Can Bucs finally end The Streak?

Another spring at Pirate City, and we’re still talking about The Streak.

The Pirates have finished with a losing record 20 years in a row. It is the longest slog of ineptitude in major U.S. professional sports. Bill Clinton had not yet been elected president when the Pirates concluded their most recent winning season on Oct. 14, 1992. And that anniversary — a walk-off defeat in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series — isn’t exactly observed with parades across the Clemente Bridge.

The last two years have been especially cruel for the good people of Pittsburgh. Their Pirates were tied for first in the NL Central on July 25, 2011. They held the second wild-card spot as late as Aug. 21, 2012. Both times, they screwed it up.

How extraordinary is the Pirates’ ineptitude? Consider this from STATS LLC: During the wild-card era, only one other franchise held a playoff position on July 25 or later in consecutive seasons and finished with a losing record each time: the 2005-2006 Arizona Diamondbacks.

To my friends in Western Pennsylvania: I’m sorry. It hurt to type that.

Pirates fans lead the league in forbearance, and their reward should come this year. (Full disclosure: I’ve said this before.) But if The Streak reaches 21, well, Pittsburghers have every right to grimace like Bill Cowher after a missed block and demand changes to on- and off-field management.

Really, what other alternative would ownership have? Another plea for patience? Right. That would be about as popular locally as trading Sidney Crosby to the Flyers.

But maybe it won’t come to that. This could be The Year.

The Pirates’ core position players are in their primes: Andrew McCutchen, who finished third in last year’s NL MVP vote, is 26. So is third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 amateur draft. Neil Walker, one of the game’s top second basemen, is 27.

A.J. Burnett is the closest thing the Pirates have had to a No. 1 starter in a very long time. (In 2012, he became the first Pirate in five years with over 200 innings and a winning record.) Now he’s entering the final year of his contract.

If this isn’t it, when exactly would the Pirates have a better chance?

“To state it bluntly,” Walker said, “this is an important year.”

Neal Huntington is entering his sixth full season as general manager, and it’s entirely fair to frame this year as a referendum on his tenure. Huntington has acquired virtually every significant player on the roster, with the notable exceptions of McCutchen, Walker, right-hander Jared Hughes and left-hander Tony Watson. This is his team.

The same is true for manager Clint Hurdle. The 79-win season in 2012 was the Pirates’ best in 15 years, a golf-clap achievement for this particular franchise. The good news: Hurdle’s 151 victories represent the most in a Pittsburgh manager’s first two seasons since Chuck Tanner in 1977 and 1978. The bad: Hurdle also has a .376 combined winning percentage after the All-Star break in ’11 and ’12.

In some markets, one second-half fade of that magnitude — let alone two — is enough to fire a manager. Instead, Hurdle’s contract has been extended through 2014 with a club option for 2015. (Huntington also is signed through 2014 with a 2015 option.)

To Hurdle, I offer my congratulations. To the team, I ask why.

While I agree that Hurdle deserves to keep his job for now, it’s another matter entirely to give him an extension. The move seems unnecessary, given the disappointing conclusion to last season. Hurdle should prove he’s capable of guiding the Pirates through the most trying months of the year before receiving a new contract. If Hurdle is truly the best long-team leader for this team — and he may be — then the team’s 2013 performance will make it obvious.

And spare me the supplications that no manager should be forced to endure a lame-duck season. At last check, the men who took their teams to last year’s American League Championship Series — Jim Leyland and Joe Girardi — are entering the final years of their contracts. Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker, with a much better career resume than Hurdle, managed the entire 2012 season without a contract extension; his team finished 18 games ahead of Pittsburgh and won the NL Central title.

(Speaking of the division: Pirates fans must hope their shot at a winning season didn’t leave when the Houston Astros departed for the AL. Pittsburgh dominated Houston over the past two years, going 23-12. But the teams will play only one three-game series this year. The Pirates were 16 games under .500 against the rest of the NL Central during the same two seasons.)

McCutchen said the players were at fault in last season’s collapse. “It was on us,” he insisted. “That’s the reason we lost. There was nothing else that had to do with it — team chemistry, trades, nothing like that. We didn’t finish the job. We take the blame.”

Yet, others on the team acknowledged Monday that the Pirates’ clubhouse dynamic did change around the trade deadline last season. Huntington and Hurdle are among those responsible for the subsequent results; Huntington made the moves in question, and Hurdle failed to mold the new unit into a cohesive group on and off the field.

Amid reports that the Pirates were pursuing bigger names, such as Chase Headley and Justin Upton, Huntington dealt for left-handed starter Wandy Rodriguez, right-handed reliever Chad Qualls, outfielder Travis Snider and first baseman Gaby Sanchez. Rodriguez lost four of his first five decisions as a Pirate, while the loss of reliever Brad Lincoln — sent to Toronto for Snider — compromised the bullpen’s depth.

“I’m not a GM, but any time you change the team chemistry, it always hurts,” Pirates closer Jason Grilli said. “You change the guys you’re comfortable with, it’s like, ‘Wait a minute. That was a piece we liked, we needed.’ Not that anybody’s asking us for our opinions.”

The Pirates made win-now moves at the 2011 non-waiver trade deadline, adding prospective free agents Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. But Huntington took a different approach last year, acquiring three players he could control beyond 2012 — Rodriguez, Snider and Sanchez — in what some interpreted as an acknowledgment of the Pirates’ low-payroll reality.

“Maybe some of it’s the economics here,” Grilli said. “Players know the situation. To get a top-tier bat … maybe the expectations were a little higher on our end. That’s not a knock against who we got. It’s just when you’re winning, it’s like, ‘Dude, do you want to go for the gusto here? Do you want to go for the jugular?’ … Pull the trigger. Do you want to win? Do you want to change?

“As a player, it’s like, ‘Come on. Let’s see. Give us the pieces.’ Last year, the names being thrown around were (Hunter) Pence, (Shane) Victorino, Upton. … If anybody’s going to do it, you’d think a team that hasn’t won and is in first place would be the first to do it. Let’s not wait.”

The Pirates have an above-average farm system, aided in part by favorable drafting positions. That has infused the 25-man roster with talent while providing tradable prospects for Huntington. The amateur scouting operation — led by Greg Smith in the U.S. and Rene Gayo in Latin America — deserves credit for the Pirates’ improved minor league depth. But very soon, those successes must translate into wins. Eighty-two of them, to be exact.

When I asked Huntington what would be fair for a Pirates fan to expect this season, he told me, “That’s not for me to decide. Our goal is to be one of those teams playing playoff games in October. Anything short of that is not something we’re looking at right now. Our goal is to win the division. Our goal is to play deep into October and do what the other 29 teams are trying to do — win it all.”

Sounds good. But let’s make something clear: The Pirates aren’t like the other 29 teams. No other franchise in this sport — or basketball, or hockey, or football — is trying to halt two decades of losing.

Huntington and Hurdle didn’t start The Streak. But it is their job to end it. If they fail, it will be time to start anew in 2014.