Playoff bound again, Pirates built for long haul
PITTSBURGH (AP) There was really only one request on the fourth floor at PNC Park that first winter, the one eight years ago when the new Pittsburgh Pirates braintrust set about rebooting a franchise in the midst of an historic freefall.
Keep your door open.
The search for a common vision wasn't going to happen with people staring at doorknobs as they walked the halls. President Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington wanted the staff they'd assembled to get creative. Walk around. Talk to each other. Exchange ideas. See what sticks with the understanding that most of it won't.
''We wanted the doors open to create cohesion, to get people united,'' said Kyle Stark, who was brought on as director of player development and is now assistant general manager.
It led to an endless stream of meetings, most of them informal. Somebody would walk into an office to start a conversation. Other staff members would stop by to say hello only to be drawn in, everyone focused on the formidable task of digging out of 15 years of rubble.
''It was ungodly hours,'' said Greg Smith, who was director of scouting at the time and is now assistant general manager. ''There were marathon sessions of `How do we go about this?'''
Kind of like this: the Pirates enter the penultimate weekend of the 2015 regular season assured of a third straight playoff berth. They've done it with a mix of homegrown talent (perennial MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen and All-Star ace Gerrit Cole) and veterans who either left money on the table to return (A.J. Burnett) or stuck around after reviving their career (Francisco Liriano).
''Trust me, we don't forget where we were,'' said second baseman Neil Walker, who was on the team that had the worst record in the majors in 2010. ''Losing 105 games is something you can't quite explain. It's not fun at all. Fortunately, those days are past us here.''
Long past. The franchise that went 20 years between winning seasons is making (hash)Buctober an annual rite. The core of McCutchen, Cole and outfielders Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco is locked in through at least 2018. So are Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle, whose relentless optimism provided the perfect antidote to nearly two decades of angst.
It is every bit the vision the front office laid out in those early days: a baseball Renaissance built not by spending lavishly but smartly, investing shrewdly at places far away from the shores of the Allegheny River with the understanding there was no quick fix at the major-league level.
While the team remained reticent in terms of chasing high-dollar free agents, owner Bob Nutting opened his wallet and gave Huntington the means to aggressively pursue players through the amateur draft. The club overhauled its training facility in Bradenton, Fla., and built a 46-acre complex in the Dominican Republic to serve as its Latin American headquarters while also making a substantial investment in analytics.
''Everything I've learned about baseball indicates that it's a long and slow cycle,'' Nutting told The Associated Press. ''You have to invest in the fundamentals before you can perform at the major league level.''
The same team that took pitcher Daniel Moskos over catcher Matt Wieters in 2007 - the final draft before Huntington's tenure - because of concerns about the ability to sign Wieters gave Cole an $8 million bonus after making him the top overall pick in 2011. Pittsburgh grabbed high school outfielder Josh Bell a round later and awarded him an extra $5 million to turn pro instead of play collegiately at Texas. Bell finished 2015 at Triple-A Indianapolis and is transitioning to first base, where he will likely play whenever he arrives in the big leagues.
Pittsburgh restructured its scouting department, with 24 canvassing for amateur prospects and 10 more doing the same at the professional level. Huntington has a handful of special assistants that fulfill a variety of roles and there's been a decided uptick in the international search for talent, a move that included signing Korean infielder Jung Ho Kang last winter. All the 28-year-old rookie did in 2015 was hit .285 with 15 homers before his season ended with a broken leg on Sept. 17.
Kang's injury gave the full-time starting shortstop job back to Jordy Mercer, a 2008 draft pick whose maturity while Kang supplanted him in the lineup is symbolic of the approach Huntington has tried to instill since the day he arrived from Cleveland. When Kang went down, Mercer responded by going 9 for 23 (.391) over the next six games.
''The challenge is building a system in which no one is irreplaceable,'' Huntington said.
Except, at least for awhile, Huntington and Hurdle. When pressed on if there was a time when he wanted to blow it up, Nutting pointed to the end of 2012 when the Pirates saw a 66-50 start end with a 13-33 finish and a 20th consecutive losing season.
''Everything was up for discussion, for review, for throwing us all out,'' Nutting said. Only Nutting - who admits he's ''incredibly impatient'' - decided to stay the course.
''The Streak'' as it became known ended in 2013 with 94 wins and an electric wild-card victory over Cincinnati in front of the black-clad masses at PNC Park - no longer an just aesthetic jewel but also one of the best home-field advantages in baseball. The Pirates backed it up last year with another wild-card berth before serving as the launch point for Madison Bumgarner's ridiculous postseason run.
So when Pittsburgh secured a third straight playoff spot Wednesday in Colorado, the players merely raised a glass to honor one milestone along the way to an even greater goal.
''We put things in place allow us to win for the long haul,'' Stark said. ''We didn't want to just break The Streak. We want to win a championship and a day after we've done it, we want to start the process of doing it again.''
The door is open.
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