Pirates ready to take the next step in 2013

Pirates ready to take the next step in 2013

Like Sisyphus, the Pirates are poised to make another run at the mountain. Since the Bucs' 20 straight losing seasons are a North American pro sports record, no one else around really knows the feeling of how the past two seasons went down.

For that, you may have to revert all the way to Sisyphus -- "down" being the operative word. He was the Greek chap condemned to pushing a huge boulder up a hill, and who repeatedly lost control and watched it roll back down, so he'd have to start over again.

Yeah. That's the Bucs. Their boulders of contention rolled back into the valley below .500 the last two years. They're gathering to give it another go, starting the push on Monday in the flatlands of Bradenton, Fla.

Manager Clint Hurdle has a credibility issue: He used the 2011 slide to coin an appropriate buzzword for 2012, "Finish." But where do you go after a repeat unfinished symphony?

He could try "Believe." Because he does -- to the extent of dropping some bold predictions.

"The organization did take a big step forward in 2012. We learned that you've got to do more to earn more," said Hurdle. "I believe '13 will be the time for us to finish things we started. We got players in place that are going to be here when we do win a division title, when we do play a playoff game."

The Pirates do roll up their Spring Training sleeves with a solid core -- Starling Marte is expected to join Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker in that nucleus -- and a better-balanced team than how they projected a year ago. The starting rotation was considered the 2012 strength, surrounded by numerous question marks. Now, the rotation may have gotten knocked down a few notches but, on the see-saw of talent, other areas are up.

First stop: Pirate City. Destination: Mountain-top?

Pitchers and catchers report

Monday, February 11

Full squad reports

Thursday, February 14

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Tampa Bay, Feb. 23 at 1:05 p.m. ET

Opening Day

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

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who will emerge as the leadoff batter?
The Pirates would love for it to be Marte, who has the ideal skillset for the role. He has shown gradual improvement in the required plate discipline, so he is the big hope for solving a big problem: Last season, the Bucs had their poorest on-base percentage (excluding the pitcher's spot) in the slot where it's most needed, a collective .291.

The leadoff man could be the key to the entire lineup. Besides keeping alive innings when the lineup turns over, he could be a big part of fixing a major frustration of last season. The Pirates were quite dismayed that No. 3 hitter McCutchen's league-leading 194 hits could translate to only 96 RBIs.

2. Can Jason Grilli successfully transition to closing?
At 36, Grilli would become the oldest closer in the National League and the third oldest in the Majors, younger than only the Yankees' Mariano Rivera (43) and Texas' Joe Nathan (38). And those two have been doing it for a long time, whereas Grilli will try the ninth-inning pressure cooker for the first time in an oft-interrupted 11-year career.

The reason he gets first crack at replacing Joel Hanrahan is obvious: Grilli came out of his latest injury -- right knee surgery in early 2010 -- throwing harder than ever, and last season he owned the fourth-best strikeout rate among NL relievers (90 in 58 2/3 innings). But he may have a short leash: Former Astros closer Mark Melancon, acquired from Boston in the Hanrahan deal, is in the wings, as are several young, fresh arms. One worth keeping an eye on is Jared Hughes.

For certain, the final call will not be made in Spring Training. Closers don't close in exhibitions. They are used early in games, when the opposition's lineup still includes regulars. In 2011, approaching his first season as the Pirates' closer, Hanrahan had a Grapefruit League ERA of 6.75.

3. What impact will a new hitting coach have?
Jay Bell, a blast from the Pirates' most-recent glorious past, is being entrusted with adding some dimensions to the team's offense which, in a nutshell, was home-run-or-no-count last season. The Bucs ranked fourth in the NL with 170 homers, but only 10th with 651 runs -- 42 percent of which, amazingly, were concentrated into the two months of June and July.

The Pirates chose Bell to replace Gregg Ritchie, who accepted the head coaching position at his alma mater, George Washington University, in hopes Bell can remold the hitters in his own image. This is a guy who hit 195 career homers, and he also totaled 88 sacrifice bunts for the Bucs' 1990-92 three-peat NL East champs. Today's Pirates have already shown that they can thump -- 149 of those 170 homers are back; but they have to play smarter offensive ball to weather power outages.

Helping achieve that goal will be Jeff Branson, the former hitting coach for Triple-A Indianapolis who moves in as the team's first official assistant hitting coach.

2012 record
79-83, fourth in the NL Central

Projected batting order
1. LF Starling Marte:
  .257 BA, .300 OBP, .437 SLG, 5 HR, 17 RBIs in 2012
2. RF Travis Snider:
  .250 BA, .319 OBP, .378 SLG, 4 HR, 17 RBIs in 2012
3. CF Andrew McCutchen:
  .327 BA, .400 OBP, .553 SLG, 31 HR, 96 RBIs in 2012
4. 3B Pedro Alvarez:
  .244 BA, .317 OBP, .467 SLG, 30 HR, 85 RBIs in 2012
5. 2B Neil Walker:
  .280 BA, .342 OBP, .426 SLG, 14 HR, 69 RBIs in 2012
6. 1B Garrett Jones:
  .274 BA, .317 OBP, .516 SLG, 27 HR, 86 RBIs in 2012
7. C Russell Martin:
  .211 BA, .311 OBP, .403 SLG, 21 HR, 53 RBIs in 2012
8. SS Clint Barmes:
  .229 BA, .272 OBP, .321 SLG, 8 HR, 45 RBIs in 2012

Projected rotation
1. RHP A.J. Burnett, 16-10, 3.51 ERA in 2012
2. LHP Wandy Rodriguez, 12-13, 3.76 ERA in 2012
3. RHP James McDonald, 12-8, 4.21 ERA in 2012
4. RHP Jeff Karstens, 5-4, 3.97 ERA in 2012
5. RHP Kyle McPherson, 0-2, 2.73 ERA in 2012

Projected bullpen
Closer: Jason Grilli, 2/5 saves, 2.91 ERA in 2012
RH setup man: Jared Hughes, 2.85 ERA in 2012
LH setup man: Tony Watson, 3.38 ERA in 2012

The new guys
C Russell Martin: The first thing Martin said after signing the biggest contract the Pirates have ever given a free agent (two years, $17 million) was that he came to Pittsburgh to re-establish his market value. If that motivation makes him better than Rod Barajas 2.0 -- another veteran catcher to handle the staff, but one who provides more punch -- it'll be all right with the Bucs.

RHP Mark Melancon: The former Astros closer (20 saves in 25 opportunities in 2011) could turn out to be the biggest one-fourth of the package acquired from the Red Sox in the Hanrahan swap. But to be a viable alternative to Grilli, Melancon will have to make a strong comeback from his one miserable season in Boston.

RHP Vin Mazzaro: A low-risk acquisition in a Minor League deal with the Royals, the 26-year-old right-hander will have one of the most versatile arms in camp. He could be valuable on the staff as this season's Brad Lincoln, someone who can pick up multiple innings out of the bullpen and make spot starts.

1B/OF Jerry Sands: Also landed in the six-player trade with the Red Sox, Sands has the versatility to play two corner positions. The Pirates have a lot of those -- but none of the others smashed 90 homers in the Minors the past three years. Sands' career Minor League OPS is .938. That kind of potential grabs your attention.

LHP Francisco Liriano: Eventually. Six weeks after he entered the picture, Liriano still hasn't officially entered the fold. But the Pirates are trying to make it work because they see the upside of a 29-year-old southpaw who was a 14-game winner with a 3.62 ERA only three years ago. And even last season, he looked elite on his good days.

Prospects to watch
RHP Gerrit Cole: The Pirates have him ticketed for Triple-A Indianapolis. But if 2011's overall No. 1 Draft pick follows up his meteoric '12 season with a competitive spring, "Where's Cole?" will be a weekly topic. And the answer would not be far away.

RHP Vic Black: Black also figures to open up in Triple-A, but will be a cinch midseason addition to the bullpen if he builds on the reputation he earned last year in Double-A (1.65 ERA, 85 strikeouts in 60 innings).

RHP Bryan Morris: Of all the hurlers who got brief auditions late last season, Morris' might have been most impressive (five innings, two hits, six strikeouts). Being out of options gives him a foot in the bullpen door -- his stuff, featuring a near-90 mph cutter, could earn him the seat.

LHP Justin Wilson: A long shot for the rotation, but you can never discount lefties with swing-and-miss stuff (138 strikeouts in 135 2/3 innings at Indianapolis last season). If matters don't work out with Liriano, or if the veteran's availability is at least delayed by that broken right arm and the Bucs want a second southpaw to open the season, those odds shorten.

C Tony Sanchez: After a redemptive 2012 season, during which he particularly drew raves for his handling of pitchers in his Triple-A debut, Sanchez will get a close look in Spring Training to see if he merits an in-season callup.

On the rebound
RHP McDonald: -- McDonald built his eye-popping first half on the ability to remain focused and pitch out of trouble -- then he was consumed by it in his implosive second half. Getting back, and staying, on the right track could be the Pirates' single-biggest variable of 2013.

2B Walker: A herniated disk abridged and soured his season. Walker completed the rehab from that injury and resumed normal offseason workouts weeks ago, but everyone will be anxious to see him pick up where he'd left off in mid-August.

OF Jose Tabata: Between minor injuries and major concerns about his work ethic, Tabata wormed himself pretty deep into the doghouse. This could be his last chance to justify the faith the Pirates showed merely 18 months ago by signing him to a six-year deal.

RHP Karstens: Shoulder and hip issues limited him to 90 2/3 innings, and perpetuated his reputation for fragility. Karstens wants to be great -- and the Pirates like the fact that he wants to be great. Foremost, though, he needs to be healthy.

RHP Charlie Morton: Were it not for advances in sports medicine and therapy, he'd be gone for the whole while season recuperating from Tommy John surgery last July. As it is, Morton hopes to be throwing off a mound before Spring Training ends, and to be back on the PNC Park mound before July ends.

Classic departures
RHP Grilli, Italy: His conversion into a closer will be interrupted.

C Martin, Canada: As a veteran, he is unconcerned about how the hiatus will affect his preparation for the season with a new staff.

RHP Chris Leroux, Canada: The absence could hurt his chances to make the staff, giving more looks to other deserving candidates.

RHP James Taillon, Canada: He is on the provisional roster, but it would be a major surprise if the high-ceiling prospect actually suited up for Canada.

LHP Rodriguez, Dominican Republic: Prone to good starts anyway, the early competition could make him an even bigger April force than usually.

Long gone
C Barajas: The Bucs will remember his clubhouse presence and pitcher-chaperoning. They'll quickly forget his bat and arm.

RHP Hanrahan: The Big Irishman's big arm has gone to Boston, but, in the big picture, the Bucs couldn't justify having as much as 10 percent of their total payroll in a closer who had only four save chances in the last 52 games of the season.

RHP Kevin Correia: The Bucs had only one pitcher win in double figures in both 2011 and '12, and now he is in Minnesota. Correia always competed, but his pitch-to-contact style always had everyone on the edge.

RHP Chris Resop: The undervalued middle-relief cog went to Oakland in a deal that netted right-hander Zach Thornton. Resop left behind the memory of the Bucs' most exciting, and possibly most crucial, save of 2012 -- his punchout of Ryan Ludwick with two men on saved a 10-inning, 5-4 win in Cincinnati on June 7, moving the Pirates within two games of the NL Central leaders.

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.