Spring's new beginning has Bucs optimistic
Talented club offers hope to fans frustrated by 20 years of struggles
BRADENTON, Fla. -- For the most outward sense of optimism associated with the pitchers' and catchers' report date and all it entails, you walk through the doors welcoming you to the place they call Pirate City. You stroll through the hallways lined with photos or jerseys of the likes of Clemente, Mazeroski, Stargell, Wagner and the brothers Waner and step into the clubhouse, where Russell Martin is unpacking a fresh pair of Air Jordan cleats.
It is here, at Pirate City, where the spirit of this baseball holiday is at its height. Because a day when everybody is 0-0 is always good for what ails a team all too accustomed to the wrong side of the ledger.
This, after all, is a day for positivity. A day when you can focus more on the promise of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Jerry Sands than the pain of 20 losing seasons past. A day when Francisco Liriano can look down at his fractured right arm -- an injury sustained the day before he was to sign a since-discarded two-year, $12.75 million deal -- and see it healing, hopeful that he is on the verge of an NL-induced, A.J. Burnett-like bounceback. A day when Gerrit Cole is on the come and Starling Marte is on the rise and Jonathan Sanchez is finally going to put it all together, you'll see.
And yes, a day when Martin's cleats are unsullied by soil or cynicism.
"Everybody," Martin says, "is in first place right now. That's the way I see it. Whatever happened in the past, you can't change it. But what you can do is get your mind right for the season coming up. That's what our expectation should be -- to get focused and prepare to the best of our ability."
What, exactly, is the Pirates' ability, at this particular point? Hard to tell after yet another frustrating finish to a season that had flirted with contention or at least competitiveness. The Pirates were 2 1/2 games behind the NL Central-leading Reds in early August last year, only to lose 36 of their next 52.
Said closer Jason Grilli: "Everybody went from, 'Wow, we're on a playoff run' to, 'Well, at least we'll have a winning season' to…"
To square one, essentially.
The power of perspective is such that the seven-win increase from '11 to '12 was much less the storyline than was the consecutive losing seasons streak -- the longest such streak in North American professional sports. That streak colors every conversation about the Pirates. Case in point: While Pirates pitchers and catchers were unpacking their personal belongings, word was spreading about Pope Benedict's resignation, prompting famed stat analyst and political prognosticator Nate Silver to tweet this:
"No pope has resigned since 1415, which is also the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning record."
Oof. Even the math whizzes pile on the Pirates.
One of these years, the team will get it right. And on a day like this, you can't help but hope that this is indeed the year, if only for the sanity of long-suffering Pittsburghian baseball fans.
Of course, we don't have an inordinately ample assemblage of acquisitions that allow us to point to the Pirates as a team on the verge of newfound glory. Last year's Trade Deadline additions -- Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez -- did little to push the Pirates forward, and Liriano comes with more questions than answers. At least Martin, fresh off two reputation-rebuilding seasons in pinstripes, comes with the cachet of experience in a winning culture, and the Pirates are paying a cool $17 million over two years for the privilege.
Martin made it clear that the money -- and the speed with which that money was offered -- was what wooed him to Pirate City. Strange, of course, that the money didn't come from the Yankees, but that was the new reality in which we lived this winter.
"Having the money and wanting to spend the money are two different things," Martin said. "That's the business aspect I have no control over. I have nothing to do with [the Yankees'] decision-making. If they feel they can save a bit of money by going with two guys who don't really cost that much, and they feel they still have a competitive team and that was an area where they could save a little money, that's the business side of it, and I have no problem with it.
"Would I enjoy playing with the Yankees? Of course, who wouldn't? It's a great environment to play in, a winning environment. It's fun. But I didn't get that opportunity, and I'm going to make the best of the opportunity I have now."
It is not dumbing things down to suggest that the Pirates' fortunes and Martin's ability to make the most of this opportunity are very much entwined. Because while the lineup has a respectable amount of promise and potential in the form of those mid-20s players entering their primes, it is imperative that the Bucs get every ounce of upside out of their arms, and the veteran catcher should have no small amount of input.
Cole, the No. 1 overall Draft pick in 2011, is counted as a potential saving grace, but let's not put too much on the kid too quickly. For now, the immediate focus is on lowering Burnett's home-run-to-fly-ball rate, getting Rodriguez's strikeout rate back up to his former norms, figuring out what the heck happened to James McDonald in the second half of '12 and capitalizing on Liriano's surprisingly solid walk, strikeout and homer rates, once he's healthy.
Those are among the tasks on Martin's radar, and his offseason perusal of the Pirates' video logs got him started. But Spring Training will be the real learning period, and Martin, for one, is going into it with open eyes.
"I don't have any expectations for what the outcome of the season can be," he said. "It's really a fresh outlook. I'm just ready to compete. I feel like, with this team, there's a bit more youth. I feel I can be a leader when it comes to helping pitchers understand themselves and get better. I don't want their expectations to be anything different than just going out there and competing and having fun."
Martin has it right, for a team in the Pirates' position can't afford outright expectations. But on this day, the sun was shining on Pirate City, the slate was clean and the cleats were fresh out the box. It felt like enough to move forward.