Bucs persevere through trying season

Bucs persevere through trying season

PITTSBURGH -- No one could have anticipated the way 2009 was going to plummet to an end. Nor could anyone have imagined the flurry of summer trades that was to come when the Pirates opened the season with an exciting come-from-behind win over the Cardinals on Opening Day.

It was a trying year, to say the least, for a club that has now endured 17 straight of them. They crept closer to 100 losses and endured a late-season freefall that engendered references of the 1890 Pittsburgh Alleghenys, who went 23-113 over an entire season.

It wouldn't all be nearly that bad. But at times, it was still quite tough.

The Pirates saw two-thirds of their Opening Day outfield and three-fourths of the infield traded away before the July 31 Trade Deadline. Heading into the season's final week, the Pirates had already used 47 different players. Eight of those players made their Major League debut.

It led to some emerging bright spots (Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf, among them), but also a miserable record away from PNC Park. Still, management stressed that it saw widespread individual improvement, even if the results hardly reflected that.

"We have a lot of young players who are trying to establish themselves as Major Leaguers, and they focus more on their own development and performance than they are the team," general manager Neal Huntington said. "The next step for our staff and for us to help them understand how to help the team and have that individual performance helps the team performance so we win games. But if you take a step back and look at the individual results, we have some good things coming."

That hasn't made it any easier for fans, who not only watched favorites like Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Nyjer Morgan dealt away, but have now seen their franchise set a dubious record for futility. There's no question that the depth in the Minors has improved in the past two seasons, though that has so far done nothing to improve the results at the Major League level.

To that, Huntington urged patience, even after the team finished last in the division for the fourth time in the past five seasons.

"We are in the process of changing the culture," Huntington said. "It didn't take two months or two years to get to where it is. It's not going to take two months or two years to get to where it needs to be. What's expected of players and what's accepted of players in the Minor Leagues is very different than it was two years ago. If you think about trying to get rid of a bad habit, it doesn't happen overnight. It takes time. It takes energy. It takes commitment to get rid of that bad habit."

Record: 62-99, sixth place in the National League Central.

Defining moment: Though the announcement that the Pirates had traded center fielder Nate McLouth was a defining day in that it set off a flurry of summer deals the club would go on to make, the season's defining moment came as the team walked off the field after a 4-2 loss to the Cubs on Sept. 7. Despite preseason expectations to improve upon the 2008 club's 67-95 record, the Bucs officially clinched another losing season on that overcast Monday. With loss No. 82, the Pirates became the only team in North American professional sports history to string together 17 straight losing seasons. It was a moment that best summed up another year marred with disappointment.

What went right: Pittsburgh enjoyed watching two newcomers -- McCutchen and Jones -- make a run at NL Rookie of the Year honors over the second half of the season. McCutchen's arrival had been much anticipated, and he showed off his five-tool ability after taking over as the everyday center fielder in early June. Jones, who signed as a Minor League free agent over the winter, was the surprise. He hit 10 homers in his first 16 games and went on to set a franchise record for homers by a left-handed-hitting rookie. ... Both Zach Duke and Ohlendorf took significant strides forward. After working to strengthen his arm during the winter, Duke brushed off subpar results from the past few years and put together a first half that ended with an All-Star Game invite. In his first full season as a Major League starter, Ohlendorf thrived after making a delivery change and was the rotation's top second-half pitcher. ... The addition of infield coach Perry Hill brought noticeable defensive improvement. Andy LaRoche made huge strides at third, while Hill was also credited with improving already above-average defenders Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson. He also worked his magic to make Delwyn Young a serviceable defensive second baseman. ... With injuries plaguing relievers all season, rookies Jesse Chavez and Evan Meek were two emerging bright spots to come out of the bullpen. The last one to make the team out of Spring Training, Chavez was the team's most used reliever. Joel Hanrahan can be added to that list of impressive right-handed power arms, too, as he shook off a terrible first half with the Nationals and thrived in a new environment after the trade.

What went wrong: Nearly the entire second half. The Pirates went on a historically bad losing streak in August and September as the team won just three of 23 games during one span. The team also fared terribly on the road as it finished with the worst road record in these 17 straight losing seasons. ... When Ryan Doumit went down with a fractured right wrist two weeks into the season, it sapped the lineup of its cleanup bat. Expected to be the Pirates' biggest offensive threat, Doumit didn't return until the final series before the All-Star break. He didn't find his groove until September as he struggled through most of the entire second half of the season and was benched at one point. ... Expecting to reap the benefits of the '08 Jason Bay trade, the Pirates instead saw all four of those players underachieve. Brandon Moss struggled and lost his starting job in right. Andy LaRoche made improvements defensively, but produced minimal power until the end of the year. Craig Hansen missed almost the entire season because of a nerve malady in his back. And pitcher Bryan Morris took a step back in the Minors. ... Closer Matt Capps allowed opponents to hit over .300 against him all year and endured some tough stretches. His command was subpar through most of the season, and he was not nearly as reliable in the ninth as he had been a year before. ... Though Duke, Ohlendorf and Paul Maholm did just fine, the Pirates' rotation was never entirely stabilized. Ian Snell asked to be sent to the Minors. Jeff Karstens was moved to the bullpen early. Virgil Vasquez, Kevin Hart and Charlie Morton rarely overwhelmed opponents, though the latter two did show positive signs of improvement as the season ended.

Biggest surprise: It has to be Jones, who spent nearly 10 seasons in the Minors before taking the league by storm this summer. His only previous appearance in the Majors came when he appeared in 31 games for the Twins in 2007. The Pirates liked what they saw from the first baseman/right fielder in Spring Training, but it wasn't until he joined the team on the last day in June did the organization know exactly what type of player it had. Jones went on to win NL Rookie of the Month honors in July after leading the Majors in home runs that month. And he hardly slowed down and finished the year with more homers than any other rookie in the big leagues. Jones was an everyday starter from the day he arrived in Pittsburgh and seems to have solidified himself a starting spot for 2010.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.