Bucs ready to finish what they started in 2011

Bucs ready to finish what they started in 2011

The 2011 season was a push toward respect. This year, can push come to shove into genuine contention for the Pirates?

That's the goal, obviously, and how realistic it is depends on the payoffs for several wagers placed by a beleaguered and scrutinized front office.

The Pirates are about to open camp -- pitchers and catchers have their first workout on Feb. 19 -- with a dramatically altered front line. The early depth chart includes only three position incumbents, of whom only center fielder Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker were in more than 62 starting lineups. All told, there has been a 45 percent turnover of the 40-man roster from last spring to this.

General manager Neal Huntington signed free agents Clint Barmes (to take over at short), Rod Barajas (to jam the revolving door behind the plate) and left-hander Erik Bedard (to complete the rotation), and also dealt for a first baseman (Casey McGehee) to compete with erstwhile right fielder Garret Jones at first.

The Pirates also head into Spring Training with raised sights and expectations following a season that had raised their profile. They budged dramatically off Square One, but that 100-game appetizer now demands a main course.

"We're in a different stage," Huntington acknowledged. "We're in a stage where we are looking to take this team and turn it into a winning team. Then try to take that and make it as consistent as we possibly can. We showed ourselves that we can do some very good things for about four months. Now we have to do it for six."

Hence, manager Clint Hurdle raised the team's rally cry: "We need to finish."

"There are some good things going on here," Hurdle elaborated. "We have every intent to make finishing a point of focus. Finish the pitch. Finish the at-bat. Finish the inning. Finish the game. Finish the season."

The last one finished on a historic downer, even for a team that was logging a losing record for a 19th consecutive time: The Pirates' .286 winning percentage over the final 56 games (16-40) was the poorest by any team that had ever led its league or division at the 100-game mark (easily "beating" the record of .339 by the 1977 Cubs).

Until then, the Bucs had flirted with happier history. Yes, there have been other clubs to go worst-to-first. But none have ever made the playoffs off a 57-win full season, as the Pirates were attempting.

Pittsburgh's hunger for a winner could not have been any more evident. In the team's 130th season, it sold out four consecutive home games for the first time -- in the days prior to the All-Star Game break.

Then came the fallback, again pitting the Pirates against their fans' skepticism.

"The challenge," Huntington conceded, "is restoring their faith."

Pitchers and catchers report

Feb. 18

Full squad reports

Feb. 23

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Toronto, March 3 at 1:05 p.m. ET

Opening Day

Home vs. Phillies, April 5 at 1:35 p.m. ET

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Can some power be cornered?
The emphasis always falls on the mound, but the fact is the Pirates could again squander a lot of good pitching if the offense doesn't hold up its end. The team scored two runs or fewer in 65 games -- a ghastly 40 percent of the time. Plugging in the power in the corners of the infield and the outfield would help tremendously.

Left fielder Alex Presley, right fielder Jose Tabata, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and the first-base tandem of Jones-McGehee combined for 41 home runs in 1,753 at-bats a year ago. A return to 2010 form by McGehee (23 homers) will help, but the biggest upside would come from Alvarez living up to the pedigree of having been a No. 2 overall Draft selection.

Alvarez seemed aware of how much he let down people last season, and therefore rededicated himself to making amends. That was the main reason he chose to skip winter ball in the Dominican. He is ready to carry the weight, rather than be part of it.

2. How, and for how long, will Bedard answer the bell?
Skepticism ran out of control when the Pirates turned away Paul Maholm, who'd averaged 30 starts for six seasons, and for essentially the same price tag replaced him with a guy who has been able to make 30 starts only once in his eight-year career. Huntington's cred and the Pirates' fate could both be riding on Bedard's left arm.

Bedard's attraction is obvious. His healthy stuff is seductive. It is easy to forget that four offseasons ago, after he'd won 15 for a poor Baltimore team while fanning 221 in 182 innings, he was that winter's Cliff Lee -- the lefty everyone wanted. Following his first active September since 2006, Bedard spent this offseason getting ready, not getting healthy.

The Pirates need him to stay on that program through Spring Training so they can feel better about the whole thing. Also, to ease any urgency about Charlie Morton, who is returning from hip surgery, being ready at the start of the campaign.

3. Who will claim the eighth inning?
Evan Meek will be one of the most-watched players in camp. If he proves healthy enough to be reinstalled as the eighth-inning go-to reliever, thus making up for the departure of Jose Veras, the rest of the bullpen would fall in place around him.

Juan Cruz, who enters camp as a non-roster player, could then bolster the middle relief corps that also features Chris Resop, Jason Grilli, Daniel McCutchen and lefties Tony Watson and Daniel Moskos. But if Cruz, or someone else, has to step in as the primary setup guy for Joel Hanrahan, the entire bullpen chain could be weakened.

The bullpen emerged as one of the 2011 team's strengths because Hurdle was able to assign well-defined roles, for the most part. Doing so again is critical. Meek holds the key to that.

2011 record
72-90, fifth in the NL Central

Projected batting order
1. LF Alex Presley:
  .298 BA, .339 OBP, .465 SLG, 4 HR, 20 RBIs in 2011
2. RF Jose Tabata:
  .266 BA, .349 OBP, .362 SLG, 4 HR, 21 RBIs in 2011
3. CF Andrew McCutchen:
  .259 BA, .364 OBP, .456 SLG, 23 HR, 89 RBIs in 2011
4. 1B Casey McGehee:
  .223 BA, .280 OBP, .346 SLG, 13 HR, 67 RBIs in 2011
5. 2B Neil Walker:
  .273 BA, .334 OBP, .408 SLG, 12 HR, 83 RBIs in 2011
6. 3B Pedro Alvarez:
  .191 BA, .272 OBP, .289 SLG, 4 HR, 19 RBIs in 2011
7. SS Clint Barmes:
  .244 BA, .312 OBP, .386 SLG, 12 HR, 39 RBIs in 2011
8. C Rod Barajas:
  .230 BA, .287 OBP, .430 SLG, 16 HR, 47 RBIs in 2011

Projected rotation
1. Jeff Karstens, 9-9, 3.38 ERA in 2011
2. James McDonald, 9-9, 4.21 ERA in 2011
3. Kevin Correia, 12-11, 4.79 ERA in 2011
4. Erik Bedard, 5-9, 3.62 ERA in 2011
5. Charlie Morton, 10-10, 3.83 ERA in 2011

Projected bullpen
Closer: Joel Hanrahan, 40/44 saves, 1.83 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Evan Meek, 3.48 ERA in 2011
LH setup man: Tony Watson, 3.95 ERA in 2011

The new guys
LHP Erik Bedard: The former American League curiosity -- from ace to aches -- leads off the incoming parade. None of the new faces will influence the team's fortunes as much as this southpaw, who went from 28 wins in 2006-07 to a total of 16 since. His guaranteed $4.5 million deal is supplemented by $1 million in incentives -- for which the Pirates would love to be on the hook.

SS Clint Barmes: The answer to a future trivia question -- who did Troy Tulowitzki replace as Colorado's shortstop? -- was signed as a free agent to provide steadier play in the field, more noise from the batter's box and a bruiser's mentality everywhere. Whenever a manager (Hurdle) endorses a reunion with a former player, it's a good sign.

INF Casey McGehee: He -- not Prince Fielder, not Ryan Braun, not Corey Hart -- led the Brewers in RBIs in 2010. The Pirates gave up a lot (reliever Jose Veras) for someone to compete for a job at a position (first base) where he has never started a game, but the big payoff could come at the plate.

C Rod Barajas: Why would the Pirates sign a 36-year-old for $4 million to put an end to their unsettled situation behind the plate? Well, Barajas calls a good game, has a steadying influence on his pitchers and can be a deterrent on the running game (his career percentage of nailing runners attempting to steal is an above-average 31). And he's got some pop: He has averaged 17 homers the past three seasons; eight Pirates catchers totaled 13 homers last season, and they haven't had a catcher hit as many as 17 since, if you can believe it, Jim Pagliaroni, in 1965.

OF Nate McLouth: A change of scenery is often a kick-starter, but sometimes returning to old scenery is even better. That's what the Bucs are hoping for with McLouth, now reunited with the game he left behind in Pittsburgh when dealt to the Braves in the middle of the 2009 season. McLouth will provide, at the least, the ideal fourth outfielder or, at the most, a fall-back option in the corners.

Prospects to watch
RHP Gerrit Cole: He hasn't pitched a game outside of Arizona (final start for UCLA, five starts in the Arizona Fall League) in eight months, but the coming-out of the 2011 No. 1 overall Draft pick will be of intense interest. While he is very unlikely to be in the short-range picture, the Pirates were drawn to him by his Majors-ready skill set. Pitchers without Minor League experience have been known to force their way onto season-opening staffs (most recently, Cincinnati's Mike Leake in 2010).

C Tony Sanchez: The fourth player taken in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft took a major step backward last season, a regression that continued with his reported offseason barroom brawl. After hitting a soft .241 in his first Double-A season, he must show the Bucs enough to at least be moved up to Triple-A.

INF Yamaico Navarro: The 24-year-old Dominican, acquired in a Minor League deal from the Royals, could be the club's most valuable and most versatile utility guy. He can play all over the infield and has displayed above-average power and speed. Don't sell short anyone from the cradle of shortstops -- San Pedro de Macoris.

RHP Brad Lincoln: Another No. 1 Draft pick (2006, fourth overall), Lincoln is no longer viewed as a long-shot to make the team after 267 Triple-A innings the past three seasons. He could even have the inside track on opening the season in the rotation if Morton can't, but he'll have to show he deserves the promotion.

On the rebound
3B Pedro Alvarez: His mission to build on a fine 2010 rookie season unraveled into too many strikeouts and missed opportunities (9-for-52 with men in scoring position), and far too few hits. Hurdle has challenged him to "take ownership of his career."

RHP Kevin Correia: It is a reflection of the Pirates' split season that the pitcher who was their biggest winner has to rebound. But only one of Correia's 12 wins came after Independence Day. He had a 7.23 ERA and opponents hit .338 off him in a second half curtailed by a sore right shoulder.

RHP Evan Meek: He was still effective when able to pitch (3.48 ERA), but Meek made it to the mound only a third of the time as often as in 2010. Months of rest quieted shoulder tendinitis, but it's an injury that can flare up again. The 28-year-old former All-Star hopes to be well enough to again be a key member of the bullpen.

Long gone
SS Ronny Cedeno: The lead fall guy of Hurdle's "good enough isn't" stance, the Bucs let their starting shortstop from the past 2 1/2 seasons go to the Mets as a free agent.

RHP Ross Ohlendorf: The brainy right-hander's injury-wrecked Pittsburgh tenure ended with his release in December. Ohlendorf had gone 11-10 in 2009, but 2-17 the rest of his time with the Bucs.

RHP Jose Veras: Last season's primary setup reliever was sacrificed for needed punch (McGehee) in the hopes Meek or another step-up candidate can cover his eighth-inning duties.

C Ryan Doumit and C Chris Snyder: Receivers past and present departed as free agents, Doumit -- a Pirate since 2005, making him the team elder -- to the Twins, and Snyder to the division-rival Astros.

1B Derrek Lee/OF Ryan Ludwick: The poster boys of the Pirates' aborted playoff bid departed as free agents (Ludwick signed with the Reds, while Lee remains on the market). The Bucs had acquired them on back-to-back days at the Trade Deadline, then went 18-38 with both aboard.

LHP Paul Maholm: The Pirates knew Maholm's 6-14 record was misleading -- his 3.66 ERA was a better reflection of the performance of a pitcher held back by the fifth-lowest run-support (3.88) in the NL. Nevertheless, and mindful of the sore shoulder that kept him off the mound in September, the club chose to replace him with Bedard in a move involving two free-agent lefties.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @Tom_Singer on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.