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Citing unfinished business, Pirates aiming for more

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It's an indication of how far the Pittsburgh Pirates have come the last two seasons that this Spring Training begins with a sense of unfinished business.

"There's still more work to do," Andrew McCutchen said.

Indeed, that's the message from every corner of the clubhouse. After two straight postseason appearances, the Pirates want something more.

"I came back to finish what we started," A.J. Burnett added.

And there's this from closer Mark Melancon: "Getting to the playoffs has been fun, but now we want to get to the World Series. And we want to win this thing."

The Pirates have earned a National League Wild Card berth in two straight seasons. They defeated the Reds in 2013 before losing a deciding Game 5 to the Cardinals in an NL Division Series. Last season they lost the Wild Card Game to the Giants.

As general manager Neal Huntington said, "The Wild Card is a fun game, but it's hopefully going to be fun for somebody else this year. We're going to have an absolute battle for our division. Our goal is to win it."

And that's the theme that Pittsburgh's manager will emphasize throughout Spring Training.

Video: Hurdle on expectations in 2015 for Pirates

"We're out to work, scratch, claw, fight to get better," Clint Hurdle said. "Our expectations are our expectations, not anybody else's. We're hungry. We need to be hungry. We want to play deeper. We want to win the last game of the season. That means we've got to start taking care of business today."

Here's a reminder of what the Pirates once were: From 1993 to 2012, they had 20 consecutive losing seasons.

Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? These days the Pirates are almost universally respected for their smarts and efficiency, for their toughness and resilience.

And so there's a belief that the best could be yet to come, even in a division that might be the most competitive in all of baseball.

Looking back, everything began to change in the fall of 2007, when new owner Bob Nutting and team president Frank Coonelly hired Huntington.

The Bucs averaged 100 losses in Huntington's first three seasons as he methodically constructed a great baseball operation built on the twin foundations of player development and free-agent bargains.

When McCutchen signed a six-year extension in the spring of 2012, the Pirates had their franchise player to build everything around.

Video: Andrew McCutchen phones in to MLB Tonight

Huntington has found players here, there and everywhere. He drafted right-hander Gerrit Cole and shortstop Jordy Mercer, found a free-agent bargain in right-hander Francisco Liriano, and traded for right-hander Charlie Morton, third baseman Josh Harrison and others.

When Pittsburgh won 94 games in 2013 and made the NL playoffs for the first time since 1992, a new era officially had begun.

"We need to understand how we made progress," Hurdle said. "We incrementally got a little bit better every day as a group over the last four years. Our goal is to push it forward. You can't rest. We're not looking to maintain or sustain. We're looking to get better."

Along the way, the Bucs turned PNC Park into an electric atmosphere, drawing more than 30,000 fans a game in 2014.

"If you look at the pictures of people at the games, nobody's head is turned," Cole said. "No one is talking to anyone. They're totally locked in on the game. It's really intense. It's so much fun to play in that atmosphere."

The Pirates have come so far that they entered Spring Training with few questions. Pedro Alvarez is moving from third base to first. Rookie Gregory Polanco will be given every chance to win the job in right field. And after losing right-hander Edinson Volquez and catcher Russell Martin in free agency, the Bucs acquired Francisco Cervelli from the Yankees and re-signed Burnett.

Burnett spent the 2012 and '13 seasons with the Pirates and was partly responsible for tutoring young players and changing the culture and expectations. Now he's back for his 17th big league season.

"This is his desire, to go out on a winning note," Huntington said. "He left money on the table to come back here and be part of this. That allowed us to allocate that money other places to add some depth."

Some of that depth was added through a $16 million investment in Korean infielder Jung Ho Kang, even though the Bucs appear set at every position, including shortstop (Mercer) and second (Neil Walker).

Hurdle will use Kang at a variety of positions, seeing him as both depth and competition. Even though the Pirates aren't sure where Kang will play, they're convinced that he makes them better and moves them closer to their ultimate goal.

"I'm just happy to be a part of it," McCutchen said. "I'm happy to see the way things are going. We've moved in the right direction. Hope we can keep getting better. It's all of us -- the front office, the people on the team, everybody that has contributed. It's good to see it. Hope we can continue. That's what we're working toward."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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