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Spring postcard: Pirates hoping for more than 'incremental progress'

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Three observations after spending a couple of days in Pirates camp:

1. "Shiny new toys"

The Pirates have spent $30.7 million signing their picks from the last three drafts, the most by any team in the majors. That's a staggering reality for a club whose major-league payroll annually ranks near the bottom of the league and hasn't exceeded $50 million since 2003. But owner Bob Nutting, who told players in a Monday meeting that "incremental progress" is no longer adequate, has blessed the front office with a generous budget for amateur players.

"We have to develop our own core players," general manager Neal Huntington said.

"We can't spend the amount of money it takes to bring in a top-of-the-rotation starter or a middle-of-the-lineup bat. Or, really, a middle-of-the-rotation starter or just an everyday player. We have to develop those from within."

Twice recently Pittsburgh has picked No. 2 overall, inking third baseman Pedro Alvarez in 2008 and right-handed pitcher Jameson Taillon in 2010 to contracts with signing bonuses of at least $6 million. In 2009 the Pirates snagged catcher Tony Sanchez for a $2.5 million bonus at No. 4 overall. This year, they have the No. 1 overall pick, and Huntington has said that money won't be an issue in signing the best available player.

With several of the organization's best young players reaching the majors in 2010 and playing well enough to lock down starting jobs for 2011 -- Alvarez, leftfielder Jose Tabata and second baseman Neil Walker -- there's hope the Pirates really might make more than incremental progress this season.

Whether those players -- and emerging star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, who reached the big leagues in '09 -- will be enough to turn around long-suffering Pittsburgh's fortunes is hard to say. Final judgment of the process and the execution of the club's scouting and development departments will come in a few years, but the philosophy of building through the draft seems sound.

"Ownership has been supportive," said Kyle Stark, the club's director of player development. "Our scouts have done a very good job of going out and finding that talent and, yeah, we get some shiny new toys every year, as we help them grow as men and reach their potential."

2. "Revisit the greatness"

The Pirates' recent struggles are well-documented -- they've posted 18 straight losing seasons -- but new manager Clint Hurdle is going out of his way to remind his players that this isn't a woebegone expansion team. Hurdle has been trying to learn everything he can about the franchise's history, starting with the success of the early 1900s.

"It's important for the players to understand there is greatness in this organization," Hurdle said in his office at Pirate City this week.

The skipper need only re-familiarize himself with Pittsburgh's glory days of the 1970s, as he was 13 years old in 1970 and 23 in 1980, bookends on a decade in which his own interest as a young baseball fan was peaking. (He was a first-round pick in 1975.)

"If I'm going to be managing a team that has a rich tradition and it's a blue-collar city, a no-nonsense city as Pittsburgh is, I wanted to increase my awareness of what these people have seen and what they've been through -- the ups they've seen and the challenges they've seen," said Hurdle.

"They're still proud. There are some that are still angry, but they're still proud."

The history lessons are important for many of the players, as only two on the 40-man roster were born before 1980 -- free-agent signees Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz -- meaning 95 percent of the players weren't yet teenagers when the Pirates played their last playoff game in 1992.

One example: McCutchen is only 24, and the Florida native said all he knew about the Pirates growing up was what he learned while attending the Roberto Clemente baseball camp in Puerto Rico in the late '90s. Coincidentally, one of McCutchen's camp counselors was Pirates great Manny Sanguillen, now a spring training instructor. "It's a small world," McCutchen said, "because here I am in the same clubhouse as him."

In an effort to give all of his players a connection to the franchise's past, Hurdle has tried sprinkling in history lessons during camp.

"We need to find a way to revisit the greatness," Hurdle said.

3. "Take back the plate"

Hurdle is frank when evaluating the challenges his team will face this year: "Our biggest question marks will be on the mound." With closer Joel Hanrahan and All-Star setup man Evan Meek, the Pirates should be able to hold onto most leads they take into the eighth inning. But getting there could be tricky.

Of the nine pitchers who started at least nine games last year for the Pirates, only two had an ERA below 4.90: James McDonald (3.52 in 11 starts) and Ross Ohlendorf (4.07 in 21 starts). McDonald, the former Dodger, was particularly sharp in September, compiling a 2.31 ERA with 30 strikeouts and 13 walks in six starts. When catcher Chris Snyder was asked for a breakout pitcher of the year candidate, he picked McDonald.

Brad Lincoln, who was picked No. 4 overall in 2006 and had Tommy John surgery before the 2007 season, had only a 6.66 ERA in nine starts and may well start the year back in Triple A. Stark said Lincoln's struggles were a case of getting away from what worked for him during his ascent through the minors.

Even pitchers with a pretty good track record like Paul Maholm struggled in 2010. Maholm, who was 9-15 with a 5.10 ERA, said the staff's biggest challenge this year will be to "take back the plate." He relies heavily on his sinker and changeup but still believed he didn't attack the inside corner of the plate enough.

Said Hurdle, "What I like is that each one of these men has had to deal with adversity in the past."

Clint Hurdle, manager

With apologies to Overbay and Diaz, who'll play important roles as a starting first baseman and corner outfielder, respectively, the most important new face in camp is Hurdle. Former manager John Russell was fired after last year's 105-loss season and was swiftly replaced by Hurdle, who has reached the World Series as a player (in 1980 with the Royals), manager (in 2007 with the Rockies) and hitting coach (in 2010 with the Rangers). He's lost all three, but gained valuable perspective on the game from different angles.

Most beneficial to this young club full of high draft picks may be the experienced Hurdle gained during his own time as a hyped prospect, including when he was featured on a 1978 SI cover labeling him "This Year's Phenom."

"It turned out to be one of the greatest teaching opportunities I have for young players," Hurdle said.

In stark contrast to Russell, Hurdle has brought a bombastic presence to the daily proceedings in camp, energy the players have unanimously praised. Hurdle's track record in developing young hitters in his time with the Rockies warrants attention from Pittsburgh's young hitters, who need only look across the clubhouse to Garrett Atkins for one example.

As a Hurdle protégé, Atkins had three straight seasons with at least a .286 average, 21 home runs and 99 RBIs. Signed to a minor-league contract with a big-league camp invite, Atkins is hoping to make the club as a reserve infielder.

Gregg Ritchie is the Pirates' hitting coach and does the vast majority of the work, but the players have noticed how well Ritchie and Hurdle work in tandem around the batting cage.

"[Hurdle] does an incredible job of being engaged and adding input without stepping on Ritchie's toes," Diaz said.

Team president Frank Coonelly suggested in an interview with piratesprospects.com last week that the Pirates couldn't afford a higher payroll until attendance rose. Of course, attendance may not rise until Pittsburgh spends more money on its player, creating an unhealthy vicious cycle. Nutting responded the next day by insisting the two are not quite so independent of each other.

At some point the Pirates will need to spend more on the big-league club. No team can fully and adequately stock a competitive roster entirely with its own draft picks. While it's wise to pace spending on free agents to match the timing of the young core reaching its collective prime, that day will need to come if the club wants to meet its ultimate and very lofty goal, regardless of attendance.

"Until we win a World Series, nobody is satisfied," Huntington said. "We're not going to be happy when we win 81 games for the first time to break the streak -- that's not a goal of ours."

Ohlendorf, a Princeton graduate who previously interned with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shadowed an economist with the House Energy and Commerce Committee in D.C. for two weeks this offseason ... Alvarez got married in the offseason to Keli Murphy, the daughter of Pat Murphy, the successful former baseball coach at Arizona State; the newlyweds honeymooned in Fiji ... Several Pirates made jokes at the expense of one teammate for remaining on his family's cell phone plan.

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