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Pirates lookahead: Four ingredients needed to be a contender in 2018

Rob Biertempfel
| Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017, 7:03 p.m.
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers during the sixth inning against the Cardinals Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole delivers during the sixth inning against the Cardinals Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, at PNC Park.
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte hits a two-run homer during the third inning against the Dodgers Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates left fielder Starling Marte hits a two-run homer during the third inning against the Dodgers Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017, at PNC Park.

The Pirates' brain trust is gathered this week in Bradenton, Fla., to assess what transpired this season and make plans for 2018 and beyond. There is much to discuss.

Front-burner topics include whether to trigger Andrew McCutchen's $14.75 million option (it seems most likely they will) and which coaches will be back next year (general manager Neal Huntington expects all of them to return).

Manager Clint Hurdle will inspect the players in Instructional League, including oft-injured outfielder Austin Meadows. Huntington and his lieutenants will continue to map out their approach to the free agency and trade markets, which usually peak in early December during the winter meetings.

After a three-year stretch as a National League wild-card qualifier, the Pirates have posted back-to-back losing seasons.

Here are four ingredients the club will need next season to make a more rapid to return to relevance:

Impact rotation

Pirates starting pitchers produced 48 victories, which ranked ninth in the NL. They were seventh with a 4.47 ERA, sixth in innings pitched, eighth with a 1.39 WHIP, 11th with a .272 batting average against and seventh with a .781 OPS against.

Those are ho-hum numbers, considering all the time, effort and draft dollars this club has invested in pitching. Yet Hurdle sees this season through a different lens.

"I don't know how realistic you're being if you think we could actually have gotten better results from the group," Hurdle said. "This is the one area (where) I think we absolutely maximized growth (by) investing in young men and giving them opportunities to develop, command pitches, pitch meaningful innings, take some lumps, have some successes. Across the board, as good as we could've hoped for, in my mind."

The bulk of Hurdle's praise belongs to Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Chad Kuhl. A bout with testicular cancer forced Taillon to endure extreme mental and physical challenges. Williams was arguably the team's most reliable starter over the final month of the season. Kuhl figured out what he can be as a pitcher and unleashed an extra 3 or 4 mph on his fastball.

Gerrit Cole was the de facto ace of the staff. He continued his four-year trend of alternating healthy and injury-filled seasons and led the NL with 33 starts. The righty also served up 31 home runs, one shy of the franchise single-season record.

Ivan Nova showed he's a grinder, but he also became dramatically less effective deeper into the season.

If 2017 was about seeing growth from the rotation, 2018 must be about getting better results.

Tyler Glasnow has flopped in the majors in back-to-back seasons. Management still believes Glasnow can be part of the rotation. It's time for the right-hander to prove it. If he can't, another course must be charted for his career.

Cole is under team control though 2019. There will be trade buzz about him this winter, and management certainly will listen. With Steven Brault, Nick Kingham and Mitch Keller pushing up from the minors, the Pirates need to sort out their top five.

Good health

The Pirates had 13 players make a total of 18 appearances on the disabled list. It was the fifth-lowest number of DL stints in the majors, although some key players sat out long stretches.

Gregory Polanco's three DL stints because of a gimpy hamstring cost him 47 days. Josh Harrison (broken left hand) ended the season on the 60-day DL. The king of the trainer's room was Francisco Cervelli, who was out 68 days with a concussion and injuries to his left wrist and left quadriceps.

The only starting pitcher to go on the DL was Taillon, who was away for 39 days while recovering from surgery for testicular cancer.

Did the Pirates tempt fate by using just seven starting pitchers all season? Perhaps. Or maybe, after a rash of elbow blowouts in recent years, things are evening out for the club.

"It speaks to (the pitchers') toughness, their routine, and what we've done with the development system, strength and all the coaching that goes with that," Hurdle said. "The training and the recovery, it's real."

Thunder from the corners

Ideally, the four corner positions — first and third base, left and right field — should power the offense. That didn't happen this year.

Pirates first basemen ranked 14th in the NL with a collective .773 OPS. Their third basemen ranked 11th at .718. Left fielders were 12th with a .716 OPS and their right fielders were 13th at .754.

"Clearly, we didn't do enough good things offensively this year," Huntington said.

Jung Ho Kang sat out the season in South Korea. Starling Marte served an 80-game suspension. Polanco spent weeks in the trainer's room. Huntington said those absences cost the Pirates 40 to 55 home runs.

"That stings," Huntington said. "Ideally, those guys come back, and they're as productive as we anticipated them being. But we also need growth from other spots, and we need some guys to continue to move forward, and/or we have to find some options that make us better."

After years of having a revolving door at first base, Josh Bell appears to offer a long-term solution. As a rookie this year, he batted .255 with 26 home runs — a good start, but more is needed. Among players with at least 400 at-bats as first basemen, Bell ranked 11th in the NL with a .795 OPS.

"We're looking forward to the combination of the really good hitter who has power coming out as he continues to develop offensively," Huntington said.

Deeper pockets

According to data compiled by the Associated Press, the Pirates' 2017 opening day payroll was $91.49 million, the fifth lowest in the majors. By spending 7.4 percent less than they did in 2016, the Pirates had the fourth-largest salary shrinkage in the baseball.

Even when extraordinary events transpired, the club did not budge from its bottom-line approach. That helps explain how the Pirates wound up with just one bona fide big league outfielder on their roster for portions of the season and why, in an era when bullpens are more valuable than ever, their relief corps included Jhan Marinez, Joaquin Benoit, Jack Leathersich, Dan Runzler, Josh Lindblom and Johnny Barbato.

Huntington is the longest-tenured active GM in the league. He deserves credit for rebuilding the farm system and bringing order out of the chaos at the big league level that he inherited a decade ago.

Huntington's formula is to spend up to his budgeted amount before the start of spring training. If financial flexibility is needed during the season, it often is created via roster moves — for example, the Francisco Liriano trade in 2016 and Juan Nicasio being waived in 2017.

Imagine what Huntington could have done this year with a payroll of, say, $130 million, which would have ranked merely 16th in the majors.

When asked about next year's payroll, Huntington tried to temper expectations.

"We're working through all of those projections and where we anticipate everything going, so it's tough to say what our payroll is going to be," Huntington said. "We don't like to say what it's going to be because that allows people to pigeon-hole us, in terms of moves they think we have to make or they think we can't make. So. we'll continue to play that one close to the vest."

In other words, there will be more of the same.

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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