Pirates plan to be in it at the finish
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Clint Hurdle's message to the Pirates this spring is one word: finish.
"Yes, finish," the manager said emphatically on Thursday morning at Pirate City. "Finish the play, finish the at-bat, finish the inning, finish your thought, finish the game. Finish!"
Last year, after Hurdle took over the hapless Pirates, he preached believing in themselves, believing in their talents. Believing.
Until they ran out of gas in late July, the Pirates were not only believing in themselves, they had most of Major League Baseball doing the same thing.
On July 25, after beating the Braves, 3-1, the Pirates -- yes, the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates -- were leading the National League Central by a percentage point over the Cardinals.
But by Aug. 7 they'd lost 10 games in a row; they were in fourth place, 10 games behind the first-place Brewers; and they were not believing.
They ended the season 72-90, 24 games out of first place.
"We had some challenges that eventually took the steam out of us in some areas," said Hurdle, who guided the Rockies to the 2007 World Series. "The erosion of the pitching, losing the two guys -- Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm -- for the last six weeks who'd actually pitched the deepest in seasons, cost us.
"Plus, we never hit the way we anticipated us being able to hit, so that compounded things as well. When they walked away at the end of the season, our players had a full understanding of what a 162-game championship schedule is all about. Many of these guys had never played four months of meaningful games."
So this once-great franchise begins the 2012 campaign against the Phillies on April 5 without having a winning season in 19 years.
If Hurdle, 54, the perfect skipper for this team, can bottle the ingredients of the nearly four successful 2011 months and spread them over the entire season, the Pirates might shake the "loser" tag.
General manager Neal Huntington has done a remarkable job building the Minor League system. Few teams have as many high-end prospects.
All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen has "superstar" written all over his credentials. As he matures, he's the obvious franchise player the Pirates can build around.
"What we did in the first half last year, we have to maintain that focus," says McCutchen, who batted just .220 from July 25 to the season's disappointing end.
But for the Pirates to be a contender for all of 2012, they have to score more runs. They finished 14th in the NL in that category last season, with only 610.
Pitching remains their forte.
"We needed to upgrade at shortstop and got one in Clint Barmes. We wanted to solidify the catcher's position," said Hurdle. "We got Rod Barajas, a guy who has Major League experience, a tested veteran with offensive value. When [pitcher] Erik Bedard is healthy, he competes and gets outs. Nate McLouth gives us outfield depth."
And then there's the controversial A.J. Burnett, who wore out his welcome with the Yankees and was dealt to the Pirates for some Minor Leaguers a few days ago.
That the Pirates would take on Burnett is puzzling, though admittedly, he and the injury-prone left-hander Bedard bring experience.
Burnett helped the Yankees win the 2009 World Series, but he never equaled the $82.5 million contract they gave him. He was a huge disappointment the past two seasons, but he does give Hurdle a potential No. 1 starter who can stabilize the youngsters on the staff.
"The Burnett trade was a good baseball trade," Hurdle said, raising his voice. "We went from a rotation short on experience, and for the first time in a long time, we have more names than we have positions.
"Burnett has pitched in a very challenging division [with the Yankees and Blue Jays]. He's had success in this game, has been challenged. We feel good about his skills and the opportunity he's going to have here to rekindle his career. He wouldn't be the first guy challenged in a venue and go somewhere else and re-ignite a career. In all the evaluation we did, this is a very good fit for him and for us."
Said Huntington: "Having some experience in the clubhouse is a good thing, but most important, we brought in players who can still play. They were brought here to pitch well and give us a shot to win every time they take the mound."
Since Bedard's final start of the 2007 season, for Seattle, he has been on the disabled list seven times -- 401 days in total -- and won just 16 games.
He threw in the bullpen the other day and appears healthy.
"I wanted to come here and try to help this team finish, help them to win," Bedard told MLB.com's Tom Singer. "It would be nice to be recognized for that."
Hurdle insists that the final two months of 2011 might have been as important as the first successful four.
"There was growth and there was learning [the last two months]," he said. "We were able to put a lot of staples in place, get us in the right lane and headed in the right direction.
"I use the term 'you taste your own blood.' We got hit in the mouth [the last two months]. Our mental toughness has to improve, our physical preparedness has to be better. So when we get in those challenging times, we have to fall back on our training and not panic."
Hurdle says that the pitching staff "took on water" like it hadn't all year during that fateful 10-game losing streak, and the team sunk.
The goal for 2012 is seal all the leaks -- and end 19 years of losing.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.