2017 Pittsburgh Pirates
2017 Pittsburgh Pirates / Franchise: Pittsburgh Pirates / BR Team Page
Managed by Clint Hurdle
History, Comments, Contributions
The 2017 Pittsburgh Pirates entered the season with plenty of questions. Would they revert to form as the team that made the playoffs each year from 2013 to 2015, or would they come closer to their sub-.500 performance from 2016? The team had made few changes in the off-season. Returning as starters were C Francisco Cervelli, 2B Josh Harrison, SS Jordy Mercer and outfielders Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco (though the outfield spots had been shuffled). Josh Bell, a rookie in 2016, was expected to become the starter at 1B, succeeding John Jaso, while 3B Jung-ho Kang faced DUI charges in South Korea, with David Freese expected to step in if Kang was unavailable.
The bigger questions came on the pitching staff. After a poor performance by the 2016 rotation, the team was banking on rehab from injury by Gerrit Cole, good work from Ivan Nova (acquired late the previous year and re-signed over the winter, surprising the fan base, which assumed he would go elsewhere), progress from youngsters Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl and hoping someone stepped into the 5th spot. The bullpen was somewhat more stable, with closer Tony Watson and Felipe Rivero returning and Daniel Hudson signed.
The Pirates opened the year at Fenway Park with their bats in a deep freeze. They lost on opening day, 4-0, as Cole was outpitched by Rick Porcello on April 3rd, then in their second game two days later, they got a solid seven-inning scoreless performance from Taillon but were once again unable to push a runner across the plate, losing 3-0 in 12 innings on a walk-off homer by Sandy Leon off Antonio Bastardo, after front-line relievers Hudson, Rivero, Watson and Juan Nicasio had each pitched a scoreless frame to keep the game going. They were 11-13 over the first month as no team pulled away in the division. The pitching of Cole, Nova (NL Pitcher of the Month) and Taillon were bright spots but Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow were struggling as the 4th and 5th starters. The offense, already bereft of Kang (who could not get a visa due to his conviction), was hit further when Marte was suspended 80 games for testing positive for performance-enhancing substances. Freese was leading the offense but then was sidelined with an injury; Harrison was the only other batter contributing well. The Bucs did make history twice - with the first Lithuanian-born and -raised major leaguer (Dovydas Neverauskas) and the first major leaguer born and raised in Africa, Gift Ngoepe, who made their debut within two days of one another in late April.
The Pirates continued to sputter through May and early June, with one of the rare good news being that McCutchen was starting to hit better after an awful start that had led observers to question whether he was done as a productive player after just turning 30. The injuries continued to mount, though, with Taillon out after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, and Polanco making a sojourn on the disabled list. All the while, Kang's legal problems in South Korea were no closer to being solved, keeping another potential productive bat out of the equation. One are where the Pirates had not expected trouble was the bullpen, but on June 9th manager Clint Hurdle made a change, announcing that Watson was out as the closer following a couple of blown saves against the Baltimore Orioles that had raised his ERA to 4.44. The job was to be shared by Rivero and Nicasio for the time being.
At the All-Star break, they were 42-47, 7 games back of the Milwaukee Brewers, making it likely Pittsburgh would be sellers rather than buyers at the trading deadline. The biggest names discussed were McCutchen, who was in the last year of his contract, and Cole. McCutchen was the NL Player of the Month for June and was at .294/.380/.528 (135 OPS+) with 17 homers, 55 runs and 50 RBI, looking more like his 2011-2014 form than 2015, though his defense back in center was not sharp. The infield was fair as Bell (.239/.322/.472) had broken Ralph Kiner's Pirates rookie record for home runs at the All-Star break (16 HR), Harrison (.280/.361/.436) was leading the league in hit-by-pitch (20) and was the lone Bucco All-Star, Mercer (.267/.346/.422) had a 100 OPS+ at short and Freese was hitting .244/.374/.362. The team was only 12th in the NL in offense, thanks in large part to a lack of production from the corner outfield spots. Adam Frazier had started off hot filling in for suspended Marte in left but was down to .255/.333/.353 with a 81 OPS+ and Polanco was disappointing (.258/.317/.404, 87 OPS+) but was heading upward entering the break. The pitching was in the middle of the pack (7th in ERA) with strong work from Nova (9-6, 3.21) and Taillon (5-2, 2.73) as well as relievers Rivero (3-2, 6 Sv, 0.76, .134 opponent average) and Nicasio (1-4, Sv, 2.50) but inconsistent performances from Cole (7-7, 4.43) and Watson (4-2, 10 Sv, 3.86, .309 opponent average). The back end of the rotation had started very poorly but Kuhl (3-6, 4.96) and Trevor Williams (3-4, 4.80) were making some strides. However, Glasnow (2-6, 7.45) had been sent down after not getting on course. Marte returned to the team on July 18th after having served his suspension.
By sweeping a four-game series at home against the first-place Brewers on July 17-20, giving them 11 wins over their last 13 games, the Pirates moved within three games of first place in the NL East. The Chicago Cubs also profited from those wins, though, as they were now only one game out of first place and most observers (an opinion not shared by the local sports press) figured that the battle for a postseason slot would come down to a fight between the Bucs and the Cubbies. Pittsburgh slipped after that, struggling against tail-end teams like the Giants, Phillies and Reds. At the trading deadline, they made no major moves; they shipped Watson for two class-A players and acquired 40-year-old reliever Joaquin Benoit for another A player. Shortly after the deadline, they picked up 2016 utility man Sean Rodriguez and he hit a game-winning homer in his 2017 Pittsburgh debut.
The Pirates were unable to build on their late-July momentum, however. They were only 12-17 in August, losing ground on both the Cubs and Brewers. They raised the white flag at month's end when they put Nicasio on irrevocable waivers, losing their #2 reliever and getting "only" $600,000 in return. The final nail in the coffin probably came on September 10th, when the Bucs were shut out by Michael Wacha and the St. Louis Cardinals, completing a three-game sweep. That put Pittsburgh 10 games below .500 for the first time since 2011. Pittsburgh was using the month to try younger players like Max Moroff, Jordan Luplow, Neverauskas and Steven Brault to see how they could do with extended chances in the majors as well as giving Glasnow another look. Until Brault got his first start, they had used only six starting pitchers all year, showing how durable the staff had been despite the team's woes.
- Bob Nightengale: "Pirates and Royals: Off the trade block, ready to shake up pennant races", USA Today Sports, July 25, 2017. 
Awards and Honors
- All-Star: Josh Harrison