Column | The Pirates are sinking, abandon ship?

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Joshua Gunter | TNS

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Trevor Williams pitches against the Cleveland Indians during an exhibition game at Progressive Field.

By Griffin Floyd, Staff Writer

This year’s Pittsburgh Pirates season was supposed to be the start of their long rebuild, trying to break free from the shackles of the Neal Huntington regime, which left them with a depleted minor league system and talent-starved roster.

Instead, the season has been nothing but sharply disappointing. New general manager Ben Cherington traded away the Pirates’ best hitter of the past half decade, Starling Marte, for two prospects in November. Their lone free agent acquisition, 36-year-old center fielder Jarrod Dyson, has just 21 home runs in 10 major league campaigns and hit .154 before being traded away for nothing.

In other words, this season was doomed from the start.

To be an awful team is one thing, but to be an awful team with the worst series of injuries in the major leagues is another. The four starting pitchers remaining from the 2019 team have barely played.

Ace pitcher Jameson Taillon went down with Tommy John surgery before the season began, as did Chris Archer with shoulder surgery. Joe Musgrove and Trevor Williams have had awful seasons — -0.2 and -0.4 Wins Above Replacement, respectively — when they weren’t on the injured list.

The starters are playing at a backup level. Their backups in the minor leagues aren’t any better. With the rotation struggling to pitch deep into games, the onus falls on a patchwork group of relievers to finish games, but the bullpen has been decimated as well.

Edgar Santana was suspended 80 games for a positive performance-enhancing drug test, and Michael Feliz, Nick Burdi, Clay Holmes, Kyle Crick and Keone Kela have barely played. All of this and more has contributed to the Pirates 13-26 record, their .333 winning percentage tied with the Red Sox and Rangers for the worst in the majors.

The Pirates’ troubles extend far beyond their pitching staff, though. They are batting .222 as a team, and haven’t been disciplined at the plate either, striking out three times more than they draw walks.

Their on-base percentage is only 63 points higher, at .285. Even when they have been able to make contact, their slugging percentage is .351, second worst in the majors. In layman’s terms, they aren’t getting on base much, and even when they do, they aren’t hitting the ball hard, making scoring chances few and far between. Not scoring runs isn’t a recipe for success, especially with the pitching staff as bad as it is.

Almost every player is slumping statistically this year, especially the ones who had a good 2019 season. Outfielder Bryan Reynolds, who batted .314 in an outstanding rookie campaign, is hitting a lowly .188 now. First baseman and designated hitter Josh Bell, who hit 37 home runs in 143 games last year, has just four through 36 in 2020.

Making matters worse, bad hitting and big losses tend to cause more bad hitting. Reynolds in particular is striking out more than last season, taking bigger, more desperate swings in a futile attempt to break out of his slump in a big way.

When you couple that with the fact that the Pirates lose many games by a large margin, players are more likely to try to do too much and swing for the fences, playing catch up instead of just sticking to their game. Their poor hitting and pitching performances may end up hurting the team in future seasons, too, as no players were performing well enough to be dealt at the trade deadline.

The jury is still out on first-year manager Derek Shelton, who has made many puzzling decisions in his brief stint on the bench. His continued commitment to pitchers such as Dovydas Neverauskas, who gives up 7.07 runs per nine innings, is worrying to say the least.

This team isn’t the mid-decade Philadelphia 76ers, blatantly tanking to build a championship roster. Maybe Shelton has been directed to lose as much as possible in pursuit of Kumar Rocker, the flamethrowing right-handed pitcher out of Vanderbilt and presumptive first overall pick. Nobody knows outside of the Pirates organization, though, and Shelton will have to make big improvements if the Pirates have any chance at contending moving forward.

Not everything has been bad for the Pirates, though. Third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, their top minor league prospect, was called up to the majors on Sept. 1 and hit a home run in his debut. Hayes has both defensive range and offensive upside, and his first major league appearance signals what the Pirates hope is the beginning of a new era.

The Pirates have had a brutal season, but with additions such as Hayes and potentially Rocker, they may be on the upswing someday soon.

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