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Pirates focused on even 'bigger things' in 2014

Breakout '13 season should be foundation for hard-working club's progression

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Pirates focused on even 'bigger things' in 2014 play video for Pirates focused on even 'bigger things' in 2014

BRADENTON, Fla. -- They're very big on alliteration, these Pittsburgh Pirates. From the walls of the Spring Training clubhouses to the murals ringing their PNC Park locker room, they remind all that "P" is also for "Pride" and "Passion."

How about one more: "Progression."

Go beyond 94 wins. Go deeper than a Division Series. Finish that 2013 symphony, of Blackout whoops and "Let's Go Bucs!" hollers.

That's where the 2014 Pirates are. That's where they believe they are headed, beginning with the first step on Monday at PNC Park against, or over, the Chicago Cubs.

Actually, the first steps came a long time ago. Media touring Spring Training sites, in Florida as well as in Arizona, have been stunned upon arriving at the Pirates' complex and comparing their mode to those of other teams. They've been impressed to see line drives already rattling the cages at 7 a.m., and how long and how ardently the Bucs go at it.

"This is the hardest-working team we've seen," has been a common comment. "And the loosest."

What a wonderful combination -- shedding blood and sweat to avoid the tears.

The strut into the ultimate game of the 2013 Division Series did not end 20 years of starvation. It began six months of hunger for more.

"We earned the angst we all felt after Game 5 in St. Louis," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "And we are definitely looking forward to taking the next step. We're focused, healthy and hungry. We want to accomplish bigger things.

"We were asked, 'When are you going to win?' Well, we won. We are not the homecoming opponent on anyone's schedule anymore. It's time to take the next step. The men here are definitely embracing that."

"We set the bar high for ourselves this year," said second baseman Neil Walker. "We expect a lot of ourselves."

As the Pirates were about to take the field for one of the last Grapefruit League games, someone in the dugout rousted the gang with the requisite, "Let's get ready for the season."

He was immediately corrected by a teammate: "We're going in ready!"

All this is a 180-degree turn from what most have seen for the Pirates from the tea leaves, tarot cards, analytics or whatever medium they consult: regression. The negativism is driven by dissatisfaction with what the front office has done over the offseason. Which, basically, is nothing.

Ignored in the drone of that criticism, which has been rampant and often vicious, is that the core of the 94-game winners is back. The Opening Day lineup will include six who started in the 2013 inaugural, the most for the Pirates since eight starters returned from 1990 to '91.

Not only are they back, but they should be better.

In many ways, the 2013 Bucs were underachievers. Perhaps that is a weird knock on a team that not only ended 20 years of losing, but had the third-best record in the National League and the fifth best in all of the Majors. But the guys handling the offense didn't exactly hit their heads on their ceilings. The Bucs' scoring average of 3.91 runs per game was by far the lowest of the 12 playoff teams.

Billboard would have most of these guys rising with a bullet.

"The reality is," said the man who has taken heat for the lack of acquisitions, general manager Neal Huntington, "our improvement will come from the core of our guys internally, through their natural growth."

The Pittsburgh Kid, Walker, is back to a regular routine after full recovery from a series of annoying injuries. Starling Marte is diving into a second full season. Russell Martin is refocused on offense after a season of learning a new pitching staff. Shortstop is steady, with Jordy Mercer's heavier bat a daily presence. All have growth room.

Even Andrew McCutchen has room to step up. In his NL Most Valuable Player Award-winning season, McCutchen scored 10 fewer runs, had 10 fewer homers and 12 fewer RBIs than the prior season.

"The scary part is, I don't think he's scratched the surface of his full potential," third baseman Pedro Alvarez said of McCutchen. "He has no ceiling. I'm excited by what the future holds for him."

Alvarez may appear to be an exception to this growth theory. After all, he tied for the league lead with 36 homers. But you don't think he has a higher average (.233) and fewer strikeouts (186) in him?

Hurdle thinks so, calling Baltimore's Chris Davis -- he hit 53 blasts and batted .286 -- "a very good comparison to the type of offensive producer Alvarez has a chance to be."

The manager would know: he was Davis' batting coach while the O's first baseman was still struggling with the 2010 Texas Rangers.

That popular regression theory picks on the team sector that was most responsible for those 94 wins, which is the pitching staff: starters, closers and everyone in between. Got "career years out of" many of them, and that can't happen again, goes the downer logic that ignores the fact most haven't been around long enough to have "careers."

People still hung up on the departure of A.J. Burnett need to remember that neither Charlie Morton nor Gerrit Cole came on the scene last season until mid-June, by which time Wandy Rodriguez was 2013 history. Now all three will strap it on from the get-go, led by lefty ace Francisco Liriano. The fifth musketeer, Edinson Volquez, needs to win games to win over the critics.

The bullpen will remain indispensable, because Hurdle's approach won't allow the starters to prove whether they can carry a bigger workload. An incumbent bullpen is virtually unheard of, but that is what the Pirates have.

The accumulation of pitches and innings could indeed wear on them. However, relief arms is probably the team's deepest asset, and the just-in-case reservoir in Indianapolis is impressive.

As far as the NL Central race is concerned, the warmup is gone. The schedule has the Pirates diving right into it: the first 28 games are within the division, including six with the Cardinals and seven each with Cincinnati and the team many expect to replace the Reds as a top contender, the Brewers.

The last two years, the Bucs tripped out of the gate (starts of 2-6 and 1-5), but they were able to recover. A similar start could be harder to overcome.

"It'll be a challenge coming out, so we want to play well early," Hurdle said.

That is what the intense Spring Training was all about. Flying into bases and after drives. Laying out. Dirt patches and grass stains.

In 2013, the Pirates got something they could put in their memory bank. This year, they want something they can run up the flagpole.

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.

{"event":["opening_day" ] }
{"event":["opening_day" ] }
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