Pirates looking for better start in 2016

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PITTSBURGH (AP) The summers have not been the problem for the Pittsburgh Pirates under Clint Hurdle. When the temperature rises, so do the fortunes of his team, which reached the postseason in three consecutive years for only the third time in the franchise's 134-year history.

The springs, however, are an entirely different story.

Pittsburgh's 98-64 record in 2015 is all the more remarkable considering a sluggish 18-22 start forced Hurdle to politely but firmly call out his players (and himself) in mid-May. The Pirates responded with a desperate run to the playoffs, their mark good enough to win every other division in the majors, just not the obscenely competitive NL Central. Forced into the Wild Card round for a third consecutive October, the Pirates mustered little against Jake Arrieta and the precocious Chicago Cubs in a 4-0 loss. It's a fate the Pirates may have avoided with crisper play during the opening six weeks.

''Nobody is more aware of how we start the season than us,'' Hurdle said. ''We haven't had a consistently good April since I've been here.''

So Hurdle and his staff tweaked the club's approach to spring training, adding more defensive shifts in practice and simulated games, spending additional time on baserunning and the little things that had typically taken time for them to iron out.

''We need to find a way to connect the dots in an offensive side of the ball with more frequency,'' Hurdle said. ''We want to play consistent baseball for six months.''

If Pittsburgh wants to keep pace with their deep pocketed rivals in St. Louis and Chicago, it really doesn't have a choice. Some things to look for as the Pirates chase their first division title in nearly a quarter century.

SECOND TO NONE: The aching left knee superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen dealt with much of 2015 appears to be fully healthy. McCutchen's power numbers spring training back it up. He hit five homers in a seven-game stretch, a significant bounce for the typically slow starting perennial MVP candidate. A move from third to second in the batting order seems to have helped. Hurdle appears committed to the idea and so does McCutchen provided it opens things up for those hitting behind him.

FREESE FRAME: Pittsburgh has shown a knack for signing former bold-faced names and giving them the tools to re-invent themselves. It worked with pitchers Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. Now the Pirates are hoping it works with infielder David Freese. The 2011 NLCS and World Series MVP will fill in at third while Jung Ho Kang recovers from a broken left leg. Freese's one-year deal gives him plenty of incentive to return to the form that made him an October sensation with St. Louis more than four years ago.

LOCKED IN: The top of the rotation is set with Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Jon Niese, acquired in December from the New York Mets. The back end, however, remains a work in progress. Left-hander Jeff Locke earned a spot for the fourth straight year despite a sometimes rocky spring in which he posted a 6.63 ERA. Juan Nicasio earned the job as the fifth starter after a stellar March in when he didn't allow a run in 15 innings. Veteran Ryan Vogelsong will serve as the long-man out of the bullpen, with prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon being groomed in Triple-A for possible midseason callups.

POWER OUTAGE?: Pittsburgh sent Walker to the Mets rather than pay the homegrown product more than $10 million in arbitration and allowed erratic first baseman Pedro Alvarez to become a free agent. The duo contributed more than a quarter (43) of Pittsburgh's 140 home runs. Josh Harrison will take over for Walker at second base while free agent John Jaso and Michael Morse will platoon at first. Hurdle allowed Jaso, a converted catcher, to bat leadoff in the spring, pointing to Jaso' steady on-base numbers. It's that kind of creative thinking the Pirates will need to rely on if they want to replicate a 2015 in which they finished a respectable fourth in the NL in runs scored.

BULLISH BULLPEN: The one area Pittsburgh did splurge during the offseason came in the bullpen. The Pirates agreed to a salary of nearly $10 million with All-Star closer Mark Melancon, who set a franchise record with 51 saves last year. Pittsburgh also is paying setup man Tony Watson for $3.45 million, hoping the duo of back-end pitchers shortens games as effectively as they did in 2015, when the Pirates were 78-5 when leading after seven innings.