PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN/AP) — In 2013 the Pirates improbably shed their loser label. If they wish not for that label to be replaced by the word “fluke,” they must meet higher expectations in 2014, and both players and executives are comfortable raising the bar.
Manager Clint Hurdle, the man most credited with the culture change in Pittsburgh, believes the leadership of key free agents like outfielder Marlon Byrd and staff aces A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano had just as much to do with it.
“In the movies that I’ve watched and the books that I’ve read, there seems to be a spirit of I really don’t care what anybody thinks anymore, I’m crossing the line, I’m going to become a Pirate,” Hurdle told the Associated Press. “It’s not about mom or dad or brother or sister, not about where I used to work. I’m going to be my own man. I’m going to hope to latch on to a bunch of other men who feel the same way, that are like-minded, and try to get something special done.”
Those free agents could go a long way toward determining the sustainability of the Pirates’ success. The 36-year-old Burnett, both a clubhouse leader and fan favorite, finished 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA and ranked among the National League’s top five in strikeouts, but he bombed out of his only playoff start, a 9-1 loss at St. Louis in Game 1 of the NLDS, and he was previously pondering retirement.
Byrd, also 36, hit .318 in his first full month as a Pirate. Before his waiver trade deadline arrival, the Pirates lacked consistent production from the middle of their order, so fans hope it wasn’t his last.
The good news is Liriano, a 16-game winner and Wild Card winner, will still be under contract, as will catcher and pivotal role player Russell Martin, and All-Stars Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, though the latter is approaching arbitration, as is second baseman Neil Walker.
McCutchen (at least as far as position players go) is as obvious a league MVP choice as any after hitting .317–14 points off the NL lead–with 21 home runs, 27 steals and 84 RBI, and, unlike previous seasons, seldom cooling off after the All-Star Break.
Alvarez led the NL with 36 homers, and Walker, who battled further health issues early in the season, hit .324 with six dingers in the last ten days of the regular campaign, helping the team guarantee its first home playoff game of any kind since 1992.
It certainly had to be encouraging that none of those players appeared too small for the big stage in their first taste of postseason baseball. Despite a terrible showing in the NLDS, Walker helped the Bucs get there by going 2-for-5 with a run and an RBI double in the Wild Card Game. Alvarez hit .300 all told in October, and McCutchen hit .333.
It is also encouraging that management is expected to expand payroll in 2014–substantially, according to several reports. Don’t expect “Yankee money,” but if the Pirates climb even just one or two more rungs on Major League Baseball’s economic ladder, and if their farm system continues to bear fruit (see also: Cole, Gerrit), then 2013 really could be the start of something special.
“I think that the playing field is not level, never will be. But we as the Pittsburgh Pirates have committed ourselves to never using that as an excuse,” team owner Bob Nutting said. “Is it easier to build a great club with $200 million than with $75-$80 million? Absolutely. But I believe–have always believed and will continue to believe–that we can be competitive at that level. We need to make smart decisions.”
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(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)