Hurdle believes Bucs' current bats can thrive

Skipper says several hitters are looking into increasing launch angle

December 14th, 2017

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Ask Clint Hurdle how the Pirates can improve offensively next season, and he won't mention a power-hitting free agent or trade target. Even at the Winter Meetings, entrenched with Pittsburgh's front office as they've discussed deals all week, Hurdle believes the Pirates already have what it takes.

The Pirates fielded one of the Majors' least productive lineups last season, ranking 28th in runs and OPS and 29th in home runs and slugging percentage. But Hurdle insisted Wednesday those numbers can improve organically with good health, a consistent core and an adjusted approach.

"Our focus needs to continue to be upon ourselves, getting us better," Hurdle said. "Teams are going to add. Teams are going to subtract. How can we be the best team we're going to be? I know it might sound like a pat answer, but it works when you do it. And it's what we need to do more than anything else."

The Pirates were without all season and for 80 games in 2017, while and were often limited by injuries. Kang is unlikely to return for 2018, but the Bucs are counting on more production from Marte, Polanco and Cervelli.

"First and foremost is our health," Hurdle said. "It's getting the core group of men on the field with consistency. Outside of that, I think all players are continually looking to improve their game."

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To that end, Hurdle said several hitters discussed the idea last season of adding more lift to their swing, creating a launch angle that should lead to more line drives and fly balls and fewer balls on the ground. The Pirates finished last season with the third highest ground-ball rate in the Majors at 46.9 percent, behind only the Marlins and White Sox.

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One player looking to make that adjustment, Hurdle said, is , who remains the starter at third base in Kang's absence. Freese led the team with a .368 on-base percentage but lacked power, swatting only 10 homers with a .371 slugging percentage. He showed more power the previous two seasons, during which he combined for 27 homers and a .416 slugging percentage.

"David actually brought it to us," Hurdle said. "Players watch TV. Players listen to other players. Players watch for the players that have success. J.D. Martinez started talking about it a couple years ago. Then with the success that Chris Taylor had, it became public. The information gets out. We all are aware that OPS isn't on the ground.

"Guys are open-minded. They're looking for improvement. We're all trying to work a little bit harder, get a little bit better."

Hurdle also said he has received encouraging reports from the Dominican Republic regarding Marte, who is playing winter ball, and Polanco. The Pirates felt that Polanco sacrificed some of his natural athleticism in favor of additional strength during his training last winter, which may have led to the rash of injuries that derailed his season.

"On any given night, either of those guys can be the best player on the field," general manager Neal Huntington said of Marte and Polanco. "It's just a matter of how often we can get them to be the best player on the field."