Steadily improving Pirates have eyes on division title

PITTSBURGH (AP) The scenario was familiar. The destination not so much.

A veteran player with not much time left leaving millions of dollars on the table for one last run to glory. Only A.J. Burnett didn’t walk away from his $12.75 million player option with the Philadelphia Phillies for Los Angeles, Washington or St. Louis.

Nope, the 38-year-old well-traveled (and well tattooed) pitcher practically sprinted to Pittsburgh. His arrival in 2012 marked a sea change in the once-floundering organization’s direction. His return three years later signals – he hopes – the end of the team’s slow but steady slog from downtrodden afterthought to world champion. And he’s not kidding.

”I want to win a ring and I want to win a ring in Pittsburgh,” Burnett said.

The Pirates are as close to being in the conversation as they’ve been in nearly a quarter century. And they’ve opened up their wallets, at least a little, to get there. Pittsburgh made Francisco Liriano the highest-paid free agent in team history when they signed lefthander to a three-year, $39-million deal in the offseason to continue the career resurgence that began when they took a two-year flier on him in 2013. And while Burnett took a cut, he isn’t exactly going broke. He’ll make $8 million to work as the third man in the rotation behind Liriano and Gerrit Cole.

Pittsburgh even spent $5 million for the rights to sign Korean infielder Jung-Ho Kang, who hit 40 home runs on the other side of the world last year and gives the Pirates an intriguing if unproven option should shortstop Jordy Mercer falter or second baseman Neil Walker’s back flare up.

General manager Neal Huntington remains adamant his team’s budget will never compare to those of clubs in larger markets but allows there is ”more margin for error” than in years’ past.

”We’ve built a deeper club because of the money allocated to us,” he said. ”But we need to continue to grow and mature. We want to put ourselves in a position to win the World Series.”

There are worse places to start than in Pittsburgh, which backed up its breakthrough year in 2013 with a second straight postseason berth in 2014. The playoff run ended abruptly against Madison Bumgarner and the San Francisco Giants in the NL wild card game. Yet the point had been made. The Pirates aren’t going anywhere.

”It would’ve been easy to say 2013 was a fluke and we just got lucky,” centerfielder Andrew McCutchen said. ”But we showed up in `14 and were able to do the same thing. We know we’re for real. And other teams know they just can’t come in (thinking), `All right, we’re going to beat the Pirates.’ We’re not that team anymore.”

They’re also not where they want to be, at least not yet. A National League Central title would avoid the fickleness of a one-game scenario. Pittsburgh believes it’s built to withstand the rigors of October.

Here are the keys to getting there:

THE OTHER FRANCISCO

The Pirates’ budget might be growing, but they still couldn’t afford to keep catcher Russell Martin, who parlayed his tremendous 2014 into a $82 million deal with Toronto. Pittsburgh prepared for Martin’s departure by trading for longtime Yankees’ backup catcher Francisco Cervelli. When healthy Cervelli is an adequate defensive replacement with a decent if not powerful bat. If he can handle the pitching staff and control the basepaths, any offense he provides would be a plus.

SPEED TO BURN

Perennial MVP candidate McCutchen anchors one of baseball’s most athletic outfields. Starling Marte surged toward the end of a bumpy 2014 and Gregory Polanco is a raw but talented work in progress. Pittsburgh felt confident enough in Polanco’s progress to trade Travis Snider to Baltimore.

PEDRO’S PROGRESS

Pedro Alvarez moves across the infield to first base in hopes of salvaging his career after developing a serious case of the yips at third. If his can reclaim the groove that helped him mash 36 homers in 2013, the Pirates can live with whatever growing pains may come with the switch.

KANG SHOW

Kang (pronounced ”Gahng”) doesn’t lack for confidence. He told reporters in Korea he believes he can supplant Mercer at shortstop. It may take longer than he thought after a sluggish spring training.

LOCKED IN

Jeff Locke was an All-Star in 2013 before a second-half freefall. He was a respectable 7-6 with a 3.91 ERA in 2014 and held off a furious push by Vance Worley to nail down the fifth starting spot. The return of Burnett – a valuable mentor to Locke during Burnett’s first stint in Pittsburgh – should only help. So will renewed confidence, which will be tested early after a shaky spring.