PITTSBURGH – General Manager Neal Huntington met with the media this afternoon, and addressed several topics that will impact the Pirates’ plans as they finish up the season and begin to look toward next year.
Injuries were a primary concern for the team this year, with several core players missing significant time or seeing diminished production due to both major and minor injuries. It was clear that Huntington felt that some of the problems were outside the team’s control, despite their focus on keeping players rested and health.
“Gregory Polanco’s [facial injury] is unavoidable; Cervelli’s [wrist injury] today is unavoidable”, Huntington said. “Anytime we have soft tissue injuries, tightness, strains or pulls, it drives [Head Athletic Trainer Todd Tomczyk] crazy. He takes a ton of pride in keeping these guys on the field.
“It’s something we’ll dig into in the offseason. Having to play every game with your playoff life on the line for an extended period of time, it can put additional stress on guys. We’ll evaluate and see if there are some things that we can do better.”
Obviously, the players’ physical performances are critical to a team’s success, but the grind of a long season also has mental and emotional aspects that the team needs to be able to manage over the course of 162 games. Huntington was asked whether the team’s mental conditioning programs are starting to pay dividends with the young players who have made their debuts this season.
“This group as a collective, they’ve come through our system, and as our system has evolved and we’ve gotten better, we do feel that this group is reflective of that,” said Huntington. “It’s a mature group. It’s a group that competes. It’s a group that seems to have a pretty good feel for how to handle some adversity, how not to get too caught up in their success. It’s a group that’s able to make adjustments pitch to pitch.”
Huntington expressed optimism that the current core of young players would help carry the banner of recent successful Pirates teams into next season, and that the development program the team has in place is helping build depth in the minor leagues as well.
“It’s a fun group to see, and [it’s] another positive sign that we’re doing some good things in scouting, some good things in development,” Huntington said. “There’s a good core in place as we look at the 2017 rosters. Indianapolis will have some complimentary players from outside the organization, but the core of that club is going to be Pirates.
“The core of our [major league] club next year is going to be a good number of guys that have come through our system. It’s a great spot for us as an organization. We need to continue to keep that pipeline flow wide open, and continue to help these guys get better.”
That core group of players would seemingly include both Adam Frazier and Alen Hanson, both of whom have been targeted for development as “super utility” players. Pending free agent Sean Rodriguez has occupied that role rather well in recent weeks, and the team has Josh Harrison under contract and presumably healthy for next year in addition to the younger Frazier and Hanson.
Huntington was non-committal when asked whether Rodriguez has a future in Pittsburgh.
“Sean’s just done a remarkable job,” said Huntington. “The defensive versatility and the impact, it’s hard to measure. It’s hard to quantify because he’s at each position so limited that it’s hard to truly value and understand what he can do defensively.
“And then offensively, the approach change and the impact that he’s made on us this year is terrific. Again, we’d love to have Sean remain in a Pirate uniform. Given what he’s done this year, we fully anticipate there’s going to be quite a market out there for him. He’s going to have a pretty good opportunity to do some things.”
Regarding the starting rotation for next year, it would seem that Jameson Taillon has the inside track on one spot, with significant uncertainty as to who will be joining him and Gerrit Cole. Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow, Drew Hutchison, and Steven Brault–possibly among others–would seem to be competing for opportunities as well.
Huntington was asked whether the Pirates plan to supplement this young group of starting pitchers with a veteran starter in what is likely to be a weak offseason market.
“It’s going to be important for us to have eight starters that we feel good about,” said Huntington. “It continues to get reinforced to us that it’s not a five man rotation, it’s a seven or eight man rotation.
“In an ideal world, you’d like to have a veteran, but if you have good enough young pitching, good enough young starting pitching, to put a veteran in there just to have a veteran in there doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If that veteran is one of your best five, and is one that can take down innings and anchor a staff, that’s a good situation.
“If we end up with five young starters because that’s what we believe to be our best rotation with three guys in Triple-A, that’s where we’ll end up. But we’ll certainly explore, via trade, via free agency, if there’s someone that we think makes our rotation better.”
Ryan Vogelsong has played that supplemental veteran role for the Pirates this season, and Huntington took a moment to reflect on Vogelsong’s return to Pittsburgh, including dealing with a horrific injury earlier in the season.
“We went to get a veteran than could eat some innings as we were waiting for the next group of starters to come through,” Huntington said. “If he had prolonged success, he stays in the rotation, but we had some starters that we were looking forward to adding to our club this year.
“Ryan, coming back from the injury, he’s an absolute battler. I cannot say enough good things about the impact he’s had in our clubhouse on these young starters, these young pitchers, the young players on our club. The true professionalism, how he handled the disappointment when we took him out of the rotation. I love the person; I love what he’s done to help this young group grow and he’s done some good things for us.”
As Clint Hurdle did this morning, Huntington also took a moment to deliver a somber comment on the tragic loss of Marlins’ pitcher Jose Fernandez.
“[It’s] just one of those things that takes your breath away when you hear the news,” Huntington said. “[It’s] amazingly sad for his family and his friends and that organization. There’s nothing really more you could say. It’s a huge loss for this game; it’s a huge loss in general.”