Pirates eager to take next step
Andrew McCutchen could have bided his time and waited for Pittsburgh to trade him. After all, it's what the Pirates have done for years with valuable assets about to be priced out of the franchise's somewhat modest budget.
The list of promising players sent packing over the last 20 years could make up a pretty good roster. Aramis Ramirez. Jason Bay. Jose Bautista. Jason Schmidt. All played for the Pirates early in their career, then blossomed into cornerstones of playoff teams when they became too expensive to keep around.
It's a fate McCutchen could have resigned himself to. Only he didn't. The speedy center fielder spent too much time coming up through the minors with good friend Neil Walker to bail. He knows all too well about ''The Streak,'' the ominous black cloud of 19 straight losing seasons tethered to the once proud franchise, yet he also wanted to see it through.
It's why the speedy All-Star opted to sign a six-year, $51.5 million contract with the Pirates in early March, a somewhat surprising show of loyalty and an even more surprising investment by a team desperate to show it is finally heading in the right direction.
''It like when you're getting remarried and you are renewing your vows,'' McCutchen said the day the deal was announced. ''That's how I feel.''
The same could be said about the strained relationship between Pittsburgh and its fans.
Though the team extended ''The Streak'' in 2011, the signs of progress were simply too big to ignore. Pittsburgh contended well into August before fading down the stretch. McCutchen became arguably the most exciting player in the game at his position. Closer Joel Hanrahan's intimidating presence led to 40 saves. Walker continued to progress into one of the NL's better second basemen and the suspect starting staff pitched lights-out for four months.
The flicker of hope resonated with the fan base. Attendance rose 20 percent, buoyed by a team playing meaningful games until Labor Day for the first time in years.
Manager Clint Hurdle preached optimism and belief, undaunted by almost two decades of misery. The result was a 15-game improvement over 2010 and what Hurdle termed as a change in the culture of the clubhouse. The Pirates actually traded for veterans at the deadline hoping to make a late push.
Neither Derrek Lee nor Ryan Ludwick panned out, but it hardly mattered. The message had been sent. News flash: The Pirates care about winning.
''One of the reasons I came here was I felt good about the vision for the future,'' Hurdle said. ''But, more importantly, I saw there's action.''
It continued into the offseason. Though the Pirates were nowhere near the sweepstakes for the top players, they were able to fill holes with players eager to be part of the turnaround. A.J. Burnett actually waived his no-trade clause to be dealt to Pittsburgh, though in typical Pirate fashion the right-hander broke his right orbital bone during bunting practice the first week of camp and will be out until May.
Clint Barmes signed a two-year deal to play shortstop. Left-hander Erik Bedard came over from Boston looking to turn around a career sidetracked by injuries and years spent on teams going nowhere. Catcher Rod Barajas joined on to prove there's still some life in his 36-year-old bat. Outfielder Nate McLouth - once one of those promising players dealt away by the Pirates - opted to come back home and finish what he started.
The NL Central no longer features Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, either. Both are now in the American League.
''I think those guys leaving gave everyone in the division a chance to take a deep breath,'' general manager Neal Huntingon said. ''But while (St. Louis and Milwaukee) may not have been able to completely fill those holes, they're going to be right there.''
The Pirates hope they will be too, thanks to the lessons learned in August, when their brief stint as baseball's biggest story ended when the pitching staff grew weary and the offense became stagnant.
A healthy Pedro Alvarez would help. The former first-round pick hit just .191 while being limited to 71 games due to a lingering quad injury. Pittsburgh desperately needs some pop. The Pirates finished 27th in the majors in both home runs and runs scored.
Huntington described Alvarez as ''in a good spot,'' though the team brought in Casey McGehee from Milwaukee as insurance at both corner infield spots. Barmes will almost certainly be an upgrade over the erratic Ronny Cedeno while McLouth can fill in at all three outfield spots behind McCutchen, Alex Presley and Jose Tabata.
Now entering his fifth season, Huntington knows it's time for the business plan the franchise put in place when he came in to start paying dividends. The house cleaning is over. McCutchen, Walker and Tabata are no longer fresh-faced rookies. The team has invested in the draft for years and while some may still be a season or two away, the Pirates have the pieces in place to be interesting.
Hey, it's a start, even if Huntington refuses to make promises.
''It's not a linear path,'' he said. ''We may take a huge spike up this year. We may make a logical progression up. There's a scenario where we stay the same or regress ... we are certainly not going to put a floor or a ceiling on what we can do this year.''