Pittsburgh Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington met with the media on Sunday, discussing several topics, including the struggles from Josh Harrison, the fading pitching depth, and the walk issues that have impacted the offense this year. Here is a breakdown of each of those topics. We’ll have more Huntington notes on minor league related topics later today.
Josh Harrison’s Struggles
While Andrew McCutchen’s early season struggles are one thing, the struggles of Josh Harrison have been sort of masked by the level of attention justifiably devoted to the Pirates MVP. Through Sunday, the player many vouched for as last season’s team MVP was hitting .173 with a .491 OPS.
Harrison’s spectacular 2014 season earned him a four-year extension that could net him as much as $50 million. It’s only natural to wonder how his new deal might affect his play.
General manager Neal Huntington remarked Sunday players generally do one of three things when they get their payday:
1. Relax and keep playing the way that earned the player his contract
2. Stop giving the level of effort now that he’s financially secure
3. Try to justify the contract.
Harrison falls into the third category.
“He’s trying to show that those that doubted him,” Huntington said. “He’s trying to show us for showing faith in him that it is deserving.”
The major problem Huntington identified with the team’s offensive woes is that too many players are trying to do too much at the plate. Harrison is one of those players, with that mindset deriving from trying to prove he deserved the contract.
Once Harrison takes a step back, Huntington thinks the Harrison of 2014 will quickly return.
“We just need Josh to take a deep breath and be the player that we know he is capable of,” Huntington said. “Be the energy, be the leader, be the dangerous guy in the box, be the guy that bounces around the field but do it well defensively and we believe he is close to that.”
A hallmark, though not lauded as one, of recent Pirates teams was the pitching depth that allowed Pittsburgh to withstand injuries to Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton and A.J. Burnett in the last couple of seasons. But with Jameson Taillon rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, Brandon Cumpton going down in the spring with the same surgery, and now the potential injury to Nick Kingham — who many expected to contribute in Pittsburgh this season — the depth isn’t as solid as it once was.
This year, Morton is in a similar position as 2013 when he entered the rotation in June following his Tommy John surgery in 2012. He’s in the midst of rehabbing from his hip injury suffered last year, and if he returns to the form that netted him his own contract extension, he would be an excellent number four option in the rotation and provide some insurance if any other pitchers go down.
Beyond Morton, though, the Pirates only have Casey Sadler as pitchers equipped to join the rotation for a spell at the moment. Pittsburgh will search for depth from new sources, with Huntington mentioning reclamation project Clayton Richard or even Adrian Sampson as players that could develop into options.
“We’ve chipped away at our depth and we’re going to have to have some guys continue to grow and develop,” Huntington said. “We may need to add depending on where we go, it’s going to factor into our roster decisions as we move forward.”
Walks and the Offense
The Pirates tied with the Mets for the National League’s best walk rate at 8.4 percent last season. This year, their 6.1 percent rate of drawing free passes ranks ahead of only Colorado at 5.5 percent.
As Huntington noted with Harrison, the Pirates offense has suffered from hitters pressing in the box. As a result, their strikeouts are up and walks are down.
Once the walks start to come back, so should the runs. Look no further than Thursday’s 7-2 in victory against Cincinnati as proof. In that game, the Pirates not only rapped out 11 hits but also drew seven walks.
“As we get our guys back to being intelligently-aggressive hitters our walk rate should return,” Huntington said. “We don’t want to create defensive hitters, we want to create intelligently-aggressive hitters.”