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Pirates continue to move in the right direction

Free-agent losses should be offset by development from within young roster

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Certainly, it would be extremely pleasant to swim at the wealthy end of the pool, with a player payroll upwards of $200 million.

The Pittsburgh Pirates, a small-market franchise, won't be in that neighborhood. But they have another sort of distinction going for them. Baseball America ranked the Pirates at No. 1 in its organizational talent rankings for 2014.

That sort of thing paid off directly for the Bucs in 2013, when they climbed out a two-decade postseason drought to win 94 games, gain a National League Wild Card berth and advance to the NL Division Series. It was a genuine breakthrough for this organization and source of euphoria for a loyal fan base that deserved a winner.

This winter, though, the Pirates lost important players to free agency, including outfielder Marlon Byrd, first baseman Justin Morneau and starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. The club did not respond with a spending spree of its own. Criticism followed, perhaps understandably, but not necessarily with any great accuracy.

After the Pirates' pitchers and catchers finished their Spring Training workouts Sunday, general manager Neal Huntington stood in the sunshine at Pirate City and spoke about what was missing in the outside analysis of Pittsburgh's approach. It was a fitting setting. The grass was green, the sky was blue, the Bucs' future, objectively stated, seemed itself to be relatively rosy.

"[Pirates chairman of the board] Bob Nutting takes a lot of abuse for a lack of resources at the Major League level, but he's done everything we could have asked for to build us to this point," Huntington said.

There were, for instance, improved training facilities, an academy in the Dominican Republic, increased international signing bonuses, and a willingness to spend considerable money in the Draft.

"Those are the ones that are seen," Huntington said. "The ones that aren't seen are the investments that he's allowed us to put into our staffs -- whether it's to retain staff or develop staff, our attempt to improve our staff, to have our evaluators become better, our player development people to become better teachers or coaches, our analysts.

"The behind-the-scenes investment that he's made is significant. It doesn't show up in a Major League payroll. But in our minds, it shows up by allowing us to be competitive, despite being one of the bottom 10 in payroll. Without that support, without those resources, without that commitment, this becomes either much harder or not even possible.

"And because of Frank's support and Frank's competitiveness and his fire, he's pushed for those resources," Huntington said, referring to club president Frank Coonelly. "There's been very few times, if ever, that we've asked for something behind the scenes that we've been told no. It doesn't show up as a top-five payroll, but those little things make a world of difference."

The Pirates succeeded in 2013 without having position players hitting over their heads. This was a pitching-first operation, but there remains a core of talented players -- many of them young -- who could reasonably be expected to become more productive.

"We've talked about what gave us the comfort to stay patient this offseason was that we feel that we've got a good group of players who are on the right side of their prime, the good side of their prime," Huntington said. "While I can't tell you Player X or Player Y specifically, on the whole, we should be more productive offensively."

The Bucs' pitching, which ranked third in the Majors in team ERA last season, should be strong again. The key components from a superior bullpen return. While Burnett's contributions will be missed, there are reasons to expect that the rotation will be a source of strength, as well.

"We'll have [Francisco] Liriano healthy from day one," Huntington said. "We'll have Charlie [Morton] ready from day one. We'll have Gerrit Cole Major League-ready from day one, assuming he continues to grow and develop the way we expect him to.

"Wandy [Rodriguez] and Jeff Locke carried us much of the way through the first half last year. We believe Wandy's healthy, and we'll get him through his throwing program and see where he is. And Jeff Locke pitched well enough to be named to an All-Star team. And Edinson Volquez pitched well enough in the past to be named to an All-Star team. If we can get these guys back, healthy and in form, we like our starting depth."

Then there are young pitchers such as Brandon Cumpton, Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimental, who have displayed evidence that they could be ready to provide even more depth.

The strength of this organization stems from the basic baseball virtues of astute scouting and diligent player development. Huntington repeatedly gives credit to the people in the Pirates organization who have made these areas a source of achievement at the Major League level.

And another source of achievement for this club is Clint Hurdle, the 2013 NL Manager of the Year Award winner. With Hurdle in the dugout, Huntington said, there is no doubt that the manager will get everything there is to get out of both players and coaches.

And there also isn't any doubt that no shred of complacency will set in with Hurdle, who seems to be on a voyage of perpetual self-improvement.

"I encourage [the players] to self-evaluate, so I need to self-evaluate," Hurdle said. "I would hope you're always in a learning mode. And the game is going to change on you. Your personnel are going to change. Injuries come into play.

"You've got to be able to stay creative, hold fast to the staples of your organization, your process and your identity, add and subtract as you move forward, based on the talent that you have."

The Pirates did not make the winter of 2013-14 a time of expensive acquisitions. But that doesn't mean that this organization is somehow slipping. The Bucs have built a winning team the right way. When a team is on the right path, it does not have to change direction.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for
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