BRADENTON, Fla. – Clint Hurdle no longer digs his cleats in the dirt. That’s a thrill he believes should be reserved for players. Besides, the Pittsburgh Pirates manager has too much on his mind these days to fool around in the batter’s box to take a few hacks.
Hurdle has six weeks to turn the group of 61 players who will be on the field in Pirates City this weekend into a 25-man club by April 1. He has to find a fifth starter. He has to figure out what his bullpen will look like and who will flank All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen.
Oh, and then there’s the pesky little business of trying to figure out how to turn around – for good – the fortunes of a franchise that has gone two decades since playing meaningful games in October.
The Pirates flirted with success last season. More than flirted actually. From mid-June to mid-August they were arguably one of the best teams in baseball. They soared to 16 games over .500 and appeared to be a legitimate threat to Cincinnati for the NL Central title.
Then the bottom fell out. Pittsburgh plunged to a 79-83 finish. And Hurdle, who is entering the final season of his three-year deal, knows it can’t happen again.
“These men want more and they know if you want more you’ve got to do more and that comes down to getting better every day, to create a mindset where you’re going to improve as the season goes on,” Hurdle said.
Something that didn’t happen as August turned into September. Yet Hurdle believes the Pirates are ready to take the elusive step to respectability.
“My feeling is that these men are definitely committed to winning,” he said. “You look around to our core players … we’re all in.”
Hurdle’s task over the next few weeks is filling in the gaps.
While the front end of the rotation is set and the Pirates appear to be strong up the middle with new catcher Russell Martin, healthy second baseman Neil Walker and McCutchen, things on the fringe appear to be murkier.
The revamped bullpen will undergo a massive makeover. Set-up man Jason Grilli will try to prove his 36-year-old right arm is healthy enough to close for the first time in his nomadic career. The back of the rotation is deep but in flux. The fifth spot should eventually go to lefthander Francisco Liriano whenever he recovers from a broken right arm. Until then Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson, Jeanmar Gomez and non-roster invitee Jonathan Sanchez could all get a shot.
Then again, they may merely be placeholders for Liriano, Charlie Morton – who is recovering from Tommy John surgery and should be back by June – and former No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole.
Cole will spend some time with the big club during camp but is expected to start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis. How long he stays there, however, is unclear. If he can duplicate his impressive 2012 in which he rose from the Single A Florida State League to Triple-A in a few short months, the burly right-hander could be in Pittsburgh by July 4.
Then there’s the outfield, where Starling Marte and Travis Snider appear to have the first crack at starting alongside McCutchen but should be pushed by Alex Presley and a healthy Jose Tabata, who has struggled since signing a contract extension in 2011.
That’s a lot to chew on, though Hurdle is hardly complaining. The Pirates have the kind of potential depth this spring that would have served them well last autumn, when the rotation broke down and things started to fall apart.
It may take awhile for things to shake out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. After two straight seasons of hot starts followed by abysmal finishes, the Pirates are OK if they need some time to get a sense of themselves.
“We’ve got to control the grind which is one of the biggest challenge of all sports,” Hurdle said. “Sometimes you can get caught up in the vacuum of the season where the grind can overwhelm you.”
Whatever it was, Pittsburgh was overwhelmed late in 2012. It was a difficult but necessary process.
“We have the lessons that have been learned that have been meaningful,” Hurdle said. “I think we very honestly self-evaluated.”