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December 17, 2012

Pirates future is now

BASEBALL — Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington acknowledged the emphasis he’s put on the future in past years. There was no choice but to discuss the future. The past was frustrating — 20 straight losing seasons and a long-disheartened fan base.

But, Huntington was singing a different tune as he stood before the group of fans gathered Thursday at the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown.

“We’ve had to build, we’ve had to continue to grow,” Huntington said. “But now I can stand in front of you and talk about the present.”

Huntington, along with Pirates infielders Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, pitcher Bryan Morris, broadcaster Steve Blass, and new first base coach Rick Sofield, were there as part of the annual Pirates Caravan, where players, coaches, broadcasters and front office staff visit locations in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York — home of their new Short Season Single-A team the Jamestown Jammers — to promote the upcoming season and reach out to fans.

The 2012 season was puzzling to some fans, who watched their team have a great run from April through July — including being 16 games above that magical .500 mark on Aug. 8 — before dropping off to a 79-83 finish, extending their North American professional sports record of 20 straight losing seasons. But they made a little more progress, and got a little closer to that elusive mark.

One of the reasons for the turnaround was the winning attitude brought to the table by manager Clint Hurdle.

“Well, Clint is probably as positive a person, and obviously a manager, as I've ever played for,” Walker said. “And, over the grind of a 162 games of a long season, you have to have somebody that’s as positive as he is.”

Another reason was the team chemistry.

“It’s a great group of guys,” Alvarez said. “We love playing alongside one another, and it was a team that was invested in everyone else. Just a great atmosphere, and just fun baseball.”

Blass said last season reminded him what a wonderful baseball town Pittsburgh is, calling it a “carnival” at PNC Park every night

“To see the fans come out in full force this year, and not just on weekends and (in) the summer, but early in the season, late in the season, is really special, and something that I know will continue through this next year,” Walker said.

One of the reasons those fans came to PNC Park was to see star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, who had a breakout year in 2012 and finished third in the National League Most Valuable Player voting.

“He's a special player,” Blass said. “He’s one of those guys you say, ‘Well, how good can he be?’ Well, come back in 15 years, because you can do it for a couple years, but you really, really prove it in baseball by doing it over the long haul.”

Alvarez seems poised to have his breakout year. He has frustrated fans from the get-go, struggling for most of 2010 and 2011 — batting .191 in ’11. He finally began to show some consistency in 2012, hitting 30 home runs and driving in 85 runs.

Walker has turned into one of the best second basemen in the National League, but injuries stifled his year. He suffered a dislocated thumb in August, and nagging back problems kept him below 100 percent and led to him being shut down for the last two weeks of the season.

“Obviously, the end of the season was very frustrating for me with the back injury I had,” Walker said. “Fortunately I’ve gotten back to full strength. I was in physical therapy for about six weeks and I’ve become more knowledgeable with how to not let it happen again.”

“Righthanded pitcher Charlie Morton went down with an elbow injury in late May, and ended up having Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in June. Huntington said he is doing well in his recovery, and is in an early portion of his throwing program. Recovery from ligament replacement surgery is typically 12-18 months.

“Our expectation is that we’ll see Charlie sometime in June,” Huntington said.

Another young righty, James McDonald, acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers at the trade deadline in 2010, pitched much like an ace for the first half of the season before seeming to lose his control after the All-Star break. The team expresses a commitment to getting him back to where he was in the first half.

Rotation-wise, McDonald will be joined by A.J. Burnett, who morphed into a long-needed ace, and lefty Wandy Rodriguez, acquired shortly before the July 30th non-waiver trade deadline from the Houston Astros. Youngsters Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson are possibilities, both having ended the 2012 season in the Pirates rotation.

Huntington also mentioned recent acquisitions Andrew Oliver, picked up from the Detroit Tigers, and Vin Mazzaro, from the Kansas City Royals, as options to start.

Another candidate, should the Bucs succeed in re-signing him, would be righthander Jeff Karstens. Karstens is a free agent, but Huntington expressed interest in re-signing him.

“We keep the door open with Jeff, we hope he keeps the door open with us, and if there is an agreement to be reached we’d love to bring Jeff back,” Huntington said.

Catching whoever lands those coveted five rotation spots will be free agent signee Russell Martin and incumbent backup Michael McKenry. Martin, who came to the Pirates after spending the previous two seasons with the New York Yankees, signed partly because he wanted to play under Clint Hurdle, and expressed an interest in once again being a teammate of Burnett, a former Yankee. Both Martin and McKenry were praised by Huntington.

“When we started to really bear down on Russell Martin we felt like he was a good addition for us, on the field, off the field, in the batter’s box, behind home plate, in the clubhouse,” Huntington said. “Felt he brings a lot to help this organization get better. He’s gonna help Michael McKenry get better as well. We like Michael, we know he’s a fan favorite, and for a while there he was a really good player for us this summer. We do like his potential, and we feel Russ will help him as well, and between Russ Martin and Michael McKenry we feel like we’ve got a very strong catching tandem.”

On the infield is Alvarez at third base, Clint Barmes at shortstop and Walker at second. Hurdle has several options for first base, including versatile infielder/outfielder Garrett Jones, who has played multiple positions since signing with the Pirates during the 2008 offseason, and Gaby Sanchez, who came over from the Miami Marlins at the deadline. Matt Hague, who saw some Major League time this past season, and Clint Robinson, acquired from the Royals with Mazzaro, are in the mix.

Possibilities to join McCutchen in the outfield are Alex Presley, Jose Tabata, Starling Marte and Travis Snider. Presley, Tabata and Marte are homegrown players who have made appearances over the past few seasons. Snider was acquired from the Blue Jays in July.

In the bullpen, journeymen Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan consistently set up and closed games. The middle relief corps includes Jared Hughes, Tony Watson and possibly Morris and Justin Wilson. Hughes and Watson both spent the past season with the big league club. Wilson and Morris made their big league debuts on Aug. 21 — which Morris described as “a dream come true” — and will look to make the team out of Spring Training.

Led by Hurdle, this is a group united. As Blass said, they went from a team just trying to finish .500 to a team angry that they did not make the playoffs. This team has one goal — finish.

With all these possibilities, the future is looking exceptionally bright. A whole lot brighter than it has in 20 years. And Spring Training is less than two months away.

“We realize we’ve challenged you for 20 years,” Huntington told the fans. “We’re close to ending that challenge.”

Natalie and Siri, both 16, are the daughters of Herald Staff Writer Joe Pinchot and former Herald writer and editor Judi Swogger.

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