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Auditions for 2013 began during Bucs' late slide

Fans hoping for a full-thrust run at .500 may not have been happy, but there was little doubt the Pirates played September with an eye on 2013. Once the brass ring of the postseason was gone from the hook, manager Clint Hurdle, with general manager Neal Huntington's blessing -- if not urging -- began focusing on the club's next shot at becoming a winner, a big one.

The shift in emphasis was understandable, even if maddening to people who had already been through 19 years of losing: With so few players having a 2013 roster reservation via signed contracts, offseason personnel decisions would be affected by those September auditions. Hurdle's staff also needed to enter fix-it mode while the many failings of 2012 were still fresh in their minds.

"We let our identity slip away from us. What we experienced early -- can that be sustained with improved skills?" Hurdle asked, rhetorically, alluding to the Bucs' high late-July standing. "At the end of the day, it will always start with execution, and our level of execution dropped across the board."

Yet another important test-tube in Hurdle's September laboratory: Survivors-watch, and we don't mean the long-running TV show. The manager and his GM are on the same page with needing to "rehabilitate" those who fell under their definition for players who look out for themselves.

"You want to grow every first-year player into a contributor, preparing him to take that next step into a winner," said Hurdle, citing the two rungs up from "survivor" on his mindset scale. "It takes time, and comes with maturity and experience."

September's lineups were part of the look-ahead -- more Michael McKenry, Alex Presley, Brock Holt; less Rod Barajas, Jose Tabata, Josh Harrison. The biggest tell-tale sign was the use of the pitching staff, rotation through bullpen.

Rookies Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson continued making starts, loss after loss, while little attention was paid James McDonald and Jeff Karstens, two keys of the early-season rotation. If there was a win to finish off, Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan still got to do their thing -- otherwise, Chris Leroux, Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson took their cracks.

Sure, you could pick up on part of the pattern. Players with less seniority were getting more exposure at the expense of those up for salary arbitration. It had nothing to do with keeping their numbers down, but everything with finding out if there were more cost-effective alternatives.

And, sorry for the financial gobbledygook, but that's just such a big part of the modern game. Not even a GM can dance around it.

"The first thing you need to do is step away from emotional ties," Huntington said. "But then you do have to take a look at what the alternatives are. Are we better by going cheaper? Is a player's [on-field] value appropriate with what he can expect in arbitration?"

September doesn't tell you everything. But it does get the conversation going.

First base: Gaby Sanchez will be a major reclamation project in Spring Training. He is very smooth at the bag -- somewhat surprising for a man of his size -- with serious power when he squares up a ball. Garrett Jones again has to be in the mix but, unlike Sanchez, he can play another position.

Second base: Neil Walker is first-time arbitration-eligible and is in for a fat raise from his near-minimum $500,000, even after missing most of the final six weeks of the season. The Pirates are loaded with middle-infield depth, and Harrison still rates ahead of Holt.

Shortstop: Fans who lobbied for Clint Barmes to be one of the fall guys for a stalling offense won't be overjoyed to learn he's returning, but he's signed for 2013 at $5.5 million. The staff loves Barmes' defense, and he did hit for his keep the final couple of months. At some point, his main task will be to help Jordy Mercer prepare to take over in 2014. Speedster Chase d'Arnaud is also in the picture.

Third base: This position has had Pedro Alvarez's name on it for a couple of years, but now he has also put his mark on it. Alvarez still has a lot of growing to do as a hitter, but with a 30-homer season he turned the hot corner into one of the team's cornerstones. And the Bucs have 2013-14 options on him at a bargain $700,000 each.

Catcher: The Pirates would go back to the open market for someone to hold down the job until Tony Sanchez is ready, but it will be very weak field available at this position. McKenry's bat has opened eyes. He worked hard to improve as a hitter, and now could re-focus on defense, his original calling card. McKenry is the likely new No. 1, with Barajas staying on as mentor/sub.

Left Field: It's Starling Marte's spot. Everyone is excited to see how he'll respond knowing that the position is his from the first day of Spring Training, and how a couple months of Dominican Winter Ball will heighten his game. Presley, the 2012 Opening Day starter, will be a nice complement to the righty-hitting Marte as the ideal fourth outfielder who can play all three positions.

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen is assured a big raise -- from the $500,000 he made this season to the $4.5 million in Year 2 of the six-year deal he signed in the spring -- and the Pirates are happy about it. He had a sensational breakthrough year, but questions still persist as to whether he still has only scratched the surface of his potential.

Right Field: Of the three big league veterans in the picture, the most likely to leave is Tabata, who is owed $1 million in the third year of a very team-friendly six-year contract that will make it easy to trade him. Jones could merely platoon at first with Sanchez, but that might hold both back. In Travis Snider, the Pirates see a defensively superior 20-homer, 80-RBI guy, when healthy.

Rotation: A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez will comprise what Hurdle has already called "the best top two in any rotation I've ever had." McDonald (for the first time) and Karstens are arbitration eligible. There's a very slim likelihood of Kevin Correia being re-signed. There will be cries to take the reins off Gerrit Cole, but little chance the Bucs will do that before exhausting all possibilities with the likes of McPherson and Locke. The Erik Bedard experience will make Huntington leery about shopping the lower half of the free-agent market.

Bullpen: As do most teams, the Pirates subscribe to bullpen volatility; it is one team area easily turned over year-to-year with replaceable parts. That casts some uncertainty on the tenures of Hanrahan and Grilli, who is a first-time free agent. There were enough younger arms in the 'pen -- Jared Hughes, Tony Watson, Wilson, Morris -- to consider a fresh mix. None of them have closing experience, but the Majors' track record for meteoric success in that role is pretty good.

Pittsburgh Pirates