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12/26/11 11:24 AM EST

Pirates show promise in encouraging 2011

PITTSBURGH -- When it comes to expectations and how closely the Pirates came to those expectations in 2011, there is hardly a consensus of opinions.

On one hand, you could argue that the Pirates well exceeded them. Their run to the top of the division after the All-Star break, their flirtation with .500 for more than two-thirds of the season and their participant as buyers during the Trade Deadline were all entirely unexpected at season's start.

But you could also counter with the reality that another losing season was precisely what was predicted all along, and that the means to the end was mostly irrelevant in a profession that measures success by a record.

Whatever side of the argument you support, there is no debating that 2011 turned into one of the more intriguing seasons of baseball played in Pittsburgh in years. Surprises in the rotation and the emergence of several young players brought a palpable energy and hope for what might be in store next year.

As a year that finally featured meaningful summer baseball in Pittsburgh comes to a close, here is a look back at the five biggest stories and storylines of 2011:

Year in Review
Looking back at 2011
2011 Pirates
Pirates 2011 stats
Final standings
Hot Stove tracker
MLB Year in Review

5. Pedro Alvarez endures season-long slump
Expected to be a big bat in the middle of the Pirates' lineup, Alvarez instead looked like a bust. While the organization is certainly not giving up on the former No. 2 overall Draft pick, 2011 turned out to be an entirely forgotten season for Alvarez. He endured a stint on the disabled list, two assignments in Triple-A and never did find his footing in the Majors. While the Pirates were prepared for Alvarez to endure the normal growing pains that come during a player's first big league season, the club certainly could never have expected such pronounced and prolonged woes.

4. Blown call ends 19-inning marathon
With one of the most controversial calls in recent memory, home plate umpire Jerry Meals solidified Atlanta's 4-3 win over the Pirates on July 26 in a game that lasted six hours and 39 minutes. The game was the longest (in terms of minutes) in franchise history and featured a string of 13 straight scoreless innings from the bullpen, before Daniel McCutchen faltered. Arguably most impressive of all was the fact that McCutchen threw 92 pitches on a day he was supposed to be unavailable out of the 'pen. As deflating as the loss was at the time, it also turned out to be the beginning of a rapid downfall for the team. The loss dropped the Pirates out of a tie for the division lead, and the club would never see first place again.

3. Organization spends record amount on Draft class
The Pirates handed out more than $17 million in signing bonuses to 24 players taken in the June First-Year Player Draft. That shattered the previous record $12 million that the Nationals guaranteed to members of its Draft class in 2011. A significant chunk of the Pirates' spending went toward signing No. 1 overall pick Gerrit Cole ($8 million) and second-rounder Josh Bell ($5 million). Cole's bonus was the highest-paying Minor League deal ever handed out, and Bell's signing represented record second-round money. With this 2011 spending total, the Pirates have now allocated close to $48 million on Draft bonuses over the last four years.

2. Surprising summer propels Bucs to first place
A club that no one expected to contend took to manager Clint Hurdle's booming presence and found itself in first place late in July. For the first time in years, the Pirates were regularly playing in front of sellout crowds at home, as there was an obvious reconnection between the ballclub and the city of Pittsburgh. The Pirates were in first place as late as July 25 for the first time since 1992 and sat above .500 as late in any season since 1997. Though the club stumbled over the final two months of the year, the team did finish with a 15-win improvement over 2010.

1. Pirates extend record losing streak to 19 years
Until the organization can stop extending its own dubious distinction, this will remain the defining moment of each season. With just 18 wins in their final 59 games, the Pirates slid their way to a 19th straight losing season, a streak unsurpassed by any team in North America's four major professional sporting leagues. This year, loss No. 82 came at home to the eventual World Champion Cardinals on Sept. 14. The Pirates have now lost at least 90 games each of the last seven seasons.

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.