BRADENTON, Fla. – Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting looked over the $10 million renovation of McKechnie Field – the team’s spring training home – and took a moment to marvel at how far the franchise has come since he took over five years ago.
“Our progress in Bradenton really reflects where we’re at as an organization,” Nutting said during a sneak preview of the facility’s facelift, which will officially be unveiled in an intrasquad game Friday.
It took contractors four months to construct the new boardwalk that runs behind the entire outfield, add 2,000 additional seats and introduce a cascade of amenities.
Nutting’s team may have about that much time to prove it’s ready to take the next step forward.
Though the owner stressed he’s focused on the club’s long-term development, he acknowledged it’s time for the long-floundering Pirates to end 20 years of losing in 2013.
“We’re in a position now we’ve got to make a run, we’ve got to push the chips in early in the season,” Nutting said.
The goal is to be in a good spot at the trading deadline – as Pittsburgh was a year ago – and learn from last summer’s mistakes, when the acquisitions of Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider failed to provide a spark and the Pirates slipped from 16 games over .500 to a 79-83 finish.
“I think we learned a lot of lessons last year,” Nutting said. “One of them was: What is the impact in terms of the clubhouse? Where are we making too much change? Where are we not making enough impact?”
The Pirates addressed their catching depth by signing All-Star Russell Martin. They brought in starting rotation depth by signing lefthander Francisco Liriano and bringing back veteran righthander Jeff Karstens. Throw in All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, improving third baseman Pedro Alvarez and highly touted outfielder Starling Marte and Nutting believes the pieces are in place for the Pirates to compete for a championship.
Though he remains cognizant of the financial restraints of playing in a smaller market, he pointed to the team’s $70 million payroll – a club record – as proof the franchise is willing to invest to win. He just doesn’t want the club to bankrupt its future for marginal success in the present.
“I really don’t believe the Pirates would be best served by a `buildup and a breakdown and a buildup and a breakdown’ mentality,” Nutting said. “So to the greatest degree possible we need to focus on infusing talent into the organization.”
Doing it without disrupting the chemistry of a group that includes McCutchen, Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker is key. Nutting insists the goal isn’t simply reaching 82 wins so Pittsburgh can end its record of futility. If that was the case, he would have told general manager Neal Huntington to approach his job differently.
“We could have gotten a short-term blip that would have gotten us over .500,” Nutting said. “I’m glad we didn’t do it. I’m glad what we did was responsible and the correct thing for the long-term of the franchise. Were they easy decisions? Maybe not but I really feel they were correct.”
The Pirates invested heavily in the draft under the previous collective bargaining agreement, and it could soon pay off. Pitcher Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 overall pick two years ago, could be up in the majors by midseason and manager Clint Hurdle considers the righthander a “front of the rotation” impact player.
Even if Cole stays put in Triple-A, however, Nutting thinks the Pirates have enough talent to contend for the National League Central Division title and even the World Series.
He’s not kidding. Nutting will speak to the team on Thursday morning and his message to the players will be not to sell themselves short.
“The level of expectation has been and needs to be that we’re going to win a championship,” he 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.”
That’s heady territory for a team that was the worst in baseball in 2010 and hasn’t made the postseason since a slim Barry Bonds was running all over Three Rivers Stadium. Nutting is only too aware of the team’s recent history, which made last year’s tumble all the more painful. Yet he thinks the Pirates are closer to the team that was 63-47 in early August than the one that went 16-36 over the final six weeks.
“I believe you cannot play as well as we did last summer without having the talent and ability to play at that level throughout a season,” Nutting said. “We didn’t and we need to.”
Nutting felt positive enough about the progress he’s seen to offer manager Clint Hurdle an extension through 2014, with a club option for 2015. He also doesn’t view the deal as a way of saying it’s OK if the Pirates take a step back.
He also hasn’t talked about extending the contracts of key members of the front office, including Huntington.
“We’ve absolutely shown we’re willing to make a change if we need to irrespective of the contract term,” Nutting said. “So Clint knows that. Everyone in the organization knows that.”
Still Nutting continues to have “a lot of faith in our management team” and is “incredibly optimistic” the team’s flirtation with success the last two years will become more sustainable in 2013 and beyond.
“Our plan is not to fall short,” Nutting said. “I don’t want to plant that seed of doubt in anybody’s mind that we have a contingency plan or a backup plan. We have a plan to move forward to play baseball and to play at a championship level. That’s what I expect every player, every coach, everyone inside the organization to have in mind.”