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Hurdle addresses top of lineup, back end of 'pen

Hurdle addresses top of lineup, back end of 'pen

Hurdle addresses top of lineup, back end of 'pen
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For the Pirates to spin a good yarn in 2013, they will need, like all successful stories, to have a good beginning and a good end.

The top of the lineup and the tail of the bullpen hold keys, Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle stressed Wednesday during his wide-ranging media session at baseball's Winter Meetings. Both ends could be unsettled going into Spring Training. The Bucs tried numerous leadoff options last season without much success, and in lieu of any changes, have the same in-house choices. And if efforts to deal Joel Hanrahan bear fruit, they will also have to come up with a new end-game.

The possibility of having to find a replacement closer concerns Hurdle far less.

"We've got big arms, with swing-and-miss stuff, others we've used in leverage situations," Hurdle said. "So I think we have the right guys available to us."

Unless the Pirates can fight off nearly a dozen other competitors to re-sign free agent Jason Grilli, the biggest arm available would be that of Jared Hughes, or of lefties Tony Watson and Justin Wilson. None obviously have Major League closing experience, but in the extremely volatile world of firemen, that's the least of Hurdle's worries.

"Everybody thinks you've got to have a guy who has done it," the manager said. "You'd like to have somebody in waiting, but sometimes you don't know who a guy is going to be. There's a bunch of guys that never did it until they got their first opportunity."

Whether Hurdle said that on gut instinct or on research -- he nailed it.

In 2012, there were 27 relievers in the Majors with 20-plus saves. Nearly half of them (13) had not had a 20-save season before, and that included the most proficient of them all, Jim Johnson -- who owned a total of 21 career saves until posting 51 for the Orioles.

"So for me," Hurdle said, "it's about the opportunity, not so much about having a bona fide go-to guy."

For someone to get that opportunity, the ongoing efforts to deal Hanrahan would have to pay off. Until then, there is no problem, or lack of clarity, at the end of the bullpen.

Conversely, the problem already exists at the beginning of the batting order, and is very real. The Pirates gave six players extensive trials in the leadoff spot, and they collectively had an on-base percentage below .300 (.291).

Hurdle suggested an even more dramatic symptom of the handicap: For all the bashing done by Andrew McCutchen two spots lower in the order, his National League-leading 194 hits could translate into only 96 RBIs.

"We had a three-hole hitter who, with the season he had, still didn't drive in 100 runs. You would liked to think there could have been more opportunities for him," Hurdle said.

"I don't know right now [who will lead off]. I've got some thoughts. I've got some thoughts on who I'd like to hit second, too. When you look at our personnel, you definitely want people up there that can move. We'll see how it plays out."

Starling Marte can move, but may need considerably more seasoning for the discipline demanded by the role (he walked eight times in his first 182 big league plate appearances). Alex Presley can move, but in 257 plate appearance while batting No. 1 last season, he could draw only 11 walks.

One reason it can be so difficult these days to identify your leadoff man: There no longer is an easy definition for him, a simple to-do list. In this era of wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling statistics, there is no glory in just scratching to get on base any way possible.

Bill Virdon, perhaps still recalled as the best top-of-lineup guy in modern Pirates history, had a lifetime on-base percentage of .316 in 1,066 games in the one- or two-holes.

Hurdle recently drew some double-takes for thinking out loud about possibly batting Russell Martin No. 2; the Bucs' new catcher has a lifetime OBP of .352 (albeit it slipped last season to .311).

"How many prototypical leadoff men are in the game right now?" Hurdle asked rhetorically. "But a man that can get on base, can score runs ... and the second guy is maybe someone to walk, handle the bat, stretch out an at-bat and get on base."

Sometimes, before manufacturing runs, a manager has to manufacture a batting order. Hurdle is at that point now.

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.

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