Pirates look ahead after Hurdle’s dismissal

September 30th, 2019

PITTSBURGH -- On the final day of last season, Clint Hurdle sat behind his desk in the visiting manager’s clubhouse at Great American Ball Park and pondered a question. Were the Pirates heading into the offseason with a welcome degree of certainty? Eventually, he agreed that they were.

A year later, it’s hard to imagine the Pirates facing a more uncertain offseason. Their winter unofficially began on Sunday, when they dismissed Hurdle hours before losing their season finale to the Reds, 3-1, at PNC Park. So ended a 69-93, last-place campaign in the division, their worst since 2010.

“It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a long offseason to see what we do and what direction we take,” starter said. “I’m thankful I don’t make that decision. I’m thankful I’ve just got to worry about getting myself ready for 32-plus starts next year and hopefully pitching into October.”

Management provided a sliver of certainty for the days ahead before Sunday’s game, announcing that general manager Neal Huntington will return to lead the baseball operations department while also dismissing Hurdle with two years left on his contract. They will not have to wait until next week to learn where they stand.

What comes next? A managerial search, for starters, Huntington’s first since the one that led him to Hurdle in November 2010. Then they must fill out their coaching staff, assuming a new presence in the manager’s office will lead to further changes in the dugout like the expected dismissal of longtime pitching coach Ray Searage.

“When the players do bad, the coaches and managers take the blame -- and I’ve always hated that. This is my first real experience with that,” Williams said. “But I do know the guys in this clubhouse believe in each other and they really want to fight for each other regardless of what’s going on, managerial-wise.”

After a season when so much went wrong, from injuries to in-fighting, the Pirates must perform a full-scale evaluation of everything they do up and down the organization.

“We’ve continued to go through the assessment of our Draft process, of our player development process,” Huntington said. “We’ll finish up the season now and assess exactly what went right and what didn’t with this Major League team, where does this direction go in the offseason, how do we do what we’re talking about doing, our pro scouting.

“We’ll review basically everything – our medical, our mental skills, our strength and conditioning, our decision-making process, our informatics. We are in the midst of assessing everything. It’s something that we do every year, but on the heels of a 90-plus loss season, it’s that much more appropriate.”

Will that lead to further personnel changes or, perhaps, a dramatic shift in process like the one they implemented between the 2012 and ‘13 seasons? Before they repair their roster, the Pirates will need to pick a direction and decide if they have the right people in place to execute that plan.

“I believe we have the right staff. I believe that we’ve recognized we need to make some adjustments. We’re in the process of making those adjustments,” Huntington said. “The playing field is not level. We need to be better than we’ve been to get back to a position to be in the postseason, to win, and I and we believe we have a lot of very talented people that are capable of doing that and want to do that and are absolutely driven to do that.”

The uncertainty reaches into the clubhouse, too. What will Huntington do to address the Pirates’ drastically underperforming pitching staff? How will they add power? What can they do to bolster a young lineup that includes shortstop Kevin Newman, first baseman Josh Bell, outfielders Bryan Reynolds and Starling Marte?

“We have some really good things to build on. We have a good, young core,” Huntington said. “The core of this team that was 2 1/2 games out of first place at the All-Star break, most of that team is in its second or third full season. Second half, injuries finally caught up to us. Other things caught up to us. We finished in a very tough stretch.”

Huntington previously said the club might only pursue reclamation project-type starters, increasing the pressure on the returning members of their rotation like . In the final start of his up-and-down season, Williams held the Reds to two runs on five hits while striking out five over seven innings.

There is potential on the starting staff, but there is even more unpredictability.

Will Williams return to his late-2018 form? Can top prospect Mitch Keller perform up to his pedigree and peripheral numbers? Will Joe Musgrove take a step forward after putting together his first full, healthy season as a starter? Will Steven Brault stick in the rotation, potentially as a two-way player? Where does Chad Kuhl fit in his first season following Tommy John surgery? And what will they get out of Chris Archer?

That’s a lot of questions, and that’s just the rotation. There aren’t many sure things in the bullpen beyond closer Keone Kela, either. But the new manager’s first task will be rebuilding a clubhouse culture that seemed to wane amid all the losses that piled up during the second half.