 16 home runs, 68 RBIs and 37 doubles, while Newman hit .308 with 12 homers and 64 RBIs. Newman put together a 19-game hitting streak in June that was the best by a Pirates rookie since 1900. Reynolds and Newman became the first two rookies to hit over .300 for the Pirates in the same season since Manny Sanguillen and Richie Hebner accomplished the feat back in 1969.
First baseman Josh Bell made the all-star team with a dynamic first half in which he belted 27 home runs and drove in 84 runs. He came back to earth in the second half, but still finished the season with 37 homers, 116 RBIs, a .277 batting average, and 37 doubles.
A groin injury that ended his season Sept. 13 prevented Bell from reaching the 40-homer mark and either tying or surpassing the late Hall of Famer Willie Stargell’s 119 RBIs in 1973 — the most by a Pirate in a single season since that year.
Center fielder Starling Marte (.295 average, career-high 23 home runs, and 82 RBIs) and third baseman Colin Moran (.277 average, 13 homers, 80 RBIs) both had solid offensive seasons.
But any kind of promising outlook for the Pirates in 2020 seems to be pretty far-fetched at the very least.
Not at this point, when the reeling Bucs are facing a very uncertain future and every club in the Central Division is currently better.
John Hartsock can be reached at email@example.com.