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Finding glimmers for a new Pirates window of winning

They got out of the doldrums in 2013, but with this reset, PIttsburgh needs to find new stars to build around.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

The PIttsburgh Pirates trading away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen could rightly be seen as a white flag being displayed by the organization. Cole and Cutch were supposed to pair up to lead the Pirates to the promised land, the ace challenging for Cy Youngs and leading the pitching staff to dominance while the star center fielder won MVPs and paced the offense.

For a brief moment at least, this was the case. McCutchen earned a top-five MVP vote from 2013-15, winning the award in 2013. That 98-win season included Cole finishing 4th in Cy Young voting, and was supposed to be a beginning of contention, not the peak before a steep fall. It was the Pirates third winning season in a row after two decades of losing.

Now, only two years later, a new losing streak has been born.

Cole was sent to Houston, shortly followed by McCutchen being traded to San Francisco. Pittsburgh is at a crossroads. When can they get back to winning again?

On paper, the Pirates did do everything right. Maybe their players’ timing could have been a bit better, but McCutchen is the age he is, no matter how much more ideal his being two or three years younger would be. Aside from Cole and Cutch, the Pirates planned to have a collection of good young talent that would all grow together and flourish at the right time and challenge for division titles and pennants. Gregory Polanco is still just 25, Starling Marte is 27, Josh Bell is only 24. This is what a core of players you build around is supposed to be - a dazzling collection of outfield talent and a big, powerful first baseman. Unfortunately, the development has stalled:

Pirates young core wRC+ by year

Player Age 2015 wRC+ 2016 wRC+ 2017 wRC+
Player Age 2015 wRC+ 2016 wRC+ 2017 wRC+
Gregory Polanco 26 92 106 81
Starling Marte 29 115 119 91
Josh Bell 25 N/A 112 108

This isn’t a death knell of course, but for all three of these guys the luster has kind of worn off. Marte has the steroid suspension that makes one question the pair of great seasons immediately prior, Polanco has parts of good season surrounded by subpar stretches, and Josh Bell simply has yet to show the power expected from his position.

To be clear, I don’t think those guys all stink, and it’s all over for the Pirates. Particularly Bell - he’s going to be 25 and has been an above average offensive player so far. He hits the ball decently hard - 87.7 mph exit velocity in 2017 - and has a big frame with room to bulk up.

They also have some decent arms on the staff, even with Cole leaving. Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow are all still under 25, and all have very solid stuff even if the numbers aren’t there yet:

Young Pirates pitching potential

Player Fastball Velo (MPH) ERA DRA K% BB%
Player Fastball Velo (MPH) ERA DRA K% BB%
Jameson Taillon 95.3 4.44 4.51 21.3 7.8
Chad Kuhl 95.5 4.35 5.24 20.9 6.5
Tyler Glasnow 94.4 5.37 8.76 18.8 4.6
Trevor Williams 92.0 3.96 3.95 18.2 7.6

Fastball velocity isn’t everything - Cole regularly tops 97 MPH but has yet to consistently realize his scouted potential despite that - but it’s a good starting point, and allows for some wiggle room while a pitcher matures. Only two of these youngsters struck out more than 20 percent of hitters he saw this past year, but again, they have time to grow. With all that hard throwing talent, it’s Trevor WIlliams with his league average fastball that was the best of the bunch in 2017. Which says something, though we’re not sure what. Maybe that not having the raw stuff forces early development of secondary pitches? That could be something.

So the Pirates have some potential still. They’re still young, and if Taillon or Glasnow in particular realize their potential at least one of them could become the ace Cole teased. If another pitcher breaks through, that’s the bones of a strong rotation. Bell could flesh out and become a legit 30 home run guy in a couple years. And maybe

Polanco could figure it out. Marte on the other hand, maybe not. He’s running out of rope, and post suspension was not good. But the other issue is, the Pirates don’t have a big-time guy in the farm system - a Lindor or Correa or Seager - to hope to be the capstone on a second rebuild. Their best pitching prospect, Mitch Keller, was 15th in Baseball America’s mid-season rankings, and their best positional prospect, Austin Meadows, has talent but keeps getting hurt. They need things to go right for them with current major leaguers to get back to winning seasons.

The other issue is, nothing is in a vacuum. The Cubs aren’t going away any time soon. Their best players are some of the best in baseball, and all are very young. The Cardinals keeps adding talent because they need to compete with the Cubs and assuage their fans’ worries. The Brewers are on the upswing. The Reds are getting ready for their own climb from the depths of a rebuild. The NL Central will be much tougher a division in 2018 than it was in 2017, and doesn’t seem to show signs of abating. The Pirates just traded two keystones, and even if the major league club isn’t bare one has to wonder what the next step is. They need so much to go right.

Maybe they go and build around that young rotation. It’s a tactic that’s worked in the recent past for the Cleveland Indians, and less so for the New York Mets. It’s a risky path, since throwing a baseball is so tough on the body and pitchers always get hurt.

That, and the Pirates don’t really have that amazing a track record of pitcher development. Cole had that one great year, and great raw stuff, but his fastball has always been too straight, and he’s never really thrown enough breaking balls. The Bucs’ pitching touchstone in this era has been a strong willingness to pitch inside, which has also led to a lot of hit batters. That alone isn’t a philosophy that leads to winning. They need pitchers to dominate in that division again, not just throwers.

WIth the second Wild Card slot, few teams are truly out of it from the get-go. If a few things had gone differently in 2017, maybe this would be a whole different conversation. But they didn’t. Marte was bad. Bell didn’t develop, neither did Polanco.

None of the young pitchers really burst on the scene. Losing McCutchen and Cole stinks, but as much for spiritual reasons as for on-the-field impact. It feels like giving up. But the Pirates are far from the days of interminable losing. They could re-tool quicker than you’d think. Their newest player, Colin Moran, was crushing the ball to the tune of a 232 OPS+ in his very brief cup of coffee. If any semblance of that is real then they’re back on track. Of course, he had an OPS above .800 once in his entire minors career, so that’s a big maybe.

Again, their hopes all lie in assuming they can actually get these young players to take a leap forward. There’s a lot of ifs around Pittsburgh now and without the guys who were supposed to be the core, it’s up to a bunch of unproven or unspectacular youth to carry the load. It probably doesn’t mean 20 more years of losing. Those golden moments of two and three years ago are gone though. They need to figure out what the future holds.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about the depths of baseball for Beyond the Box Score and about too much Cleveland for Let’s Go Tribe. He podcasts at Mostly Baseball. Follow him on Twitter at @MerrillLunch.