PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates entered the final day before the last full month of the season eight games under .500 -- a season-high 10 games out of first place -- after losing 13 of their last 18 games."We've been grinding the whole time. We're not giving in any games," catcher
PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates entered the final day before the last full month of the season eight games under .500 -- a season-high 10 games out of first place -- after losing 13 of their last 18 games.
"We've been grinding the whole time. We're not giving in any games," catcher Chris Stewart said after a 17-3 loss to the Cubs on Wednesday. "We're coming out trying to win every single ballgame. Just hasn't been going our way."
That competitive attitude will not change. But realistically, the Pirates will spend September looking toward 2018. They've already taken steps in that direction, letting setup man Juan Nicasio go to the Phillies after placing him on irrevocable outright waivers.
So, what can the Pirates attempt to accomplish down the stretch? Consider that the first of many questions they must answer.
Start from the top. General manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle have club options for next season that have not yet been picked up. Will they be back?
Their current rotation is set to return next season, while Tyler Glasnow and Steven Brault will make some September starts. Can Gerrit Cole finish an up-and-down season on a high note, reassuring fans that he can be a top-of-the-rotation arm next year? Will Ivan Nova get some rest and finish strong?
How will Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Trevor Williams hold up at the end of their first full big league seasons? The Pirates must decide where their young arms best fit. Is Kuhl a starter or reliever? Has Williams' performance given him an edge heading into next year? It seems unlikely that they will call up prospect Nick Kingham, but he will be out of Minor League options next season. What role will he play?
The Pirates dropped Nicasio with the intent to use younger and/or controllable pitchers in high-leverage situations down the stretch, Huntington said. So expect to see a lot of George Kontos (when he's healthy), Dovydas Neverauskas, Edgar Santana and A.J. Schugel in front of Felipe Rivero.
The Pirates view Neverauskas and Santana as future back-end-of-the-bullpen arms. Will that future begin next year? It would help if Daniel Hudson, under contract for $5.5 million next year, carves out a role for himself. After Hudson took a step back this year, they could use some certainty in the 'pen heading into next spring.
Health may not seem like a priority for a team evaluating its future options, but it is important for Gregory Polanco, Adam Frazier and Francisco Cervelli to return. It's particularly critical for Polanco, who will be expected to take a step forward next year, to enter the offseason healthy.
Which catcher will back up Cervelli? Elias Diaz, 26, will be out of Minor League options next season, making him the likely choice. Stewart has a $1.5 million club option for 2018, but owns a meager .446 OPS on the year. Is Diaz ready to play every day if Cervelli gets hurt again? September may be a good time to find out.
Which young players will step forward and join Sean Rodriguez and Frazier on the bench next year? First baseman/outfielder Jose Osuna, infielder Max Moroff and outfielder Jordan Luplow may receive more playing time to help answer that question.
Finally, keep an eye on two of the season's bright spots. Rookie first baseman Josh Bell is developing into a middle-of-the-order hitter in his first full year, slashing .306/.377/.538 since the beginning of July. Andrew McCutchen found his MVP-level form in June and July then faltered in August. How will he finish? And will the Pirates commit to bringing him back?
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.