PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jameson Taillon didn’t throw a pitch after May 1. Felipe Vázquez headed to his second All-Star Game in July. By September, he was in jail . Clint Hurdle, who spearheaded a renaissance earlier in the decade, went into the last day of a lost season talking enthusiastically about the future. Two hours later, he was out of a job .
Maybe it was a fitting way for the Pittsburgh Pirates to end a 69-93 campaign, one final bout of turbulence in a year when the sailing was rarely smooth. While general manager Neal Huntington talked about the need for a “new voice” heading into 2020, the club the new manager will inherit believes the worst is over.
“If we can get through all the stuff that’s happened this year, all the losses, all the troubles, all the crazy stuff that happened, this is what we call the storm,” pitcher Steven Brault said. “So if we can weather the storm and still be as together as we are, I think we’re all looking forward to next year.”
Hard to blame them. Trevor Williams blasted Christmas music in the clubhouse in the hours before the season finale against Cincinnati, an intentionally ironic choice for a player who likes to say “every day in the big leagues is like Christmas.”
It just didn’t feel much like it for the Pirates during a second half in which they plunged out of contention during a 4-24 free fall following the All-Star break. Injuries decimated the starting rotation. The bullpen, particularly in middle relief, was a mess. Relievers Kyle Crick and Keone Kela were suspended for verbal altercations with staff members, and Crick’s season ended early when he needed surgery on his right index finger, a procedure required after getting into a fight with Vázquez.
The team opted not to suspend Vázquez, but ultimately it didn’t matter. When Pittsburgh’s bumpy year ended quietly with a 3-1 loss to Cincinnati on Sunday, the closer sat in jail while being held without bond following his arrest earlier this month on multiple felony charges stemming from an improper relationship with an underage girl.
There wasn’t one thing that went wrong for the Pirates in 2019. It was everything. Well, nearly everything. First baseman Josh Bell rode a first-half hot streak to his first All-Star appearance on his way to 37 home runs and 116 RBIs. Rookie outfielder Bryan Reynolds put together an 11-game hitting streak to start his career and kept right on going, finishing with a .314 average. Shortstop Kevin Newman, who looked overmatched during a call-up last fall, rebounded to hit .308 and establish himself as the shortstop of the present and the future.
All of them, however, were silver linings on a very dark cloud. One Pittsburgh will spend the next six months trying to find a way to escape.
“We need to be better than we’ve been to get back to a position to be in the postseason, to win and I and we believe we have a lot of very talented people that are capable of doing that and want to do that and are absolutely driven to do that,” Huntington said.
Maybe, but it’s obvious the Pirates need more, perhaps a lot more, to take a step forward in 2020.
ACE IS THE PLACE?: Pittsburgh pointed to a solid second half in 2018, particularly by the starting rotation, as proof it had the pieces in place to contend. It didn’t happen. Taillon went down with an elbow injury in May and after three months of hoping for the best, he ultimately opted for surgery that will force him to miss all of 2020, too. Chris Archer went just 3-9 with a career-worst 5.19 ERA in his first full season in Pittsburgh. Williams and Joe Musgrove were uneven at best. Rookie Mitch Keller couldn’t keep the ball in the ballpark. Brault was a pleasant surprise before running into big-time trouble down the stretch. What looked like a strength in April is now a massive question mark.
BACKSTOP BLUES?: Pittsburgh let popular but frequently injured catcher Francisco Cervelli go over the summer, but Elias Diaz is a defensive liability and while Jacob Stallings developed a solid rapport with the staff, he isn’t a threat at the plate.
BLAH BULLPEN: With Vázquez’s career very much in jeopardy, a bullpen that already had unraveled could see a significant makeover in 2020. Kela could potentially step into the closer’s role, but otherwise there are few defined roles. Chad Kuhl and Edgar Santana will get a chance to pitch in after missing all of 2019 with injuries.
PITCHING IN: While the new manager would be wise to retain hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz after the Pirates saw their team batting average jump from .254 to .265, there is likely to be a change at pitching coach. Ray Searage did wonders earlier in the decade while helping the Pirates to three straight playoff berths, but Pittsburgh’s ERA jumped to 5.18 ERA and the team allowed double-digit runs more than 30 times, the most since the Depression.