2016 Pittsburgh Pirates
2016 Pittsburgh Pirates / Franchise: Pittsburgh Pirates / BR Team Page
Managed by Clint Hurdle
History, Comments, Contributions
The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates made quite a few changes from the 2015 edition of the team. They let 1B Pedro Alvarez go (the former National League home run king was considered a defensive liability), traded 2B Neil Walker to the New York Mets for P Jon Niese, let P Charlie Morton go, saw P J.A. Happ depart via free agency as well as several relievers, and witnessed the retirement of P A.J. Burnett and 3B Aramis Ramirez. Meanwhile, IF Jung-ho Kang was trying to come back from a season-ending injury. The bright spots were a strong returning core of OF Andrew McCutchen, OF Starling Marte, P Gerrit Cole, P Francisco Liriano, P Mark Melancon and P Tony Watson while starters C Francisco Cervelli, IF Josh Harrison, SS Jordy Mercer, OF Gregory Polanco and relievers Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero returned. The team signed ex-Buc Ryan Vogelsong and hoped he, Niese and Jeff Locke could support Cole and Liriano in the starting rotation. They also signed John Jaso with the intention of splitting 1B between him and Michael Morse, and added a few reclamation projects for the bullpen such as Neftali Feliz, Juan Nicasio and Kyle Lobstein. In spring training, they signed David Freese to cover third base until Kang recuperated. The team also faced the challenge of being in the same division as the only team to win more games in 2015 - the St. Louis Cardinals - and the Chicago Cubs, the team that was third in wins (one behind Pittsburgh) in 2015 and had made major off-season acquisitions.
Nicasio dazzled in spring training to beat out Vogelsong for the final spot in the rotation. Pittsburgh then started off on a strong note, sweeping the Cardinals in the opening series, with pitching gems from Liriano and Nicasio wrapped around a win in the second game due to strong bullpen work. They were 15-9 at the end of April, with the top batting average in MLB (.293, .012 ahead of the Boston Red Sox) and the top OBP (.378, .014 ahead of the Cubs), with 6 of the starters over .300, only Freese and McCutchen below, plus backups Sean Rodriguez and Matt Joyce also over .300 as well as pitcher Liriano. On the other hand, the pitching was struggling, with the bullpen doing significantly worse than in 2015. They trailed the mighty Cubs for the division lead at the end of the month.
The Pirates started May slowly then went on a hot run in the middle of the month to finish the month 14-13 to go to 29-22. They were tied with the Mets for the first Wild Card slot, though it was obviously still early in the year. The offense remained strong (4th in the NL in runs) while the pitching was doing somewhat better (with an ERA right around league average). Polanco was leading the league with 38 runs and 18 doubles and had an OPS+ of 153; 6 of the 8 starters had an OPS+ over 100 with only Cervelli and Mercer below. Kang had returned to the lineup with a bang, hitting six homers his first month back, slugging .600 with a 142 OPS+. Cole (2.72) was the lone starting pitcher with an ERA under 4.3, though. Vogelsong was hit in the face by a pitch, sending him to the DL with an uncertain prognosis at that point.
The Bucs had an abysmal June, starting 5-17 before winning four of their last six. The starters had an ERA over 6 for the month though the bullpen was sharper. The offense, which had been strong before then, was one of the NL's weakest, with Harrison and McCutchen struggling. Cole, the only reliable starter to that point, went down with injury early in the month, as did starting catcher Cervelli and backup catcher Chris Stewart. Nicasio was moved to the bullpen; combined with Cole's injury, that meant that rookies Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl were thrust into the rotation. With both catchers out as well as top catching prospect Elias Diaz, the team picked up Erik Kratz and called up light-hitting Jacob Stallings from AAA. The Pirates finished June under .500 for the first time since 2010 and they were over 10 games behind the Cubs for the division.
The team rebounded to start July 14-7 but were swept by the Milwaukee Brewers to end the month. They were still within sight of a wild card spot but were sellers rather than buyers at the trading deadline. With Melancon due to depart via free agency at season's end, he was shipped to the Washington Nationals for Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn, Watson becoming the closer. They traded Niese back to the Mets, for ex-Buc reliever Antonio Bastardo. They acquired Ivan Nova from the Yankees for two players to be named later. In the biggest move, they shipped Opening Day starter Liriano, their highest-paid player and their most disappointing one along with outfield prospect Harold Ramirez and former first-round pick Reese McGuire to the Blue Jays for Drew Hutchison in an apparent salary dump, the prospects being viewed as inducement for the Jays to take on Liriano's contract; the Jays were hoping Liriano would recover when teamed with former catcher Russell Martin. The offense was steady despite struggles from Jaso, Harrison and McCutchen, all of whom finished the month with an OPS+ of 91 or less. The starting pitching remained an issue, with numerous spot starters coming up from AAA (Taillon, Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow, Steven Brault) to try to fill the gaps; meanwhile, Niese, Nicasio and Locke all took turns in the bullpen.
While many fans may have seen the moves at the trading deadline as a white flag, the results were nothing but. The revamped team started August on a tear, winning 10 of their first 15 games to move within one game of the second wild card spot. Watson made good in 7 of his first 8 save opportunities, Rivero had a spotless ERA in his first 8 2/3 innings while striking out 16, while Nova was 2-0. With all the other wild card contenders sporting question marks as well, the race for the postseason remained wide open. The team was only a half-game back by late August when the bottom fell out. The club dropped eight straight games, some close, some blowouts, some that they trailed all the way and a couple their bullpen blew late. That put them under .500 and in need of a very strong finish to still make the playoffs, something they were unable to pull off. On September 29th, the Pirates were involved in the first official tie in the major leagues since 2005 as their game with the Cubs was stopped by rain in the 6th inning with the score at 1-all. Given it was the last scheduled game of the year between the two teams and it had no bearing on the postseason, it met the now very strict conditions for a tie score to be allowed to stand.
The team finished a disappointing 78-83-1 for a drop of 20 wins from a year before. The biggest change was the starting pitching. Expected aces Cole (7-10, 3.88) and Liriano (6-11, 5.46) battled injuries and ineffectiveness, respectively, both dropping off significantly. 3-5 starters Locke (9-8, 5.44), Niese (8-6, 4.91) and Nicasio (10-7, 4.50) all struggled, though Nicasio improved once in a relief role. Vogelsong (3-7, 4.81) was hit hard in his last few starts and did not pan out. The bright spots on the staff were the rookies, who were still a mixed bag as well as late-season pick-up Nova (5-2, 3.06). Taillon was a solid 5-4, 3.38 and Kuhl 5-4, 4.20 while Brault (0-3, 4.86) and Glasnow (0-2, 4.24) struggled. The bullpen was overall good, if down from 2015 - Melancon was 1-1 with 30 saves and a 1.51 ERA before the trade, Rivero was 1-3 with a 3.29 ERA after being picked up. Watson (2-5, 15 Sv, 3.06) and Hughes (1-1, Sv, 3.03) were solid. Not only did no pitcher qualify for the ERA title, Locke led the staff with 127 1/3 innings pitched, an astoundingly low total for a team leader.
The offense finished 6th in the league in runs. Harrison (.283/.311/.388, 85 OPS+) and Jaso (.268/.353/.413, 104 OPS+) were unable to replace the production gaps left behind when Walker and Alvarez left and Cervelli (.264/.377/.322, 90 OPS+) missed significant time with injury. Mercer (.256/.328/.374, 87 OPS+) did fine for a shortstop, Marte was solid prior to missing most of September with injury (.311/.362/.456, 117 OPS+, 47 SB, 12 CS) though his power was down (9 HR), Kang hit well (.255/.354/.513) when healthy despite battling off-field legal allegations and Polanco (.258/.323/.463, 34 2B, 22 HR, 86 RBI, 107 OPSS+) took a step forward. The bench was superb - Freese (.270/.352/.412, 13 HR), Rodriguez (.270/.349/.510, 18 HR, 126 OPS+), Joyce (.242/.403/.463, 13 HR, 59 BB in 293 PA, 131 OPS+) and Adam Frazier (.301/.356/.411, 104 OPS+) especially. The big disappointment was McCutchen. While he picked things up a bit at the end, his numbers finished only around league average (.256/.336/.430, 24 HR, 69 BB, 81 R, 79 RBI, 103 OPS+), a far cry from his four past seasons, when he won one MVP and was a contender for others. He also struggled defensively in center, rated by some as one of the worst outfielders in baseball, prompting questions about whether he might have to move to left field, where his production would have to return to its former level for him to be worth his contract. Given his age, the sudden decline was a major surprise.
Awards and Honors
- Richard Justice: "Huntington, Bucs on track for 'next step': Pirates GM hopes to follow Royals' path to ultimate goal", mlb.com March 13, 2016. 
- Jorge L. Ortiz: "Not dead yet: Pirates surge after deadline dump, set for wild card run", USA Today Sports, August 18, 2016. 
- Mike Vorkunov: "Pirates outfield trio one of the best in baseball", USA Today Sports, June 24, 2016.