Who’s the face of the Pirates?
If that sort of figurative, unanswerable question appeals to you, it’s a heck of a debate as we pass the midpoint of the 2018 season.
If I had to wager a guess, I’d say the team hoped it would be Josh Bell at this juncture. That day might still come, but Bell’s second full season in the majors hasn’t produced a lot of optimism for his potential development into an above-average big-leaguer. The young man has all the intangibles — personality, intelligence, physique — but precious little tangible output as of yet.
If we’re talking most consistent performer, the face of the Pirates probably belongs to Starling Marte. There might be some problematic marketing implications inherent to that arrangement, considering last year’s run-in with MLB drug testing. Still, there’s Marte again on pace to lead the Pirates in WAR for the third time in four years.
If you’re a believer in the thought that a starting pitcher can or should be the face of an MLB franchise, maybe Jameson Taillon fits that bill. Sure, 100 innings at a league-average ERA wasn’t what many of us had in mind for his big breakout, but Taillon has made every start and hasn’t hurt the club, which is more than anybody else in that rotation can claim to this point.
And if it’s outward expression you seek, Taillon likely got your attention last weekend when he publicly called out Clint Hurdle for having a reliever warming behind him with no one on base and one out in the seventh inning of Saturday’s eventual loss to the Phillies.
The words Taillon used to describe that lack of faith were “pretty unfortunate,” which practically functioned as expletives coming from the stoic Houstonian.
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) July 7, 2018
Like I said, if you’re looking for the face of a team to take charge both on and off the field, that was a strong moment for Taillon, regardless of whether you happened to think he had an actual point.
But all this minor incident did for me was reinforce who the face (and voice) of the Pirates remains, and that’s the man in the manager’s office.
Since he was appointed as the Bucs’ bench boss in the winter of 2010-11, Hurdle has been The Guy representing the Pirates, as much an ambassador and chief proselytizer as strategist. Even when Andrew McCutchen was at the peak of his charismatic powers, Hurdle at the very least was on even terms with his best player in the category of visibility.
That’s what made Taillon’s dissent all the more jarring. Not since the days of A.J. Burnett railing against Clint Barmes’ unorthodox positioning has a Pirate felt the need to air soiled linen in such a way. Furthermore, this was the first time a member of the team’s post-2015 wave of prospects rocked the boat.
Some have taken this opportunity to mark this as the beginning of the end of the Hurdle era. When you start to ‘lose the clubhouse,’ that’s trouble, right?
I’m not so sure about that in this case, considering this franchise’s noted thriftiness and the fact that the manager is still under contract through the end of the decade. I’m also not sure the Taillon matter is anything but an understandable blip in the midst of an extended downturn for the 2018 Pirates.
This oh-so-Hurdle response to a question about whether he was looking forward to the All-Star break shouldn’t be blown out of proportion, either:
From yesterday: Asked Pirates manager Clint Hurdle about the All-Star break and if he's eager to get there, so his team can regroup. He said… stuff. Make of this what you will. pic.twitter.com/kjUllQrWSI
— Michael McCleary (@MikeJMcCleary) July 10, 2018
Take it from someone who’s taken part in hundreds of press availabilities starring Hurdle, from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Seattle: This is not an out-of-the-ordinary digression from MLB’s most philosophical manager. I don’t believe he’s contemplating retirement and I don’t think he’ll be fired before next spring training.
Whether the Pirates should move on from Hurdle is another matter altogether. I’m on the record saying that I pin the organization’s current stagnation on Bob Nutting, Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly before I point to Hurdle, but I’m not privy to anything behind the scenes and I don’t know how much the 60-year-old manager feels he has left.
What shouldn’t be up for debate is that Hurdle has had a firm grip on this franchise for eight solid years. Perhaps that’s as much a natural extension of the Pirates’ position on the revenue totem pole than anything else — small-market teams probably shouldn’t bank on one particular player sticking around for more than a few years — but this has been Hurdle’s squad since Day 1.
This entire argument is rather nebulous, anyway. You might believe that a manager should be the face and voice of a team, or you might think Cutch’s persona ruled over the Pirates during the playoff years. I wouldn’t be in a position to argue definitively to the contrary in either case.
But like I said at the top, if this sort of thing matters to you, then I think you’d have a hard time knocking me off my perch here. Hurdle’s stay in Pittsburgh could be running short, but he’s been the Pirates more than any other person.
Of course, when the team has lost more than won with you in charge, being the face of a franchise not be the best status to hold.