PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates knew this would be a year of transition, a changing of the guard in many ways, as they replaced key parts of their 2013-15 core and introduced several players who will hold down major roles in their future.
But they still hoped it wouldn't be a true "bridge" year, a gap in their recent run of trips to the postseason. That's what it turned out to be, however, as the Pirates spun their wheels around the .500 mark through most of a disappointing year and missed the playoffs for the first time since their last losing season in 2012.
What happened? How did a 98-win team fall so far in '16? It all starts with pitching, the lifeblood of the Bucs' recent success. Their rotation struggled from top to bottom early on and was mostly comprised of rookies by the end of the season. Their bullpen faltered through most of the first half aside from All-Star closer Mark Melancon, who was traded in late July.
The Pirates stood little chance of catching the Cubs, who ran away with the National League Central. They looked like Wild Card contenders the first two months of the season, finishing May with a 29-22 record, but a 9-19 June put them in an insurmountable hole. A 3-13 stretch from late August to mid-September kept them from catching up to the crowded three-team pack atop the Wild Card standings.
Pittsburgh dealt with a number of injuries to key players. Many of the Bucs' star players underperformed. The front office missed on a few key moves, namely the trade to acquire Jonathon Niese and the decision to put Juan Nicasio in the Opening Day rotation.
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The brightest spot may have been the performance of several young players, from Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell to Adam Frazier and Chad Kuhl. That gives them reason to believe the bridge will only span one season.
"I think it's one of the best takeaways we're going to have this season going into next. The next-man-up mentality," manager Clint Hurdle said. "The way they've been able to get involved. The way they've presented themselves. The focus. The preparation. And then the playing of the game. ... Nothing like experience, and meaningful experience. We've gotten to experience a lot of different things as a club.
"There's been some good ups. There's been some hard downs. Late-inning games. Different roles. Different responsibilities. I do believe it has been a very good opportunity for us to enhance our growth and get these guys more not just in one lane but kind of an HOV lane moving into next year."
Record: 78-83, third place, National League Central
Defining moment: Coming off their first-ever four-game sweep at Miller Park, the Pirates rolled into Wrigley Field on Aug. 29 a half-game out of a postseason spot. They beat up on nemesis Jake Arrieta to the tune of six runs in 6 1/3 innings and carried a one-run lead into the ninth inning, three outs away from storming back into the postseason picture.
But closer Tony Watson gave up a game-tying homer to Jorge Soler, sending the game into extras. The Bucs took a lead in the 13th, again putting them three outs away from a playoff lead, only for left-hander Jeff Locke -- pitching his fourth inning in relief -- to allow two runs. They lost that game, 8-7, and got swept by the Cubs. That slide continued into September, and by then it was too late for Pittsburgh to recover.
Though they weren't officially eliminated until weeks after, it felt as if the Pirates' postseason hopes truly ended the night of Sept. 6, when Watson served up four runs on three Cardinals homers in the ninth inning of a 9-7 loss.
What went right:Ivan Nova and Taillon emerged as second-half stars in the rotation, with Nova reaffirming the Pirates' belief in their past reclamation-project success and the rookie Taillon looking like a future top-of-the-rotation arm after two frustrating years of injury rehabilitation.
Gregory Polanco put together a breakout first half, hit for power throughout the year and accepted a long-term deal. Starling Marte made his star turn, despite a lack of power and a lower back injury that sidelined him most of September. Jung Ho Kang returned from a devastating knee injury and excelled later in the year, David Freese -- Kang's early-season replacement -- was a bargain at $3 million before receiving a contract extension of his own, and Sean Rodríguez put together the best offensive season of his career.
The Pirates hit on a number of free agents, in fact -- namely Rodriguez, Matt Joyce, Neftalí Feliz and Nicasio (after he moved into the bullpen). They also introduced a number of future building blocks, from Taillon and Kuhl in the rotation to Bell at first base and Frazier in a super-utility role.
What went wrong: Inconsistency was the story of the season, as the Pirates never put together an extended hot streak to match several prolonged skids. Part of that was due to their early-season rotation: Francisco Liriano, Niese, Locke and Nicasio all struggled badly before being forcibly removed from the rotation.
The Pirates dealt with their share of bad luck, including the series of injuries that affected Gerrit Cole, the midseason loss of catchers Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, the late-season injuries to Josh Harrison, Marte, Feliz and Stewart. They were practically out of the division race in June thanks to the Cubs, and their standing helped influence the Pirates' decision to trade Melancon.
Ultimately, though, the Pirates' struggles can be attributed to the uncharacteristically poor performance of their core players: Andrew McCutchen, Cole, Liriano, Cervelli, Harrison, Watson and on down the line. Even with their other missteps, a repeat of 2015 from all of the above would have easily sent the Bucs back to October.
Biggest surprise: Did anyone expect Kang to return to form so quickly after such a serious knee injury? He struggled in the middle of the year but returned to form after a second disabled list stint, emerging as a possible 30-homer candidate next season. And while those around the team expected Taillon to debut well, his overall polish was still remarkable for a rookie pitcher who hadn't appeared in an affiliated game since 2013.
Hitter of the Year: Kang may have been the Pirates' best hitter, but Marte was their best overall offensive player. In his first All-Star campaign, Marte maintained his high-average hitting, got on base more than last season and set a career high for stolen bases. His home run power dipped significantly, but he could withstand that setback by being such a dynamic offensive player in every other way.
Pitcher of the Year: Taillon was their most consistent starter for the longest period of time, and he looked like the Pirates' platonic ideal of a starting pitcher: an efficient, walk-free ground-ball machine. This is a surprisingly difficult decision, as Locke led the team in innings and Nicasio finished with the most wins. Both were below-average starters, though Nicasio was a well above-average reliever. Cole was inconsistent and injured. It may have been Melancon, but he was traded. Felipe Rivero was their best reliever down the stretch and Nova their best starter, but neither pitched enough for the Pirates to make the impact Taillon did.
Rookie of the Year: Taillon gets the nod for being in the Majors the longest and making the biggest impact, but don't forget about Bell. He made a seamless transition as a hitter, performing well from both sides of the plate, and held his own at first base while also returning to right field. Bell looks like a future mainstay in their lineup wherever he plays, showing a mature approach and remarkably consistent hitting mechanics for his age.