PITTSBURGH – The roars have faded. The giddiness of ending 21 years of futility and coming with a game of the National League championship series, too.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are in some ways just another NL contender these days. That dark cloud of two decades of losing is gone after a remarkable 94-68 surge and the playoff berth that came along with it in 2013.
Now the franchise needs to figure out what to do with the rest of its life. For three seasons a club that was a laughingstock when manager Clint Hurdle took over in December 2010 has slowly made inroads to relevance.
Suddenly, the “World Series or bust” attitude owner Bob Nutting has espoused for years doesn’t seem so laughable anymore.
Press reigning NL Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle on what his team can possibly do for an encore despite a relatively quiet offseason and he responds with his usual eternal optimism.
“Excellence is verb, not a noun,” Hurdle said. “You’re going to continue to push forward. Our goal is to win a sixth world championship. The fact is, we haven’t won an LCS or a division series. We need to maintain our focus on the things we need to do.”
Five keys that will determine whether Pittsburgh’s rise continues or levels off.
Replacing A.J.: Veteran pitcher A.J. Burnett played a pivotal role in helping the Pirates make the mental transformation from hapless losers to contenders. He’s gone after signing with Philadelphia for the kind of money Pittsburgh’s office didn’t want to offer a 37-year-old.
Though the Pirates might miss his presence, there’s a chance they can match his production. Gerrit Cole was spectacular at times as a rookie, getting better as the season wore on. He went 5-0 in September and hardly looked like a 23-year-old during his two postseason starts, including five effective innings in Game 5 of the division series loss to St. Louis. Though Francisco Liriano, who resurrected his career last season by going 16-8, is the present ace, Cole is very much the future.
Cutch’s climb: Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen knows how to deflect attention. Weeks after becoming the first Pirates player to win the NL MVP Award since Barry Bonds in 1992, McCutchen changed the conversation by proposing to his girlfriend while making an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.”
“I knew that after I proposed to her, people would totally forget about the MVP award,” McCutchen said. “That’s as it should be.”
The proposal also allowed McCutchen to slip quietly into the offseason, which he spent trying to shore up the few holes remaining in his game a year after hitting .317 with 21 home runs, 84 RBIs and 27 stolen bases while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense.
“Andrew usually comes with a couple focus points,” Hurdle said. “His game continues to get better and more consistent. He sets the bar pretty high for himself.”
Who’s on first?: Pittsburgh decided to keep its wallet closed during free agency, leaving Gaby Sanchez and prospect Andrew Lambo to battle it out at first base. Lambo was sent to the minors and that leaves Sanchez, who has struggled to find consistent playing time since joining the Pirates in 2012. His goal is to make sure Hurdle doesn’t feel the need for any platoon, though the bigger danger is general manager Neal Huntington going shopping if he gets off to a slow start.
Reclamation project: Pitching coach Ray Searage helped Liriano regain the form he flashed before undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2006. The Pirates are hoping Searage can work the same kind of magic on journeyman Edinson Volquez.
An All-Star in 2008, Volquez hasn’t been nearly the same pitcher since having his own elbow reconstruction surgery in 2009. He went a combined 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA for San Diego and the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013 before signing a one-year deal with Pittsburgh. Though he hasn’t been crisp during the spring, Volquez will be the fifth starter when the team breaks camp. How long he keeps that role is entirely up to him.
Reinforcements: Last summer, Cole’s arrival provided the already humming Pirates with a jolt that helped carry them to the playoffs. Right-handed pitcher Jameson Taillon appeared to be on the same kind of track before being shut down for two weeks in late March with elbow soreness. The move is considered precautionary, though it could push back whatever timetable the team had in mind for the former first-round pick.
It now seems more likely 22-year-old right fielder Gregor Polanco will arrive at PNC Park before Taillon, particularly if Travis Snider or Jose Tabata run into early trouble.