Bucs aim to build on '11, make strong run in '12

Bucs aim to build on '11, make strong run in '12

Pirates players are as big fans of Adele as anyone. Her songs play on their iPods and her videos beam on their clubhouse flat-screen. They've even covered her first album, "19."

The Bucs, however, have no plans to also reprise her second album, "21," or even be in position to do so. The streak of losing seasons ends at 19, pledge players whose ambitions extend beyond the other side of .500.

"Forget this .500 stuff," said Casey McGehee, one of several players new to the team, and thus immune to the culture of losing. "This team can do something special. The talent's here, to shoot for the postseason, to make a run at the postseason."

Whoa. Except ... McGehee knows the talent it takes to win an National League Central title because he did it last season -- along with the other Brewers. Except ... numerous teams that recently ended long tenures below the .500 level did so as postseason Cinderellas.

OK, none of those teams kept losing through the better part of a generation. But neither did any of them -- the 2006 Tigers, the 2007 Brewers, the 2010 Reds -- have the kind of run-up to respect the Pirates had last summer, when they held first place 100 games in. Before they were pancaked against the wall, physically and mentally.

"The biggest thing they got out of it was experience," said pitching coach Ray Searage, "because they went to places they'd never been before. They played at intense levels for four months, and ultimately got drained. Now they'll know how to handle it a lot better."

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There is no assurance the prelude leads to conversion. A recent example of tease-gone-bad was provided by the 2003 Royals, managed, ironically, by former Pittsburgh catching great Tony Pena. Coming off a 100-loss season, the Royals led the American League Central as late as Aug. 19, before fading into third place. Next year, they went back to losing 104 games.

Between those two seasons, the Royals made major revisions to their roster, looking for the combination to close the deal, as have the Pirates, who are confident their gambit turns out better.

The turnover in Spring Training camp -- which opened with 17 new faces -- has boiled down to an Opening Day lineup that will include only three familiar faces in familiar places, a lot of upheaval going down around second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

General manager Neal Huntington's transparent approach to season a young core added corner infielder McGehee and right-hander A.J. Burnett (by trades) and shortstop Clint Barmes, catcher Rod Barajas, omnipresent fourth outfielder Nate McLouth, left-hander Erik Bedard and reliever Juan Cruz (by free-agent signings).

All nice actual additions. But talk about addition by subtraction: NL Central darlings St. Louis (Albert Pujols gone for good, Chris Carpenter gone for a good chunk with a neck issue), Milwaukee (Prince Fielder gone for good) and Cincinnati (closer Ryan Madson gone for the year after Tommy John surgery) all have been hit by attrition.

That's not an earthquake on the Richter scale, just the NL Central playing field leveling. Lance Berkman has felt the shift, the Cardinals' replacement first baseman noting, "The thing about the Central is that the bad teams have gotten better. The Pirates are tremendously improved."

Berkman's scouts must have told him that, since the Cardinals and the Bucs didn't actually meet during exhibition play. Or perhaps Berkman got it from Pittsburgh pitcher Jeff Karstens, who assessed the NL Central exodus and proclaimed, "With those guys leaving, I think we've got a shot at winning this division. I think it's wide open."

"It would be very naive to say losing Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder doesn't have an impact," Huntington said. "It does. But it may not be as great as it feels like on the surface."

It will not close the 24-game gap between the Pirates and the Brewers (or the 18-game separation from the Wild Cards). Most of that will have to come from Huntington's players, newcomers and incumbents.

And, of course, how manager Clint Hurdle weaves and motivates all the pieces. The motivation part will be easy; Hurdle could talk a pig into a luau. Even as the Pirates were stumbling to the preseason wire, he kept finding good in the mounting losses.

"It's amazing how he gets a positive out of things," McGehee said. "We can throw the worst game in the history of Spring Training out there and he's got something good to say about it. So far I've had a blast playing for him and getting to know him."

The other kind of blast will be in shorter supply. Hurdle has plotted to compensate for a power deficiency with a hustling, creative and opportunistic brand of smaller ball, but preseason play exposed the fact his lineup may not have the legs for that, either -- nor the tight defense required to prevail in low-scoring games behind contact pitchers. With the ugly combination of 24 home runs and 29 errors, the Pirates need to be correct about their belief in the irrelevance of Spring Training statistics.

Exhibition season has also been a series of players getting caught stealing, or running into other outs on the bases.

"The ones that aren't smart, absolutely [I'm upset about]. We can't be running into outs," Hurdle said. "We've got to be smart. I've said from the beginning that we've got to be aggressive, but you've also got to be smart. The two go hand-in-hand. We can't run just to be running. We've got to improve there."

The offense's obvious flag bearer is McCutchen, who has been relaxed by his rich contract extension and seems primed to evolve into the impact player $51.5 million project. The major upgrade could be McGehee who, people keep forgetting, led the 2010 Fielder-Braun-Hart Brewers in RBIs. The clear X-factor is Alvarez.

Add spark plug Alex Presley, lumbering but also belting Barajas, quiet and quietly improving Jose Tabata, the steady Walker and Barmes -- think of him as a bigger David Eckstein -- and it could still be a lineup that won't string together many hits for extended rallies.

Which turns the focal point into: The pitching staff is solid, but will it be steely enough to outpitch a sputtering offense?

The opening rotation of Bedard, Karstens, James McDonald and Kevin Correia has the caliber of starters in reserve recent Pirates teams have not had: Charlie Morton, then Burnett. Joel Hanrahan could be the first Pittsburgh closer with back-to-back 40-save seasons. The front end of the bullpen is deep enough in talent to salvage victory in the short start and nail down the long.

Theory and hopes give way to reality and execution on Thursday against Philadelphia. Everywhere else, it will be a start, but in Pittsburgh it will be the cue to finish.

"Starting Opening Day," Hurdle said, quoting both his mantra and the T-shirts on the backs of his players, "it's 'finish.' Last year we were able to rekindle the city. Now it's time to finish a play, finish an at-bat, finish an inning, finish the game and finish the season."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.