Pirates avoiding talk of ‘rebuilding’
PITTSBURGH — Neal Huntington has a problem with the word “rebuild.” To the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager, the connotation hints at raising a white flag on the present.
“Rebuild implies you’re looking five years down the road,” Huntington said.
Which, Huntington insists, his team is not doing. Even after a three-day span in January in which the Pirates sent pitcher Gerrit Cole to Houston and franchise cornerstone Andrew McCutchen to San Francisco for younger, less proven and less expensive players. Even after an offseason in which Pittsburgh spent nothing on the open market in an effort to close the gap on NL Central rivals St. Louis and Chicago (and Milwaukee for that matter).
“We have a lot of young talented players that are going to be entertaining,” Huntington said. “We scratch our heads at times but they’re going to be entertaining.”
Will they be competitive in one of baseball’s most challenging divisions is another matter. Manager Clint Hurdle begins his eighth season very much like he did his first in 2011: heading to spring training trying to get a feel for what he has on his hands and how big the gap is between his club and the likes of St. Louis, Chicago and Milwaukee.
When Hurdle signed a contract extension last September, he talked about his ease with the model the Pirates feel they need to follow while playing in one of the smallest markets in the league. He’ll have to embrace it over the next seven weeks as he tries to figure out which 25 players will head north with the big club at the end of March.
Some things to look for as Pittsburgh begins its search for a fresh identity after the departure of the most popular — and vital — player since Willie Stargell retired 36 years ago.
NEW LOOK: Outfield for one. Starling Marte will work in center, with Gregory Polanco in one of the corner outfield spots. The other starting job is wide open, with Sean Rodriguez, Jordan Luplow, Adam Frazier and prospect Austin Meadows in the mix. It’s likely Pittsburgh uses some sort of platoon system early in the season while looking for someone to grab hold of the position.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: Meadows has long been considered the heir apparent to McCutchen but his sprint to the majors has been slowed by injuries. A hamstring issue limited him to just 72 games at Triple-A Indianapolis. Colin Moran, who came over from Houston in the Cole trade, will be given an opportunity to split playing time at third with veteran David Freese. Nick Kingham will get a chance to see if he’s ready to challenge for a spot at the back end of the rotation.
THEY’RE SET: The majority of the infield is set. Josh Bell’s standout rookie season at first base in 2017 was overshadowed a bit by Pittsburgh’s slip to fourth place in the NL Central, but he figures to be the cog the team sets the lineup around heading into the next decade. Josh Harrison remains (for now) at second base with Jordy Mercer at shortstop and Francisco Cervelli behind the plate.
THEY’RE NOT: The back end of the rotation is crowded behind Ivan Nova, Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl. Will Tyler Glasnow figure out his control issues? (He’ll likely start out in the bullpen). Did Trevor Williams show enough in 25 starts to assure himself of a job coming out of camp? (Probably). Is Kingham ready? (Probably not.). The bullpen in front of closer Felipe Rivero is jumbled at best.
ON DECK: While only one starting position is truly open, the bench and a healthy chunk of the pitching staff may need to wear “Hi, my name is” tags. If Pittsburgh actually is as close to contending as Huntington believes, a lot of things have to go right, including getting out of Florida with a sense of identity and optimism.