Pirates wrapup: Absences of Starling Marte, Jung Ho Kang plus injuries play part in decline
In the wee hours of Dec. 1, 2016, with the first workout of spring training still 11 weeks away, Pirates third baseman Jung Ho Kang got into a car, hit the ignition and drove off into the night.
It was the start of a strange, sad trip that became the Pirates' 2017 season.
The season, which ended Sunday with an 11-8 win against the Washington Nationals, was marked more by what the Pirates lacked than by what they gained.
After his third drunk driving conviction, Kang was stranded in South Korea. Key players missed significant time because of suspension and injuries.
Tyler Glasnow was supposed to establish himself in the rotation; he spent nearly the whole summer in the minors. Jameson Taillon missed a month while recovering from surgery for testicular cancer.
The “dream outfield” of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco was in the starting lineup for just 26 games. Josh Harrison ended the season on the disabled list for the second year in a row.
In other areas, there was progress. Rookie Josh Bell slugged 26 home runs and continued to get comfortable at first base. Pitchers Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl blossomed. Felipe Rivero emerged as a dominant closer.
The end product was a 75-87 record that put the Pirates firmly in fourth place in the NL Central. It was their lowest win total since 2011, when they went 72-90.
“We have a lot to learn from this year and a lot to assess to be able to come back and be a better team,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said.
Expectations for a winning record and trip back to the postseason had a slow death over this past summer. Here's a look back at the season through the lens of the five stages of grief:
The Pirates began the season not knowing when or even if Kang would get a work visa that would let him rejoin the team. On April 18, just 13 games into the season, Marte was suspended 80 games for using steroids.
By the end of April, third baseman David Freese and utilityman Adam Frazier were on the disabled list. At that point, the Pirates were without two key regulars and their replacements.
Management responded by calling up a succession of players from Triple-A Indianapolis: reliever Dovydas Neverauskas, light-hitting infielder Gift Ngoepe and career minor leaguer Danny Ortiz.
Why not look for an external solution? General manager Neal Huntington said early-season trades, especially when a team has a dire need, are difficult to swing.
Difficult? Certainly, but not impossible. On May 17, Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman broke his wrist. Three days later, the Braves acquired Matt Adams from the St. Louis Cardinals to fill the position.
The Pirates never were more than one game over .500. They slipped below that level for good July 23 during a span of six losses in seven games.
The reality of a losing season was sealed by two rough stretches. The Pirates went 3-10 in mid-August and 1-12 over two weeks in September.
Yet even amid the rough patches, there was no rampant dissent in the clubhouse.
“I'm sure some guys vented on the side, but we never had any loud, angry or rah-rah moment,” Taillon said. “It was very professional. There's a lot of character in here. A lot of grit. A lot of determination. A lot of good dudes.”
On July 31, reliever Tony Watson was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a pair of low-level prospects. Although he struggled in the closer's role, Watson had value as a lefty specialist and setup man — a commodity coveted by the Dodgers, who ended the season with the best record in baseball.
At the end of August, setup man Juan Nicasio was released via irrevocable waivers. The Pirates got nothing in return, other than a $600,000 payroll savings.
Getting rid of two key veteran relievers was akin to hoisting a white flag. In his alibi for dumping Nicasio, Huntington said management had shifted its focus to playing younger players.
The Pirates drew fewer than 2 million fans to PNC Park for the first time since 2011. The total attendance of 1,919,447 was a 14.6 percent drop from the year before and a 23.2-percent decrease from the franchise record set in 2015. TV ratings also were sluggish.
In mid-August, a three-game weekend series against the St. Louis Cardinals drew a healthy average of 32,000 fans. However, it was followed by a four-game set against the Dodgers that averaged just 19,000.
Fan appreciation day was Sept. 24, a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon. Attendance was 28,550, about 74 percent of capacity. It was a decent number, considering the Steelers also played that day and the Pirates were eliminated from the playoff chase.
The Pirates, like all MLB teams, announce tickets sold as opposed to actual attendance for games.
After winning 98 games but losing in the wild-card game in 2015, the Pirates did not make any high-impact additions over the winter. That led to a 78-83 record in 2016.
After taking another step back this season, the core of the roster will be pretty much the same next year. Huntington indicated any imports this offseason will be complementary pieces, not major role-players.
“We certainly acknowledge that this was not the year we anticipated or expected,” Huntington said. “There is a good core in place. There is the good starting pitching. There are players who are still in their prime years. There are some players that are poised for bounce-backs. There's also some work to be done. We'll continue to be creative and aggressive to look for ways to help this organization get better.”