3/28/2013 10:00 A.M. ET
Pirates poised to push back past, break through
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH -- You frequently hear about the Pirates' generation-long plight, that while their fathers have waited two decades for a winning record, they have raised their children through their teeth-cutting, through kindergarten, junior high proms, high school graduations and college orientations.
Never has mediocrity been as celebrated as it will be when the Pirates win an 82nd game to put an end to a string of losing unmatched in the annals of North American professional team sports, which stands at 20 consecutive seasons. That must be why no one around the team will speak of .500 being a target; who wants to obsess over mediocrity?
W: Samardzija L: Burnett S: Fujikawa
The Bucs aim higher, and they believe higher is within their reach. Pittsburgh is the classic finish-the-deal team, after two years of taunting. In 2011, the Pirates spent 45 days above .500. Last season, it was 100 days.
In his third season as their manager, Clint Hurdle guarantees that the Bucs will be even better. He can't guarantee they will be winners, because the 20 teams on their schedule will have a say in that -- chief among them the defending NL Central-champion Reds, who have moved the target.
"But we've improved across the board," Hurdle said. "Our internal people have another year of experience, and we'll have the two pitchers [A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez] for the full year. So we're in a much better position to contend. We have to prove we are a better team, but we have a much stronger club than we've had in the past."
The team that will take a bow Monday at 1:35 p.m. ET in PNC Park against the Chicago Cubs certainly is different. The Pirates' Opening Day roster has undergone a 48 percent turnover from last year's, and the 12 departed include pre-2012 acquisitions left-hander Erik Bedard and catcher Rod Barajas.
They have been replaced by Rodriguez, who came aboard late last July, and Russell Martin, the new catcher whose blood type is W.
The starting rotation, the calling card of any team, has undergone an even more complete transformation, with James McDonald the only holdover from the quintet that opened last season.
Of course, it did not take Burnett long to merge in. Once he recovered from the eye orbital bone fracture he sustained early in Spring Training, he set course for his 16-win season.
Burnett, a Pirate reincarnate if there ever was one, sets sail at the outset this time, with the first Opening Day assignment of his long career. He takes on the Cubs' Jeff Samardzija, meaning both clubs could be playing for one run from the initial cry of "Play Ball!"
Burnett tendered his best '12 start on July 31 against the Cubs, holding them hitless for 7 2/3 innings in Wrigley Field. Samardzija was repeatedly as tough on the Bucs, holding them to five hits and two earned runs across 17 innings in two starts.
The optimism fueled by this team is stronger than it was a year ago, which turned out to be quite a good year, anyway. So the potential ceiling has been raised. Also different is the blend sourcing the good vibes.
The Pirates entered last season with multiple uncertainties about their lineup and anchored by a strong, veteran pitching rotation. Now the statuses have been reversed.
The core of the lineup is firm, with center fielder Andrew McCutchen, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker and two-way Garrett Jones coming off definitive seasons. Gaby Sanchez seems primed for a huge comeback season, and Martin will swing a much heavier bat than did Barajas.
One of the centerpieces could be Starling Marte, who many see capable of a Mike Trout-like breakthrough. Marte does have same skill set and, as he sets out on his first full season, had a better opening act. Consider these sets of numbers:
• .220 average in 123 at-bats, with five homers and 16 RBIs and an OPS of .672.
• .257 average in 167 at-bats, with five homers and 17 RBIs and an OPS of .737.
The first set is Trout, in his 40-game introduction during the 2011 season. The second is Marte's introduction last season, after his late-July promotion from Triple-A.
"He's a game-changer," Hurdle said of Marte.
The rotation may not be as deep, but it is top heavy.
"We think it is versatile -- everyone gives you different looks -- and deep," said general manager Neal Huntington. "All the guys do different things, which will make it more difficult to advance [scout] us. They'll give us the innings to give us legitimate shots to win every day."
But it isn't even the front line that most encourages the Pirates, but what waits behind it. If one was to draw a simple analogy between the collapses of 2011 and last year, it was the lack of organizational depth to overcome the unavoidable fatigues and injuries of August and September.
The Bucs think they have that cured. Veteran utility men John McDonald and Brandon Inge will serve dual purposes: Hurdle will confidently play them to give regulars breaks, and being on the Major League bench will allow high-end prospects such as Jordy Mercer to play regularly in Indianapolis -- kept sharp in case they are needed.
As for the pitching staff, a genuine revolving door may be needed for the clubhouse. If the Bucs go through the entire season with the dozen pitchers they will start with, or even a baker's dozen, great, it will mean all the arms are healthy and dealing.
But that is unlikely, and when help is needed, the source will be bountiful. Waiting in the wings will be pitchers, both starters and relievers, caught in the Spring Training numbers crunch despite, in many cases, terrific exhibition showings.
Then, there are The Three Amigos in reserve: Charlie Morton and Jose Contreras, hitting the stretch of their rehabs from Tommy John surgeries, and Francisco Liriano, the left-hander with the fractured right arm. They are all on track and, barring setbacks, the Bucs expect them to be ready to check in about the time summer does.
And there is Jeff Karstens, whose prognosis for his biceps tendinitis is still unclear, and Gerrit Cole, who spent Spring Training knocking on a door he may be ready to kick down in mid-June.
If you don't see Cole in a Pirates uniform this season, it will be a very good thing, because it will mean the other pitchers are performing so well, he is not needed to come to the rescue.
And you could drink to that.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.