The Pittsburgh Pirates are going through an offseason with more questions than a 98-win team should have to answer.
The Pittsburgh Pirates entered the 2015 offseason as winners of 98 games the previous season, knowing there would be some tough decisions that would have to be made in the offseason, some unpopular and some unexpected by their fan base. The writing was on the wall that Pedro Alvarez and/or Neil Walker could be moved this offseason, and they were with Alvarez being non-tendered and Walker being shipped to the Mets for Jon Niese. Then, just a few hours before he was scheduled to start signing autographs for fans at PirateFest, Charlie Morton was informed that he was traded to the Phillies for a low-level arm that did not rank highly among Philadelphia’s minor leaguers.
This is shaping up to be the most curious winter under Neal Huntington, and fans have a right to be critical if no other major moves are made before the squad reports to Bradenton in February. When a team wins 98 games, there is some luck involved. But at the end of the day, the Pirates of 2015 were a very good ball club, putting together one of the best regular season records in the history of the franchise. I am a huge fan of the Pirates, just like everyone else who writes for or reads this website (at least I hope you all are fans!). But one thing I am not is an apologist for this team and for the people that make decisions that affect what happens on the field. They deserve to be questioned when questionable moves are made, and I am here to say that it’s OK to be critical of the Pirates and still be a fan of the team at the end of the day.
No matter how you break it down, the Pirates have an extremely talented group of players under control for the next few years. Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, and Jung Ho Kang are a talented bunch that could help bring a championship back to Pittsburgh. But these guys can’t get the job done on their own; they need a supporting cast to help them out. Certainly Gregory Polanco, Francisco Cervelli, and Josh Harrison are all very good ballplayers and contribute on a daily basis, but there are still a number of holes outside of them that need to be filled before the season starts.
As Jose mentioned in his article that it’s too early to push the panic button, I would argue that we are getting close to the time when it IS appropriate to start worrying. As I see it, the team has two major holes that need to be filled if they want to compete in the very tough NL Central: first base and the backend of the starting rotation.
Huntington kind of addressed first base when he traded Keon Broxton and Trey Supak to the Brewers for Jason Rogers. Rogers is a right-handed hitter who plays the corner infield spots and has worked in the outfield. In his limited exposure to major league pitching, Rogers has shown some power. But the issue here is that he is right-handed; the Pirates need to find a left-handed first baseman to either start or platoon with Michael Morse and/or Rogers. Rogers does bring position versatility to the team, something that management holds in high regard. Here is hoping that Huntington makes some calls and can bring in a left-handed first baseman, because barring a Ruthian barrage in spring training, Josh Bell will not start the season with the big club.
The idea for this piece came together after the Morton trade and the head-scratching signing of Ryan Vogelsong. At PirateFest, Huntington said (to paraphrase) that the Morton deal was done to shed salary so that corresponding moves could be made to strengthen the team going forward. With so much information available at our fingertips, it was easy to find that Morton’s contract for 2016 was going to cost Pittsburgh $8 million. That money is now off the books. Less than a week later it was announced that Vogelsong was signed to a one-year deal, presumably to fill out the backend of the rotation with Jeff Locke. Go ahead and take a look at Vogelsong’s numbers from last season. I’ll wait. Did you see that? Are you also wondering why he was given a $2 million contract with the chance to make millions more in incentives? With A.J. Burnett retiring, did Huntington panic because there were no 38-year-olds in the rotation?
With a bevy of decent starting pitching options on the market, it’s curious that they would bring Vogelsong back, especially considering that he only had a few years that could be filed under “good.” We know that the Pirates have some money to spend since they traded Morton and won’t have to go through arbitration with Walker or Alvarez, so it’s fair to wonder what the plan is for the team. We were all sure that one of these moves would set up a corresponding move, and that has yet to happen.
Maybe I am out of line and completely off-base, and I really hope that’s true. I’d like nothing more than to eat humble pie in October when Vogelsong is pitching the seventh game of the World Series and Rogers hits the game-winning home run. As I see it now, however, Huntington is assembling a team that at best may win 90 games and is spoiling a season in a shrinking window to be competitive with some of the best players this city has seen in years. I’ll still root for the Pirates with all my heart and enjoy the season no matter what, but I will not allow my fandom to get in the way of criticizing this team when they deserve it.
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