Improved Pirates looking to avoid another meltdown

Jason Grilli is well aware of the history.

After two promising summers turned into painful falls, the new

Pittsburgh Pirates closer realizes what’s at stake in 2013.

”You know, it’s like three strikes and you’re out,” Grilli

said. ”I don’t think anybody in this clubhouse wants that to

happen.”

Not if the group that’s helped raise the Pirates to the edge of

contention wants to stick together. Though the organization has

insisted it is focused on building continuity within a franchise

that has endured a record 20 straight losing seasons, very little

beyond this spring seems settled outside of the presence of

cornerstone center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

The team extended manager Clint Hurdle through 2014 earlier this

spring, though owner Bob Nutting stressed he needs to see the

Pirates take another step forward from the 79-83 record they posted

a year ago.

”The level of expectation has been and needs to be that we’re

going to win a championship,” Nutting said. ”We’re going to be

playing exciting games throughout the summer as we did last year.

We’re going to play meaningful games in September, we’re going to

compete for a championship and put ourselves in position for a

sixth World Series in Pittsburgh.”

Heady talk for a team that hasn’t even managed a winning season

since Barry Bonds left town more than 20 years ago. Yet Nutting’s

words are echoed throughout the organization, from Hurdle to

general manager Neal Huntington to the core group led by McCutchen

and ace A.J. Burnett, who knows a thing or two about what it takes

to win.

The 36-year-old is entering the final year of his contract and

at $16.5 million a year – a portion of which is still being paid by

the New York Yankees – is unlikely to be back. If this is his last

ride, he would love nothing more than to help Pittsburgh end what

is simply known as ”the Streak” and usher in another baseball

renaissance at a place that once upon a time was one of the game’s

premier – and blue collar – teams.

”Guys are getting tired of hearing that `we got better this

year, we’re getting better, we’re going in the right direction,”’

said Burnett, who will start opening day after a sterling 16-10

record in 2012. ”That’s going to get old after a while … we know

it’s time to win.”

Though still somewhat limited by the marketplace, the Pirates

did sign three-time All-Star catcher Russell Martin to provide some

muscle at the plate and some leadership behind it. They also took a

flier on left-handed starter Francisco Liriano, who is still

recovering from a freak fall during the offseason in which he broke

his right (non-throwing) arm.

The bullpen underwent a makeover when Pittsburgh shipped

two-time All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston rather than give

him a hefty raise in arbitration. The trade thrust the closer’s

role into the hands of the 36-year-old Grilli, a journeyman who has

flourished since the Pirates plucked him out of the minors and made

him a setup man.

The outspoken veteran brushes off talk the Pirates are cursed,

that Pittsburgh is relegated to also-ran status for perpetuity. He

understands what it’s like to be written off. He totally gets the

frustration that comes when a team soars to 16 games above .500 –

as the Pirates did last summer – only to plummet in the season’s

final six weeks.

He’s just not convinced it means Pittsburgh is doomed once

again.

”We had to endure that, and it wasn’t fun,” Grilli said.

”There’s nobody that wants to win out there more than we do.

People who don’t think we have the pieces are going to be

surprised.”

The lineup is an interesting mix of promise and question marks.

McCutchen enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, finishing third in the

National League MVP race after hitting .327 with 31 homers and 96

RBIs. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez finally corralled his

considerable power to hit 30 home runs. First baseman Garrett Jones

hit 27 homers of his own.

They’ll be joined by second-year outfielder Starling Marte, a

raw talent who could become the dangerous leadoff hitter Pittsburgh

desperately needs. Shortstop Clint Barmes provided a steadying

presence on defense but hit just .229. Outfielder Travis Snider and

first baseman Gaby Sanchez – acquired in trade deadline deals last

summer – believe their anemic play last fall was simply an

anomaly.

For the Pirates to break the stranglehold the Brewers, Cardinals

and Reds have on the NL Central, it will likely have to be.

Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP