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01/29/10 8:36 PM EST

Bucs believe that time to win is now

Exuding confidence, club talks improvement, playoffs

PITTSBURGH -- For a team that hasn't touched a winning season since Barry Bonds was in left field and Doug Drabek was leading the pitching staff, the Pirates sure are touting some lofty expectations for 2010. Just listen to manager John Russell.

"I think we're through the tunnel of wondering where we are, what we need to do as far as players needing to be acquired," Russell said on Friday. "I think we're through that. Now our goal as a staff and as a club is to go out and to prepare to win championships in Pittsburgh.

"Our goal going into Spring Training is to come together and start thinking playoff baseball. Wins and losses are very important, but our standards are going to be set [higher]. We're going to do what we can as a staff and as a team to start thinking playoffs."

Yes, playoffs.

For those who would be content seeing this team simply crack the .500 mark, know that such a goal remains far from satisfactory in management's eyes. But with a team that lost 99 games last year and made Octavio Dotel its most prominent offseason signing, is the postseason really a legitimate expectation?

This is, don't forget, a team that's highest paid player is Akinori Iwamura at $4.85 million and is projected to have baseball's lowest Opening Day payroll. It's a team that has lost 93 or more games in six of the past nine seasons, and one that endured a 9-27 skid to end the 2009 campaign.

So what gives?

"We are better. We are moving forward. And 2010 will be a much better year."
-- Pirates GM
Neal Huntington

"You have to believe it," reliever Joel Hanrahan said of playoff aspirations. "If you don't believe it, why show up? You don't play for a winning season. You play for the bling, for the ring. I wish we were a month into the season right now to see how the pieces are fitting."

Hanrahan wasn't alone in his championship references either. On a day which 1960 World Series hero Bill Mazeroski was honored, president Frank Coonelly spoke aloud about similarities he sees between that World Series championship team and the current club preparing to begin a new season.

Coonelly noted that the 1950s were not kind to the Pirates, which went a combined 454-777 from 1950-57. The team broke through the evasive .500 mark in '58, again in '59, and then, of course, captured a championship in the first year of the new decade.

"I really feel like we have a core of good young players -- much like they did in the mid-1950s -- that are growing together," Coonelly concluded. "We will return this organization to a championship team again in Pittsburgh. That's what we're working extremely hard for."

Still, this is a team that has established a 17-year losing streak and has not played meaningful baseball in September since 1997. It's one thing to talk the talk, so to say, and make bold predictions. But what proof is there to back up the belief that this Pirates club is not just going to improve, but that it's ready to compete with the league's best?

Much of the hope lies with a player many see as a budding superstar.

"I grew up in a small town, and to be where I am now is amazing," Andrew McCutchen said. "I always look at that and say that anything is possible. I believe that you're going to see a difference. I believe it's a team that's going to surprise some people. We have the pieces to the puzzle. We just have to put them together."

Before greeting fans at PirateFest on Friday night, other players also did their best to provide a convincing argument as to why those same fans should be able to expect better times to come.

"The improvements that a lot of the young players made last year, I don't think there's any reason to believe why other young players can't make those same improvements," starter Ross Ohlendorf said. "I really think Charlie Morton and Kevin Hart are going to be significantly better than they were last season. I think being traded in the middle of the season can be really hard. You don't realize it at the time, but it can cause you to put too much pressure on yourself."

Asserted pitcher Daniel McCutchen: "We're mostly young and we get along really well. Team chemistry has so much to do with winning. I think we have a good group of guys that fit in together really well."

Regardless of whether you believe the Pirates will be playing in October later this year -- and yes, management realizes that most remain quite skeptical of that occurring -- one thing remains clear: These players, these coaches, this management team is not thinking past this season. All the hype about the prospects that will be in Pittsburgh in 2011 and beyond is exciting, but this group isn't going through the motions in the meantime.

"The 2010 Pirates, on paper, it's easy to dismiss," general manager Neal Huntington said. "It's easy to say, 'It's another year.' You'll never hear me say that we'll win in 2012 or 2013, because that basically means we're not going to win tonight's game.

"We are better. We are moving forward. And 2010 will be a much better year."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.