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Steve Novotney Says, "Fans May Break Up with Buccos"

Now why in the world would I commit to them if they haven't committed to me?

It's a trust thing, especially when it comes down to money, and with the economy the way it is these days, return on investment is primary.

So, when it is apparent the company attempting to lure my money away from my grubby hands fails to offer good enough reasons for me to let go of the cash, the dollars remain pocketed. It's pretty simple to understand, really, and it is why it's predictable the Pittsburgh Pirates will draw fewer than two million fans to PNC Park in 2017.

While two other teams in the National League Central Division have yet again invested millions of dollars to place a winner on the diamond this season, Pirates' ownership has not although the reasons for the ballclub's return to under-.500 were clear to see last year. The starting pitching was abysmal, the bullpen shaky to say the least, and injuries to Josh Harrison and Francisco Cervelli revealed issues with depth.

If nothing else, even the casual fan noticed the club's win-loss record and 78 victories a season after winning 98 was, quite frankly, a collapse that ended a string of postseason appearances. With spring training about a week away, it's easy to see that General Manager Neal Huntington has been instructed to allow the farm system to stock the roster and that supplies question marks all over the field of play.

PITCHING

Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Ivan Nova, Chad Kuhl, Tyler Glasnow.

That is how the rotation appears at this time, and it's far from promising, unfortunately, because of the unanswered questions about each hurler.

  • Will Cole return to the dominating form that has had his name mentioned in Cy Young conversations?
  • Taillon was good last season, but issues with arm strength and fatigue allow a fan to worry about true potential.
  • The off-season's lone, notable signing, Nova, is nothing more than yet another reclamation project for pitching coach Ray Searage, so will he pitch as he did in 2011 when recording a 16-4 mark with a 3.70 ERA or as the right-hander did in 2015 when he was 6-11 with a 5-plus earned-run average?
  • Kuhl is a total unknown who showed flashes of promise, but he's far from a power pitcher, so will he be mature enough to for the big leagues?
  • Glasnow, a longtime "promising prospect," is untested and therefore unproven no matter what his minor-league statistics indicate, so there are nothing other than questions about this right-handed 23-year-old.

The bullpen remains without a true closer as Tony Watson failed in the role after Mark Melancon was traded away in a salary-dump deal last July, and no other roster member has the stereotypical stuff for the ninth inning. Manager Clint Hurdle may leave Watson as this year's closer but only by default.

INFIELD

Josh Bell, Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Jung-ho Kang.

More questions.

Bell is the only one who has not yet been stationed full-time in the Pirates infield, and he is a natural outfielder whose transition to first base has been delayed by a knee injury that will force him to miss the first few weeks of spring training.

Not good.

Harrison missed significant playing time last season with a groin injury, but he is expected to return in 2017 in perfect health; Mercer should be solid at shortstop, and he improved offensively last season, batting .256 with 11 homers in 149 games.

And then there is Kung, the third baseman who surprised everyone two years ago, and he recovered from a horrible knee injury to post a .255 batting average with 16 home runs. His off-the-field distractions, though, are troublesome for the Pirates. Not only was he investigated by Chicago police for an alleged sexual assault last year, but he also was arrested and charged in South Korea with his 3rd DUI this offseason. He is expected to arrive in Bradenton, Fla., on time, according to Huntington, and all eyes (and likely a bunch of noses) will be on him from the first minute.

David Freese could replace Kung at third and also could see playing time at first base along with Jason Jaso. Adam Frazier and Allan Hanson may be available, as well, but both are unknowns on the major-league level.

OUTFIELD:

Yes, there is a chance Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen, and Gregory Polanco actually could be the best outfield in the majors, but only if McCutchen improves at the plate and performs well in right field. The one-time National League MVP provided questionable defense in 2016, and his arm is not as strong as Marte's, so moving McCutchen to right makes sense. However, I believe he would be better in left field.

THE MANAGER

Hurdle was hired in 2011 and was named manager of the year two seasons later. He's recorded a 509-462 record in the regular season and is 3-5 in the playoffs although he's been asked to work with rosters with only a sprinkling of established veterans.

Some decisions of his have been questionable, and that includes moving McCutchen to the second spot in the batting order instead of leaving him batting third. The outfielder struggled, too, until Hurdle moved him back. With that said, Hurdle is a very good manager who would have many more wins to his credit if ownership offered him a 25-man roster full of mostly proven players.

Instead it's about the bottom line, and the fan base knows it.

PREDICTIONS

Wins and Losses: There are a few different reasons why the Pirates will end the 2017 season below .500 for the 22nd season the in the past 25 years, and the Cubs and the Cardinals are two of the biggest of those. Chicago finally won a world championship last October, and GM Theo Epstein has spent the offseason re-stocking his big-league roster, and St. Louis has improved its starting pitching with a couple of bona fide big-leaguers.

The Pirates? Not so much. The most talk took place when Huntington was shopping McCutchen to rid that bottom line of the $14 million he is due this year.

2017 Record – 75-87, 4th in NL Central Division.

Attendance: Pirates' fans only go to the ballpark if the ballclub is winning, and the franchise's attendance records prove it true. More than 2 million fans rolled into Three Rivers Stadium during both the 1990 and 1991 seasons because the Buccos were 95-67 and 98-64, respectively, and the team's division titles were the first since the club won the World Series in 1979.

After opening PNC Park in 2001, 2.5 million folks paid their way in to witness the franchise's first-ever 100-loss campaign, and not until 2012 did the ballpark have that kind of attendance again. During the four seasons since close to 10 million more have traveled through the turnstiles, but the team's performance in 2016 made a difference because an estimated 250,000 fewer fans saw the Pirates play in person.

That's because WE pay attention, but not only to the wins and the losses but also to ownership's commitment to winning. If it's evident the effort and investment are not there, we aren't … and won't be in 2017.

Attendance Prediction – 1.65 million, the least amount since 1.6 million spectators suffered through that 2009 season.

Categories: Commentary