Winter Report Card: Pirates' directionless off-season earns poor marks

Friday January 27th, 2017

Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Pittsburgh Pirates.

2016 Results

78–83 (.481), third place in the National League Central

Key Departures

RHP Neftali Feliz, OF Matt Joyce, LHP Jeff Locke, IF Sean Rodriguez, RHP Ryan Vogelsong

Key Arrivals

RHP Daniel Hudson

Off-season In Review

Pirates fans spent much of the off-season reading reports that their team would trade away erstwhile perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen or trade for White Sox lefty and ace-in-the-making Jose Quintana. Which move general manager Neal Huntington made would reveal what he saw in his team. Was it time to tear it down and rebuild, hoping to stagger the Pirates’ cycle of contention from that of the world champion Cubs? Or would he add a stud and make a run at the team's first title since 1979?

In the end, Pittsburgh did neither. The Bucs did very little, actually. They let all but one of their free agents leave town. They signed a reliever. They acquired minor league righthander Brady Dragmire from the Blue Jays for cash, waived him and let him go to the Rangers, claimed him right back when the Rangers waived him, and then waived him again … whereupon the Rangers picked him back up. This was perhaps the most exciting stretch of the Pirates’ off-season, and almost certainly of Dragmire’s career.

To be sure, re-signing Ivan Nova last month for $26 million over three years was a good move for a team that thinks it has a chance. Nova, once a budding Yankees prospect, never quite got his groove back after 2014 Tommy John surgery and was sitting on a 4.99 post-op ERA and 2.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio at the ’16 deadline when New York sent him to Pittsburgh for three minor leaguers to be named later. That’s where Pirates pitch doctor Ray Searage came in. The rest of the way, with refined command and an increased focus on the ground ball, Nova put together a 3.06 ERA and an absurd 17.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 64 2/3 innings. Nova called the extension of the relationship “an easy choice,” and evidently Huntington agreed.

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But that was essentially where the off-season ended. Rumors swirled about potential landing spots for McCutchen and trade chips for Quintana, but Pittsburgh couldn’t agree with anyone on a price. McCutchen, an All-Star every year since 2011, suddenly turned into one of baseball's worst regulars last season: The 30-year-old centerfielder hit just .256/.336/.430, all career lows, for a 103 OPS+, and thanks to his awful defense, he posted a miserable -0.7 WAR. Worse, no one can quite figure out what happened. The Pirates, though, refused to sell him for the price of the backup he played like, and their partners were afraid to pay for the stud he may no longer be. No one disagrees about Quintana’s value, meanwhile, but the young lefthander is owed only $38.75 million over the next four years, so the rebuilding White Sox are in no rush to make a move.

Pittsburgh also picked up Hudson in December for two years and $11 million to shore up the back of the bullpen. Another victim of Tommy John surgery, Hudson has struggled statistically (a 5.22 ERA in 60 1/3 innings last year for the Diamondbacks), but he has averaged 96 mph on his fastball since his return and posted a strikeout-per-nine rate of 8.7 last year. He has the tools to be a potentially valuable setup piece.

Nova, meanwhile, was the only notable free agent the Pirates brought back into the fold. Feliz reemerged as a viable reliever after two years in the wilderness, striking out 61 in 53 2/3 innings as a setup man for first Mark Melancon and then Watson. He stayed in division, joining the rebuilding Brewers as their new closer. Joyce also experienced a rebirth in 2016, putting up a .403 on-base percentage, 13 home runs, a 131 OPS+ and 1.6 WAR in a part-time role after nearly bombing out of the league with the Angels in '15. The veteran lefty took his trade back to the AL West, signing a two-year deal with the Athletics. Locke was a lost cause, getting tagged for a 5.44 ERA and 17 home runs in 127 1/3 innings spread between the rotation and bullpen. Designated for assignment in November, he reunited with former Pirates pitching guru Jim Benedict and ex-Bucs teammate Edinson Volquez in Miami. Rodriguez was a do-it-all bench bat and utility player last year, playing every position but catcher and pitcher and bopping 18 home runs. He'll likely fill that same role for the Braves. Vogelsong was hurt for most of last season and bad when healthy, managing a 4.81 ERA in just 82 1/3 innings. The veteran righthander had to settle for a minor league deal from the bottom-feeding Twins.

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Unfinished Business: The bullpen, a future direction

The bullpen could stand to be improved; closer Tony Watson, Hudson, young lefthander Felipe Rivero, veteran righty Juan Nicasio and well-traveled southpaw Antonio Bastardo won’t strike much fear into the heart of the Cubs’ lineup, for example. But the real problem here is the question of the team’s future. By eschewing a rebuild or a go-for-it-now move, Huntington has done nothing to clarify it.

Preliminary Grade: C-

This looks like a .500 team, which is the worst place to be in MLB nowadays, where at any moment a third of the league is lighting itself on fire in the hope of starting over; that’s not fun to watch, but it works. For Pittsburgh, this seems to have been an off-season of half-measures: sign a reclamation project and a reliever, but hang onto your best trade chip and also decline to part with prospects for an ace. We will have clarity eventually, though. If the Pirates are still a middling team at the deadline, it will be much harder to stand still.

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