Win the division,” A.J. Burnett said in the quiet clubhouse Wednesday night after another postseason ended nine innings after it began. ”No more wild-card junk.”
Fabulous idea. It’s the execution part that is going to be tricky.
The Pirates have the second-best record in the majors over the last three years, bedrock proof their turnaround is not only legit but sustainable. All those wins – 280 and counting – haven’t translated into a deep October run. The latest setback, a meek 4-0 home loss to Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs in the NL wild-card game, proved all the more alarming because of who it came against.
The Cubs and their steady stream of talented 20-somethings aren’t going anywhere. Neither are the Cardinals, who held the Pirates off for a third straight NL Central title. The cost of doing business is sure to go up, leaving Pittsburgh’s creative but ever budget-conscious front office with plenty of decisions to make over an offseason that started earlier than a 98-win team probably deserved.
”You’d think 98 wins would be enough, but we had a team that won 100,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said.
A better start in 2016 might help.
McCutchen called himself out for being ”under mediocre” in early May with the Pirates languishing around .500. The five-time All-Star responded by kickstarting a torrid summer in which Pittsburgh relentlessly chased the Cardinals into the final days of the regular season. He tied a career high with 96 RBIs, a number that would have been higher if teams had bothered to pitch to him in September.
While McCutchen remains the catalyst, Pittsburgh’s best season in nearly a quarter-century proved the Pirates relied just as heavily on the development of the parts they assembled around their franchise cornerstone.
Left fielder Starling Marte showcased the game’s best arm – leading the NL in outfield assists – and thrived wherever manager Clint Hurdle placed him in the lineup. Rightfielder Gregory Polanco overcame some growing pains to hit .276 in the second half. Shortstop Jung Ho Kang rapidly evolved from a curiosity into a starter, becoming a fixture on the left side of the infield before his season ended with a broken left leg Sept. 17.
Catcher Francisco Cervelli, acquired last November to offset the expected loss of Russell Martin, turned out to be productive at the plate and durable behind it. Cervelli played in 130 games, hit a team-high .295 and served as the energetic conscience of a pitching staff that finished second to St. Louis in team ERA.
The success stories go on and on. Closer Mark Melancon set a club record with 51 saves. Burnett made the All-Star team for the first time in the last summer of a career that stretches back to the previous millennium.