BRADENTON, Fl. ---- “This is the best team we’ve had here,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says on a sun-kissed spring training morning in Pirate City, and who’s to argue with the sage, sitting at his desk, surrounded by books by John Wooden and John Maxwell, under a whiteboard scribbled with a quote from Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”
In Pirate City, the zenlike calm in the skipper’s office extends down the hall, past the inspirational posters (“We do not have time for just another day,” reads one, over the mug of that great philosopher, Bill Murray), and into the clubhouse, where there are no controversies or battles boiling over, other than for the status of most popular Pirate in Korea. Like the lineup, the rotation, is set, a change from recent springs in Bradenton when each day in camp was like an episode of Survivor. “I’m not breaking out the champagne yet,” says pitching coach Ray Searage, “but do we feel very good right now? Yes, we do.”
Pittsburgh, a punching bag not long ago, has quietly become a model organization. Only two teams in baseball have won more games than the Pirates over the last two seasons: the Dodgers and Cardinals. The Bucs have a loaded minor league system that ranks among the best—No. 8 according to Baseball Prospectus, No. 7 says ESPN’s Keith Law—and, after years of investment, one of the premiere programs in Latin America. They have a cutting-edge front office and coaching staff that is aligned with the kind of data-driven decision-making that should be the envy of other teams. And now they have a talented and deep major league club that is—the mad professor is right—the best Pirates team in decades and good enough to win the World Series. “The focus is to keep doing what we’ve been doing—and then some,” says Hurdle, citing the team’s 2015 mantra. After two playoff exits, it’s clear what the “and then some” is: an October that ends with a parade across the Roberto Clemente Bridge.
The Cardinals will likely again be the consensus favorite to in the division. The Cubs are the rock stars of the spring. But the Pirates are the team to beat in the NL Central, and here are three reasons why that parade seven months from now is a real possibility.
1. The Pirates will have (sorry, Matt Kemp) the best outfield in baseball
Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco played just 23 games together in the outfield last season, but this year the Pirates will have a full season from the preposterously talented trio, the best (and most exciting) group of all-around outfielders in the game. We know how good Cutch is: he finished in the top three of MVP voting for a third straight season in 2014 and remember, he was severely limited down the stretch last year with his rib injury. Marte, after a dreadful start last year, shined in the second half (he had the fourth-best OBP and OPS in baseball after the All-Star break) and could be taking MVP votes away from McCutchen as soon as this season. Polanco, Baseball America's No. 10 prospect entering 2014, could be ready for his breakout season now that he has the benefit of rest and added muscle.
Last season, Pittsburgh's outfield posted the second highest weighted on base percentage in the majors (.351), but it’s the defense that makes this unit potentially one for the ages. “All three of these men have played centerfield and move well in centerfield,” says Hurdle. “The ability to go get a ball, to read a ball off the bat, if there’s some air underneath the ball we have three men more than capable of running it down and landing it in leather—and they all have strong throwing arms, they’re accurate. It will be very exciting outfield to watch.”
This trio should be here a long time. McCutchen is signed through 2018, but could be in Pittsburgh much longer. Marte is locked up through 2021 and Polanco is under control through 2020. Says Hurdle, “"You can’t help but dream. You may not know it, because it’s a quiet confidence, but there's nothing they don’t think they can do. I would never put a ceiling on them.”
2. The pitching staff is set—and healthy
“You look at last year, and four-fifths of our rotation spent time on the DL,” says Searage. “[Francisco] Liriano went down, [Charlie] Morton went down, [Edinson] Volquez was our best starter for a long time. These guys faced a lot of adversity,” and still the Pirates staff finished the fifth in the league in ERA. They should be better this season, particularly with the emergence of Gerrit Cole, who should be the staff ace in his third season, after going 11-5 with a 3.65 ERA in 138 innings in 2014.
The Pirates' staff is in good hands under Searage, one of the best pitching coaches in the game; Pittsburgh has become a Lourdes for pitchers, with hurlers like Liriano, Volquez, A.J. Burnett and Vance Worley finding rejuvenation in the Steel City. Searage arrived in Pittsburgh in 2009 with an old school philosophy—“the core values are first pitch strikes, controlling the running game, pitching in for strikes, get something done in three pitches or less”—but in recent years has blended in the new school analytics. Asked how much he depends on the analytics team—Dan Fox, director of baseball systems development, and in-house quant Mike Fitzgerald—for info, Searage says, “A lot. If I ask for anything, it’s there in 10 minutes, anything I need. What pitch does this guy look for when he’s in an RBI situation? The stuff is eye-opening, because as long as I’ve been in baseball, I’ve never had any of this stuff before. Dan and Mike are awesome. They’re part of the family.”
3. The team is deeper than ever
Last year was a grind—for Hurdle, whose hip problems nearly forced him to step aside during the summer, and for the club, which was clobbered with injuries to not only its rotation but its position player stars: McCutchen, Russell Martin and Neil Walker. Despite that the team won 88 games, secured a wild card spot, and were swept aside by last October’s Category 5 hurricane, Madison Bumgarner. “We dug one out of the dirt last year to get to the playoffs,” says Hurdle, “but we know how much work it takes to get back to the playoffs. This year, it’s keep doing what we’ve done, and then some. This team is hungry.”
The loss of catcher Russell Martin, who signed with the Blue Jays in free agency, is big, but the Pirates like what they have in Francisco Cervelli, who may be unproven as a regular but is a proven pitch framer. “We like the defensive skill set a lot, we like the offensive projects from what we’ve seen from him when he’s been able to get on the field,” says Hurdle. “The pitch framing, the blocking, the calling, the energy, the edge, it all serves us well, just what we’re looking for.”
The club didn’t make a splash in the free agent market, but the front office’s shrewd additions of players like Jung-Ho Kang—an infielder coming off a 40-homer season in the Korea Baseball Organization and whose four-year, $11.5 million deal is the team’s biggest international signing ever—Corey Hart, and Sean Rodriguez, give the club the depth for them to return to the postseason.
And then some.