Pirates ready to prove themselves again as camp opens
Feb. 15, 2016
PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Pirates have the second-best record in the majors since 2013, a run that restored faith in the franchise after two decades of misery and led to three straight playoff berths.
All that mold-breaking, however, comes at a price, one the Pirates knew they'd eventually have to pay. Or not pay, depending on how you look at it.
Second baseman and native son Neil Walker proved too costly to keep around and was shipped to the New York Mets in the offseason for pitcher Jon Niese. J.A. Happ translated his remarkable two months with the Pirates into a $36 million deal with Toronto. Former first-round pick Pedro Alvarez's home runs boosted his arbitration figure even as his defense at first base floundered, leading the Pirates to cut him outright rather than haggle.
Key members of a front office that has spent most of the last decade methodically plotting and executing a renaissance have left in search of better opportunities and more responsibility elsewhere.
"Those are tangible signs of our success," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We had over 20 asks of individuals in our organization. Not all of them left, but the fact that number is extremely high just goes with the notion that imitation is the sincerest part of flattery."
If Pittsburgh has proven anything under Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington's stewardships, it's that they're resilient. Hurdle is only too happy to embrace the challenge of proving it can keep pace with their free-spending rivals in St. Louis and Chicago.
"We'll never dominate the hot stove," Hurdle said. "We know who we are and I think the best thing about us is we measure ourselves by how we do with what we have, from top to bottom. And I like our group."
Some things to look for over the next six weeks as the Pirates prepare to make another run in one of baseball's most competitive divisions.
Happ's departure, Charlie Morton's trade to Philadelphia and A.J. Burnett's slow waltz into retirement leave plenty of job opportunities at the back end of the rotation behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. Niese offers the Pirates a player with experience and team control through 2018. Pitching coach Ray Searage has his latest reclamation project in 38-year-old Ryan Vogelsong and Jeff Locke will search for the consistency that has eluded him since the first half of 2013.
JUNG HO'S HEALTH
Jung Ho Kang's breakout rookie season ended in September when the infielder broke his left leg after being taken out by Chicago Cubs' Chris Coghlan. Kang has been in Florida since December increasing the intensity of his rehab. He's already running and fielding groundballs, though Hurdle remains reluctant to offer a return date.
WHO'S ON FIRST
The Pirates will stick with a platoon at first, with Michael Morse, Jason Rogers and John Jaso likely splitting at bats. Pittsburgh is hoping Jaso can make the transition from catching to first base easier than Alvarez did while moving over from third.
This was supposed to be the spring former first-round pick Jameson Taillon was finally ready to join the rotation. Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in April 2014 slowed down Taillon's timeline, though he'll get a chance to show Hurdle just how far he's come in the last two years during the early part of camp. Tyler Glasnow is coming off a spectacular 2015 — a 2.39 ERA across 22 starts at three different levels — and could actually beat Taillon to the majors.
The Pirates splurged in keeping closer Mark Melancon, giving him $10 million after Melancon led the majors with 51 saves in 2015. Tony Watson remains one of the league's best setup men while Jared Hughes and Arquimedes Caminero offer depth in the middle innings. There is work to be had as long reliever, though Huntington has shown a knack for consistently putting together one of the better bullpens in the majors despite an array of changing parts.