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Pirates look to address deficiencies, close gap on Cubs in 2017

| Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, 9:48 p.m.
Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova takes the field for the final home game of the 2016 season against the Cubs Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Ivan Nova takes the field for the final home game of the 2016 season against the Cubs Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, at PNC Park.

The Pirates front office staff and coaches gathered in Bradenton, Fla., last week for their annual post-season meetings. There they evaluated the previous season and began setting a course for the coming offseason.

The clear goal is to close the gap on the Cubs in the National League Central. The team must find and improve pitching and overall run prevention to cut into the 25-game difference between the two teams this year.

Identifying the issue is one thing. Fixing it is an entirely different challenge.

In 2016, the Pirates allowed exactly one more run per game than they did a season ago (758 runs to 596). That dramatic decline explains much of the team's 20-win decline from 2015.

The Pirates expect the free agent market for starting pitching will become more expensive, complicating their ability to add a quality veteran to a staff trending younger and more homegrown.

The Pirates drifted from their ground ball focus last season, and the ground ball has become a more difficult edge to maintain.

The Pirates also must address a declining collective defensive effort behind their pitchers.

Said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington of a key question to answer: “How do we apply those lessons of last offseason, and two offseasons ago, to this offseason?”

Risk tolerance

One lesson from last offseason? It is becoming more difficult to find external pitching help.

Last offseason Huntington lamented the starting pitching market “blew up.” The average starting pitcher signed last offseason earned $10.02 million per year, compared to $8.07 in the 2014-15 offseason — a 21.6 percent increase.

“It will be worse this year,” said Huntington of a class of free agent arms expected to be historically thin.

While the Pirates are attempting to retain Ivan Nova, he will likely head to free agency as a top-five starting pitcher in the class.

Not only are proven veteran pitchers becoming more expensive, but the market for reclamation-type pitchers also is becoming more competitive. More teams are identifying the same players as undervalued thanks to growth of front office staff and available data.

“It's absolutely become more competitive, more challenging,” Huntington said. “When more teams evaluate the way you do the prices get driven up and resources become the advantage again.

“We continue to work to find ways to stay ahead of the curve.”

The Pirates were out-bid for the most intriguing reclamation pitching project last winter, Rich Hill, by $500,000 by the Oakland A's, according to Peter Gammons. The decision not to bid more aggressively on J.A. Happ was questioned often in Pittsburgh this summer.

Hill finished 12-5 and Happ went 20-4.

“Sitting here now it's easy to say we should have moved on J.A. Happ or Rich Hill. … We don't have the benefit of hindsight,” Huntington said.

If more teams are targeting the same players, does the Pirates front office need to change its level of risk tolerance? In the past, the Pirates have preferred to spread risk — and their modest budget — over multiple smaller, shorter-term contracts.

“Is that (risk tolerance) line moving? It has,” Huntington said. “Because every significant contract we sign is a risk. When you look at Francisco Liriano at $13 million, when he performed well it is an affordable contract. But it's the equivalent of $30-$40 million (per year) for the Dodgers. Percent of payroll is real. It's not an excuse. When a contract is 13 percent of your payroll versus 4 percent, the level of risk tolerance is so very different …. How far do you stretch? It is a case-by-case situation.”

Huntington said the club also will consider exploring a trade of position players to “strengthen” pitching.

Perhaps the most important lesson from last offseason?

“It is a reminder of how important it is for us to develop our own starting pitching,” Huntington said. “Fortunately we have a good number of options. Some will continue to progress. The real world shows us some will regress.”

While the Pirates must produce a more homegrown rotation to sustain success, from 2013-15 each Pirates rotation included at least two productive veteran starters.

New model up in the air?

Besides finding and signing undervalued arms, the Pirates' competitive edge on the ground also is being challenged.

The Pirates led baseball in ground-ball rate in each season from 2013-15, producing a record rate of 52.5 percent in 2013.

In 2016? The Pirates fell to third (46.9 percent).

And the rate dropped in a season when power spiked. After allowing 113 home runs per season from 2013-15, the fewest in the sport, the Pirates allowed 180 home runs in 2016, which ranked 10th.

At last December's winter meetings, Huntington said the Pirates could not be married to one model (i.e. ground-ball pitchers) in a pitching market that has grown scarcer and more expensive.

The Pirates went on to acquire fly-ball pitchers like Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio and Ryan Vogelsong with mixed results. Extreme ground-ball pitchers like Charlie Morton and A.J. Burnett departed.

Huntington said the club will continue to value the ground ball, but will look at all types of arms.

“We are a copy-cat industry,” Huntington said. “Ground ball pitchers have become more valued. We could be stubborn and stay the course and pay more than we ideally like. Or we can look in a different direction and find value in a different way. … It comes back to what may be successful for five years will probably not be for 10. There is a constant ebb and flow.”

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said the club must continue to teach and add the skill to pitchers in the system, noting Jameson Taillon successfully added the two-seamer in 2016 (52.4 percent ground ball rate).

“(The ground ball) is something that we're going to keep as one of our cornerstones,” Hurdle said. “We've had a recipe for success and we want to follow it.”

Glove gap

Pitching and defense are closely connected, and the Pirates' defense has declined.

The Pirates are evaluating the shallower outfield alignment plan they implemented last spring.

Consider in 2013 the Pirates ranked third in baseball, and first in the NL, with 60 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). That number has declined each year, falling to 12 DRS in 2015 and -17 DRS in 2016. That is the equivalent of a seven-win decline since 2013, and a three-win decline from 2015 to 2016.

The Cubs led baseball with 82 DRS, or, roughly a 10-win edge defensively over the Pirates.

Huntington said center fielder Andrew McCutchen's MLB-worst -27 DRS mark “catches your attention.” But Huntington and Hurdle also said McCutchen was hurt at times by playing shallower while the staff was less able to execute.

“As this staff played out it didn't match up to the same analytics off the mound (from 2015) that we were looking to (regarding) the defense,” Hurdle said. “We have some thoughts moving forward on how to adjust.”

Travis Sawchik is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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