Pirates fine with not being trendy pick in NL

Bucs looking to replicate 98-win regular season

February 19th, 2016

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates won 98 games last year. They've put together the Major Leagues' second-best record over the last three seasons, and their collection of young talent suggests they won't be fading into obscurity anytime soon.

Yet the Pirates face one big question after an eventful offseason in the National League Central: Where do they stand this season in baseball's toughest division a year ago?

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The Cardinals have been the only team better than the Bucs the last three years, and they were the lone club with a more impressive 2015 record. Their farm system has churned out a seemingly endless line of contributors, and they have the financial wherewithal to fill their needs in free agency.

But it's the Cubs who are commanding everyone's attention this spring, as they've become a trendy World Series pick. They surged back into the postseason last year, beat the Pirates in the NL Wild Card Game and advanced past the Cardinals to the NL Championship Series. With their young core already in place, the Cubs added high-profile talent this offseason in John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward.

How will the Cubs' rise affect the Pirates? Quite simply: It won't.

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"Our goals aren't going to change. We're not going to reset the bar based on coming up a game short in the Wild Card again," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Friday after the club's first Spring Training workout for pitchers and catchers. "We won 98 games. I think we look at the success we've had the last three seasons to get where we got, our process is in a pretty good place. We need to tweak it. We need to make some adjustments to get better collectively and individually."

Pirates officials often mention that they'll never "win" the offseason, as the Cubs may have done this year. Their moves may not garner as much attention, but general manager Neal Huntington is adept at finding value where others may not look.

As a group, the Pirates have shown an ability to ignore -- and ultimately surpass -- external expectations over the last three years.

"Our guys pay attention to the industry, as I do, just to know what you're going to face when you face it. But other than that, we know who we are. We're Pirates," Hurdle said. "We're built a certain way. We practice a certain way. We play a certain way. And we believe that we have a talented enough group to win the division and win the World Series."

To reach those lofty goals this season, the Pirates likely will need Jung Ho Kang to be at his best. Coming off an impressive rookie season in which he jumped straight from the Korean Baseball Organization to the Majors, Kang is nearing the final stages of his recovery from a fractured tibia and torn meniscus.

"We won't take it a day too soon or a day too fast," head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk said Friday.

Kang is still in line to return in April, Tomczyk added. But does that mean April 3, Opening Day against the Cardinals, or later in the month? The answer is unclear, but there is no doubt about Kang's importance to the Pirates' success in 2016.

"He meant a lot to our club [last] season," Hurdle said. "It's great to see him out moving around the way he is."