SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — The Pittsburgh Pirates had 20 straight losing seasons from 1993-2012, bottoming out with a 105-loss year in 2010.
After that 105-loss season, though, a steady improvement began as the Bucs built around Andrew McCutchen, who made his big-league debut in 2009. That led to three straight playoff seasons, topped by a 98-win year in 2015. The 98 wins tied for third-most in franchise history and were the team’s most since 1991.
Well, you know how that year ended for the Pirates, the door slammed by Jake Arrieta and the Cubs in the wild-card game. The Bucs contended for a wild card in 2016 but faded late, and even in 2017 they were 58-58 and only three games out of first place on August 11.
A 17-29 finish from that point did them in, and over the winter Pirates management gave every sign that they were beginning a rebuilding process. McCutchen and ace Gerrit Cole were traded. Josh Harrison hinted he wanted out. Gregory Polanco, as highly touted as Kris Bryant before the 2015 season, had a miserable 2017. Starling Marte struggled after returning from a PED suspension.
To be sure, the Pirates appear to have received some talent in return for McCutchen and Cole, particularly from the Astros for Cole. Colin Moran will take over at third base, most likely; Moran, the No. 6 overall pick in 2013 by the Marlins, hit .301/.369/.532 with 18 home runs in 82 games in Triple-A in 2017. The Pirates will slot Joe Musgrove in their rotation to replace Cole; Musgrove is also a first-round pick (46th overall by the Blue Jays in 2011) who threw some key relief innings in the World Series last fall. Although, there’s this:
Joe Musgrove did not throw his scheduled live BP session yesterday due to right shoulder discomfort, the Pirates say.— Adam Berry (@adamdberry) February 19, 2018
The Pirates will be hoping their own former No. 1 pick, Jameson Taillon (second overall in 2010) will live up to his potential.
The keys to the Pirates offense being improved over last year (they were 13th in the National League in runs) will be a step forward by Josh Bell, who had a solid 2017 (.255/.334/.466, 26 HR), and the return of Francisco Cervelli, who missed about half of last season with injuries.
If the Pirates can get leads, their bullpen seems reasonably solid, led by Felipe Rivero, who the Bucs stole from the Nationals in 2016 for Mark Melancon. Rivero was excellent as Pirates closer after he was installed in that role in mid-June: 2.44 ERA, 0.992 WHIP, 21 saves, two blown saves.
So you can’t really say the Pirates are “tanking.” But neither do they seem to be interested in contending, and with the face of the franchise McCutchen gone, fan interest will likely be middling unless the Pirates get off to a good start.
The Cubs will face the Pirates 19 times this year. The first meeting will be in the season’s first Wrigley series April 9-12, and the teams will also play May 28-30 at PNC Park, June 8-10 at Wrigley Field, July 31-August 1 in Pittsburgh, August 16-19 in Pittsburgh and September 24-27 at Wrigley Field.