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
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
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
”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
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
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