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5 reasons for optimism from Pirates' 2018 season

Jerry DiPaola
| Monday, Oct. 1, 2018, 8:06 p.m.
Pirates second baseman Adam Frazier scores past Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart during the third inning Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, at PNC Park.
Pirates second baseman Adam Frazier scores past Reds catcher Tucker Barnhart during the third inning Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018, at PNC Park.
Pirates pitcher Trevor Williams delivers during the first inning against the Reds Monday, Sept. 3, 2018, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Trevor Williams delivers during the first inning against the Reds Monday, Sept. 3, 2018, at PNC Park.

With the Pirates recording their final out Sunday, the Trib looks back at the season in a four-part series.

Nothing or no one screamed louder and more harshly than Pittsburgh Pirates fans lamenting the missteps — or no steps — taken by ownership this year.

Yes, it’s another season without a playoff berth. That makes 23 of them after 1992, and there you have the root of the fans’ discontent. But they finished 82-79, only the fourth winning season in 27 years.

Believe it or not, there were some things that paint a brighter picture for the future than you might think. Here are five:

1. The starting rotation

No one throws complete games anymore, but for the second half of the season, manager Clint Hurdle knew he could get at least six good innings out of Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams, who finished with identical WHIPs (1.178). That means they’re keeping runners off bases.

Taillon is such a regular, unpretentious guy, maybe you forget he was drafted second overall in 2010, one step below Bryce Harper and one before Manny Machado. He can be a star of that magnitude.

He ended the season with a streak of 22 consecutive starts allowing three or fewer earned runs, with 179 strikeouts in a career-high 191 innings. And he took the ball Saturday in a meaningless game when he easily could have taken the day off.

Williams started 31 games and did not allow a run in 11, including four of five in July and August. He doesn’t have a great arsenal of pitches, but he gets the most of his athleticism and Hurdle has mentioned his unshakeable focus many times.

One interesting note: Taillon and Williams each won 14 games. Gerrit Cole won 15 with a much better team.

The other three starters — Joe Musgrove, Chris Archer and Ivan Nova — had ups and downs, such as all pitchers experience. But if they remain healthy — and the Pirates don’t mind Nova’s $9.1 million salary — they can be part of one of baseball’s more formidable starting rotations.

2. Bounce backs

The Pirates followed a 14-31 stretch by winning 16 of 20 games. They were 10-17 in August — when it most mattered — and 16-10 in September.

There were too many games last month against the Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals — the Pirates were 10-1 against three of the worst teams in baseball — for anyone to read too much into a September record. But at least Hurdle didn’t lose the clubhouse after the team fell out of the playoff chase.

3. Willingness to trade

Whether they were shamed into it by the 11-game winning streak in July or they truly believed there was a chance to make the playoffs, management stepped up and made trades that could help in the future.

Archer initially struggled after arriving from the Tampa Bay Rays. But if we celebrate Taillon for his 22-game starting streak, we must at least recognize Archer doing the same (three earned runs or less) in seven of his 10 as a Pirate. His last start, when he held the Chicago Cubs to no runs and four hits and struck out nine in six innings, offers hope that he can contribute next season.

The Pirates shut down trade acquisition Keone Kela after Sept. 3, indicating they consider him a valuable piece next season. In 15 innings with the Pirates, he compiled a .978 WHIP with 22 strikeouts. He can be a setup man or closer out of the bullpen.

4. The bullpen shows promise

Kela is part of a group of four relievers who compiled ERAs under 2.94: Kyle Crick (2.39), Richard Rodriguez (2.47), Felipe Vazquez (2.70) and Kela (2.93 as a Pirate). Edgar Santana was at 2.71 before four consecutive Milwaukee Brewers batters lit him up Sept. 21 for a single, double, walk and home run. After that, forearm pain ended his season.

Even Michael Feliz struck out six of the last 12 batters he faced after his forgettable Sunday against the Brewers (eight batters, three walks, one hit batter, one wild pitch).

5. The resurgence of Adam Frazier

When he returned from Triple-A Indianapolis on July 25, Frazier got 180 at-bats through the end of the season and hit .298 with seven home runs and 27 RBIs.

He always had been known for his bat over his glove, but he committed only five errors in 198 chances at second base this season. Not bad, not great, considering Josh Harrison had only six in 341.

But the Pirates can live with Frazier’s glove if he takes that two-month sample size and projects it over a full season.

And there’s this: Harrison is owed $10.5 million next season, compared to Frazier $571,000.

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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