Pirates eager to 'live in the moment'
Young group keeping franchise's recent history in the past
The question seemed plenty innocuous, though manager Clint Hurdle -- as he often does -- took his time before replying. Hurdle is known for recycling certain clichés. (He's done so at times this spring.) But his answers are anything but rehearsed.
Maybe he hadn't been asked the question before. More likely, he just needed some time to file through the past six weeks to make sure he had conviction in his answer.
What have you learned about this team through Spring Training that you didn't already know?
There were about 15 seconds of silence as the words were processed. Then, Hurdle was satisfied that he had it.
"These guys are ready to win," he answered. "They're ready to win."
And he continued.
"You break things down on paper -- we don't have the names that other teams have," Hurdle said, entirely aware of the external expectations surrounding his new team. "We don't have the pedigrees, the back of the bubblegum cards that other teams have. But I have learned through playing the game, coaching the game and managing the game that the beauty of it is that the game is not played on paper. All we've got to be is better than the team that night we're playing them. That's one message we're revisiting just about daily this spring."
Hurdle has been lauded for saying all the right things, beginning with his introductory news conference in November on through the club's caravan and Spring Training. But now, Hurdle is ready to test his 25 players against every other 25. And he believes strongly in his bunch.
Outside the walls of the Pirates' clubhouse, expectations aren't all that high for this Pittsburgh club. The drain of 18 straight losing seasons has worn on many, though Hurdle refuses to let it become a weary point of discussion among his team. The Pirates are certainly aware of the past. What they won't be, Hurdle insists, is a slave to it.
"Other people probably don't have expectations for us," said Kevin Correia, tabbed to start Opening Day against the Cubs on Friday at 2:20 p.m. ET. "As a team -- as an organization -- we have high expectations. You have to. There is no way to start a season with no or low expectations. You're already beat then. Just because no one else has high expectations for us, we still do."
There appear to be both reasons for hope and reasons still for concern with a fresh season on the horizon. The arrivals of Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata last season infused a level of youthful talent unmatched by this team in recent years.
Walker and Tabata spent the year flirting with a .300 batting average. Alvarez thrived in the final month of the season, providing, perhaps, a promise of what lies ahead.
The additions of Matt Diaz and Lyle Overbay have already paid dividends inside the clubhouse, though the two weren't brought in solely for camaraderie purposes. The Pirates expect them to boost the offense as well.
And there is no reason to expect that Andrew McCutchen won't continue to be one of the most productive center fielders in the game.
"I think we have a pretty special bunch of guys," Alvarez said. "If there is one thing we do well here, it is live in the moment. We don't live in the past. We don't look too far into the future. We look at the present. Right now, we have a great group of guys that can do some damage. Offensively, I think we're pretty balanced."
There's little question that the Pirates will flaunt a more formidable Opening Day lineup than they did a year ago. How well the group fares over the course of the season, though, will be determined largely by how big of a step forward these three second-year players can take.
|Projected Opening Day lineup|
|6||RF||Garrett Jones *|
|7||C||Ryan Doumit &|
*- Will platoon with Matt Diaz
&- Replacing Chris Snyder (back)
Still, the promise of youth in the lineup is met by questions in the starting rotation. One year after finishing with the Majors' worst ERA (5.28), the Pirates' rotation looks very much the same.
In is Correia, essentially taking Zach Duke's spot atop the starting five, though he does not fit an ace-type profile. This is a rotation very much built with the understanding that everyone has to contribute. Improvement must come individually from Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton and James McDonald for the staff to take significant steps forward.
Following the starters will be a new-look bullpen led by closer Joel Hanrahan and setup man Evan Meek. If the starters can do their job and pitch deeper into games, the back end of the bullpen is set up to potentially be one of the stronger suits of this team.
"I think that the goal for every starter this year is to go deep into games and use the bullpen when we need them, not because we're not making it through," Maholm said. "That needs to be the mentality of every guy that goes out there. We've got to take care of those guys so they can take care of us."
Given that the Pirates are coming off a 105-loss season, success can be measured in any number of ways. The win-loss record will provide the most tangible evidence of improvement and is sure to be the focus of fans and media.
But of all the lessons preached by Hurdle this spring -- and there have been dozens -- one that he has deemed as important as any others centers on this topic of expectation.
"What I'm looking for is to challenge everyone to be the best player that they can be," Hurdle said. "If we can get everyone out in that room to be the best player they can be this year and be the best pitcher they can be this year, it's going to end good. The focus is that we're not going to accept mediocrity."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.