PITTSBURGH — After rising as high as nine games over .500 in mid-May, the Pirates have sagged as June approaches, but you can’t accuse team management of sitting on its hands.
To the contrary, the past week has seen four personnel/roster adjustment, each of which has been a nod toward the here and now.
First came George Kontos’ designation for assignment, a recognition that the most veteran member of the Pirates’ bullpen could no longer be trusted to pitch for a team with thoughts of contention.
Evidently, a lot changed in the two months since the Pirates broke camp with Kontos envisioned as the primary setup man behind Felipe Vásquez. At the same time, all the indicators were there that Kontos wasn’t close to getting it together.
“It was very, very tough,” Huntington said of the DFA decision Sunday at PNC Park. “He really stabilized the bullpen after we had taken Tony (Watson) out of it. He’d been a very successful mid-leverage pitcher for the Giants for a number of years. We were excited to acquire him. Felt like he could continue to pitch in a meaningful role for us this year. Unfortunately it just didn’t work the way we were anticipating.”
“George did everything in his control, but it just didn’t work for him, and we had a number of other guys who were throwing the ball very well and are part of our present as well as our future.”
Through personal observation and second-hand information from players, the 32-year-old Kontos was doing quite a bit behind the scenes to help a young bullpen nail the preparation and routine it takes to succeed in the majors.
But, Kontos wasn’t employed as a coach, so those very same inexperienced pitchers he assisted ended up pushing him out. (Kontos was granted his unconditional release Monday afternoon.)
“He is a tremendous person and he has made us better with the leadership in that bullpen,” Huntington said. “We felt it was the right move … to move on from a very, very good man.”
There were two Austin Meadows-related actions this weekend that raised eyebrows, too. First, Meadows stayed in the majors when Starling Marte was activated from the disabled list, a move that was nowhere near a given 10 days ago.
“As it turned out, Meadows played extremely well in his time here, much better than he did when he was in Triple-A,” Huntington said. “Reminds you of Gregory Polanco when he opened his Major League career.”
Ah, Polanco. Speaking of him, the second Meadows move — inserting him into a four-outfielder rotation instead of strictly a bench role — stemmed more from having just two off-days over the next four weeks than Polanco’s struggles with squaring up baseballs pitched in his direction.
Or so Huntington said Sunday.
“It begins with wanting to give the opportunity to recognize that Corey Dickerson has played great, but he’s also played half as many games in the outfield as he has at his peak and we’re in May,” Huntington said. “We need to respect that (and) respect that Marte is coming off the disabled list and how frequently we can run him out there. Polanco has done a lot of great work behind the scenes that hasn’t translated in the at-bats just yet, but we feel like he’s close.
“So, were there opportunities to give each of those guys rest? Austin Meadows isn’t here as a fourth outfielder. He’s here as part of a four-outfielder group. That allows us to keep these other guys strong, or ideally, get Gregory Polanco right. If he’s not going to play, it doesn’t make any sense for him to be here.”
Regardless of the true motivations behind lifting Meadows’ status on a club, it’s a move unmistakably aimed at helping the 2018 team, not the 2019 or ’20 Pirates.
Furthermore, we could argue that Iván Nova might not have gone on the disabled list Monday with a sprained finger had Nick Kingham not impressed in his first few Pirates starts.
When asked directly if the Pirates’ place in the National League hunt contributed to their flurry of activity, Huntington wouldn’t bite beyond going back into the reasoning for retaining Meadows. As of Monday morning, Pittsburgh was five games back in the National League Central on Monday morning and 1 1/2 games behind in the wild card race.
However, Huntington did admit to operating differently because of a topic Alan Saunders recently dug into: More MLB-ready depth players.
“I get the criticism that we hold onto guys too long,” Huntington told broadcaster Greg Brown on the Pirates Radio Network. “Maybe it’s the success we’ve had with guys who have come from other places and had some challenges, that allows us to hold onto the thought that we can get a guy right.
“But we haven’t had the depth (in the past) that we have this year. When you’re holding onto one guy, you’re typically choosing between two or three guys. When we did that, it was actually a pretty easy decision.”
Huntington was referring to the Kontos release in particular with that last comment, but it could also apply to the situations surrounding Meadows and Kingham. They have outperformed the more experienced players that they’ve been playing behind, and they’ll get increased opportunity because of it.
Sounds pretty basic, but that this is happening is a good indicator the Pirates’ front office realizes the chance this team has to make for an exciting summer on the North Shore.
Or, after eight losses in 10 games — including an ugly 7-0 defeat to the Cubs at PNC Park on Memorial Day — management fears the promising start might be slipping away. Either way, there’s urgency.