The Pittsburgh Pirates are home watching the playoffs like the rest of us. This franchise is just a few years removed from playing in the NL wild card game, but, after a few seasons of flirting with relevance only to fade late, the wheels finally came off in 2019. Those teams who broke Pittsburgh's historic streak of 20 straight losing seasons are gone for good. Now, a front office that has lost the trust of a city must build anew.
This off-season, perhaps more so than any other in recent memory, has a lot of uncertainty. There should be plenty of Pittsburgh Pirate news for you to sift through as Neal Huntington addresses the slew of important questions I highlight below.
What will the rotation look like on opening day?
The most incorrect answer to this question would be to say that it will be the same as it was to end 2019. No one should expect that rotation to produce anything that resembles winning baseball.
We should absolutely expect improvements, massive ones, from some combination of Mitch Keller, Dario Agrazal, and Joe Musgrove. There's no where else for them to go but up. Even Musgrove, who was the Pirates best starter this year, would need to show more to prove he is better than a number four guy.
Relying on giant steps forward from those three guys would feel like betting your bank account on the Cleveland Browns to win the Super Bowl - the potential is there, but deep down you just know it won't work out the way you need it to.
Jameson Taillon will yet again be making a comeback after season-ending surgery. He's been solid, but underwhelming, in Pittsburgh and it would be a pipe dream to think that 2020 will be his best season. He has loads of talent, but injuries have really slowed down his development.
We shouldn't forget about Chad Kuhl in this conversation. He should be back healthy next year and has the stuff to be the Pirates best pitcher. It just needs to happen. Will it? Will the Pirates even let him to pitch to his full ability? I'm skeptical.
There should be some starting pitchers available via free agency. You are right to be cynical as to whether the Pirates would pony up, but remember they had over $20 million on the payroll this year for players that are no longer Pirates (Cervelli, Dickerson, etc). Not putting that money back into the team would be very cheap, even for the Bob Nutting.
You could make the argument after watching the success of Cole, Glasnow, and Morton, that a starting pitcher would not be a great investment for a franchise that has a pattern of ruining star pitchers. Forcing elite-level pitchers to pitch-to-contact limits them greatly. Knowing that is the approach, is it wise to investment those precious dollars into a player(s) who may not be permitted to play to the best of their ability? Again, I'm skeptical.
How do they make room for Ke'Bryan Hayes and Will Craig?
Both Hayes and Craig have spent a full season in AAA and have played well. They both earned a gold glove for defensive excellence this season and both showed they can swing a bat. There's little else for them to prove at the minor league level.
With Will Craig turning 25 this November, any further delay in his promotion to Pittsburgh would be wasting him. Hayes is a little different. He turns 23 in January. Huntington could justify starting him in AAA next season until injury or trade opens up space for him in Pittsburgh.
Of all the questions on this list, this is the most crucial to the future of the Pirates because the four players that will be most impacted are all young and talented. Josh Bell is currently blocking Craig at first base and Colin Moran is blocking Hayes at third. Neal Huntington cannot afford another mishap on how he addresses that logjam.
Is the answer to the bullpen in the room?
We knew there would need to be upgrades to the bullpen months ago. The Pirates middle relievers were just as shaky, if not more so, than the rotation. The late inning guys, Kela and Vazquez, were the two best pitchers Pittsburgh had. Now, with Vazquez's legal troubles likely prohibiting him from ever playing baseball again, the entire bullpen needs addressed. Speaking of off-season questions, what happens to Felipe Vazquez is a storyline to watch this winter if you can stomach it.
I could see Kela taking over the closer role, but that weakens the eighth inning role and so on down.
I do think the bullpen is in better shape right now than the starting rotation. We've seen some promise in guys like Michael Feliz, Richard Rodriguez, and Kyle Crick. I think they are part of the solution.
If Nick Burdi comes back and reaches his potential, he's a piece of that puzzle as well. Like the rotation, there are a few guys who need to step up. Montana DuRapau is one of those guys. He struggled in only 17 innings in Pittsburgh, but was steady throughout a rather long minor league career. I'd expect better things from him next season.
With all that said, I wouldn't feel comfortable going into 2020 with what we have. It's reasonable to think that someone, perhaps Burdi, can step up and fill that late inning void, but the middle relievers will need some attention.
Who will be the next Pirates manager?
This one is so obvious I almost left it off. This is the most immediate question the Pirates organization has and it's a big one. Clint Hurdle may have lost his edge in the clubhouse, but he righted the ship when he was hired nine years ago and they will need the next manager to step in and do the same this year.
Jeff Banister appears to be the favorite to win the job, but there are other strong candidates in consideration as well.
It was recently reported that Oakland A's bench coach, Ryan Christenson, will be interviewed for the job. His colleague, Mark Kotsay, is also reportedly of interest.
Derek Shelton, the bench coach of the 101-win Minnesota Twins, drew an interview and is in consideration. Shelton has been drawing interest for some of the other managerial vacancies from around the league as well. So, if both the Pirates and another team offer Shelton, or any other candidate, a job, it is unlikely they would select the team with the second lowest payroll in baseball. That's an unfortunate headwind the Pirate front office will be dealing with during this search, but it's one they created.
Jason Kendall raised some eyebrows when he made it known that he would like to be the next Pirates skipper. That has seemed to fizzle out as there haven't been any further developments there.
My gut says they go with Jeff Banister, but I am less certain of that than I was a week ago. The Pirates are doing more due diligence with other candidates than a team that has already found their guy. So, Banister is not quite the lock I thought he was.
All these questions will certainly make for an interesting off-season - especially when you consider who will be answering those them. Like it or not (and you probably don't), Neal Huntington is in the driver's seat on all of these. So, no matter what happens, I expect a passionate discussion all off-season long from Pirates Nation.
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