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Bucs embark on journey for National League gold

Pitchers and catchers report to camp in Bradenton, Fla., with high hopes

BRADENTON, Fla. -- They raised the Jolly Roger 182 times the last two seasons, the fifth-most wins in the Majors during that span. Expectations have risen along with that booty. So the Bucs have rolled into Pirate City bent on unfurling that other flag, a National League pennant.

These aren't your father's Pirates -- maybe your grandfather's. Their greatness skipped a generation, but it is back. Sixty-four players clad in black and gold are getting to work to pass the eye test of those who see them as an NL force.

Video: Andrew McCutchen phones in to MLB Tonight

Whoever imagined the Bucs being trendy? But that's where we are. They've collected props for a steady approach, reflected by a decidedly unsexy offseason that once again bore out general manager Neal Huntington's concession that "we will never win the offseason." Making headway, not headlines.

Wednesday brought the words baseball fans wait all winter for: "Pitchers and catchers report." But a large percentage of the Pirates' roster had already flocked to their Spring Training home. So they showed up to work again Wednesday morning prior to their first official workout Thursday at Pirate City.

Video: Pirates pack equipment truck for Spring Training

Position players aren't scheduled to report until next week, yet they were here in droves Wednesday. Among the hitters who stopped by Pirate City were Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer, Jung Ho Kang and Sean Rodriguez.

All 38 pitchers and catchers listed on the Pirates' Spring Training roster were expected to arrive Wednesday. Among them were a familiar group of starters headlined by Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, as well as the Pirates' top three catchers: Francisco Cervelli, Chris Stewart and Tony Sanchez.

It has been a baseball winter of perhaps unprecedented upheaval. In comparison to other hyperactive teams, the Bucs spent the offseason hibernating. They made moves, lots of them -- a 40 percent turnover of the 40-man roster. Most, however, were on the fringe. While the Cubs, Padres and Red Sox had center stage, the Pirates were in the chorus. Think that's a bad call? Well, in addition to the big free-agent signings, there were 95 trades involving 230 players. The Bucs' biggest slice of that was the Justin Wilson for Cervelli swap with the Yankees, the only deal the Pirates swung with big leaguers on both ends.

Still, Pittsburgh opens Spring Training with an enticing split-screen: Overall set lineup, rotation and bullpen, yet some compelling question marks to command the preseason microscope.

Pedro Alvarez and Corey Hart totaled 60 home runs back in 2012, but how many can they chip in sharing the same position (first base)? In his swan-song season, will Burnett go out on the glory road or take a dead-end? Will Kang be a major story or a major disappointment? Is Cervelli really the second coming of Russell Martin?

Video: Outlook: Cervelli should see increased playing time

Will Polanco play up to his billing and take his destined place next to McCutchen and Starling Marte? Dream (outfield) on …

The Bucs aren't shy about dreaming big. They've had enough of living on the Wild Card side. They're ready to take down the Cardinals.

"We've got to continue to be hungry," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I love playing in our [NL Central] division. It's an exciting division. It challenges you, and you've got to be sharp. Everybody's hungry. The Brewers are hungry. The Reds are definitely hungry. The Cubs, we know, are hungry."

The Pirates' Hunger Games will begin for real in seven weeks. They start polishing the silverware this week.

Pitchers and catchers report
Feb. 18

Full squad reports
Feb. 23

First Spring Training game
At Blue Jays, March 3 at 1:07 p.m. ET

Opening Day
At Reds, April 6 at 4:10 p.m. ET

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Singer. Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.
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