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Pirates seek consistency all season in 2013

The trees in the forest just keep getting bigger for clubs like the Pirates. The move general manager Neal Huntington felt really good about, signing free-agent catcher Russell Martin, was quickly and overwhelmingly buried under an avalanche of bigger signings. Martin's two-year, $17 million deal -- the largest the Bucs have given to a free agent -- became a drop in the bucket being emptied on MLB's Left Coast.

So welcome to the predicament of the Pirates. But also welcome to their challenge and their motivation, the chance to trump dollars with desire on their way to halting a streak of losing seasons at 20.

Huntington swears by the mantra of people without unlimited funds: They have to be very careful in how they spend. Tops among things the Pirates can't afford are mistakes.

"We have to allocate our resources wisely," Huntington said, simply.

It is not a simple burden. The Pirates entered the offseason shopping for starting pitching, and they're still browsing. A dozen free-agent starting pitchers have already signed under their nose -- but at an average annual salary of $9.2 million, a tough neighborhood in which to play.

So the Pirates also have to take pride in sticking it to the big spenders. That's what drew Jason Grilli back to Pittsburgh. The free-agent reliever had opportunities to go places where winning would've been a given, but chose to remain where winning would be a satisfying accomplishment.

Call it the Pirates' own personal Hunger Games.

The team's main assignment for 2013 is finding the trust to sustain a season-long appetite. For the second consecutive season, they crumbled at the wire because they couldn't regroup from the inevitable lull. From mid-April through early September, they were one of two Major League teams to never lose more than four in a row; then they had two longer slides within a two-week period, finishing them off.

"We've talked about some challenges they ran into and how they might answer them better in the future -- about growth," said manager Clint Hurdle, entering his third season in the Bucs' hothouse.

"We need to play six months of good baseball," Huntington echoed. "We have to find a way to shorten the stretches when things start going in the wrong direction."

1. Can the Pirates fire out of the gate?

While much attention has been focused on collapses at the tail of the last two seasons, the Bucs had similar problems at the other end in 2011-12, and before. Not since 2002 has Pittsburgh gotten off to a 30-game start of better than .500, something that could be more important than ever to fix the mindset from the '12 fade. The schedule will be more cooperative: Compared to last year's playoff-teams-heavy April, the Bucs will begin with nine straight games against also-rans.

2. Is Cole in the picture?

The club is not counting on 2011 overall No. 1 Draft choice Gerrit Cole, and is doing its best to minimize the possibility of the right-hander jumping into the rotation. But the feeling persists that Strasburg-like lightning could strike Pittsburgh. Given his Majors-ready repertoire and demeanor, it is virtually a given that we would see Cole at some point in the season, and the Huntington front office is big on rationing innings. So why not have Cole fire all his bullets at big leaguers?

3. Who will emerge as the leadoff batter?

The Pirates went through numerous options last season, and they're all back to try again. The need is acute: The Bucs scored 83 runs out of the No. 1 hole, while the other 15 NL clubs averaged nearly 100. The hope is that Starling Marte, who has all the skills for the role, will settle in and jam the revolving door.

4. Next: Can Martin catch Pags?

Rod Barajas pledged to give it a good shot, but Jim Pagliaroni's 1965 club record of 17 homers by a catcher remains on the books. Enter Martin, who last year was one of the Majors' seven catchers to go 20-20: home runs and runners thrown out. The Bucs are more interested in that second set of numbers.

5. Will the back end of the rotation hold up its end?

Barring another late-offseason A.J. Burnett-like strike, the array of candidates includes rookies (Jeff Locke, Kyle McPherson) and low-end acquisitions (Vin Mazzaro, Zach Stewart). This is a major concern, and in sharp contrast to eight months ago, when the Pirates began the season with six established starters in Erik Bedard, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton and Burnett.

6. Can McCutchen find his legs?

Perhaps an odd question, given that Andrew McCutchen became the fourth Pirates player to go 30-20 (homers and steals). But he was also thrown out an NL second-most 12 times, defusing his aggressiveness for long stretches, setting the wrong tone for the Bucs' stalled running game.

7. Is there more to Sanchez, Snider?

Huntington's big 2012 Trade Deadline moves for offense did not pay instant dividends. Between them, Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider had five homers and drove in 22 runs in 244 at-bats. It was somewhat reminiscent of the 2011 acquisitions of Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, who between them gave the Bucs nine homers and 29 RBIs in 213 at-bats before moving on. However, right fielder Snider and first baseman Sanchez are both cast in major roles for 2013, keeping the juries on these deals out a while longer.

8. Can Alvarez handle the cleanup spot?

No doubt Hurdle wants Pedro Alvarez there. Alvarez was elevated into the four-hole soon as his bat awoke last season, and that month-long experiment flopped badly. But his power would play best there, and turn the heart of the lineup into an ideal McCutchen-Alvarez-Sanchez right-left-right link.

9. Will Walker pick up where he left off?

An overlooked aspect of the Pirates' collapse -- because it had so many elements -- was Neil Walker's absence, with a lower back injury. He managed a total of only mostly weakened 26 at-bats in the last 35 games, of which the Bucs lost 24. Until then, however, he was enjoying a splendid career season, both at bat and in the field, and his return to that status would bring relief, and a huge lift.

10. Can the Pirates stop teams from robbing them blind?

The staff is rethinking its stance of keeping pitchers focused on batters and not on runners, the idea being that getting outs will strand those thieves. The approach worked for a long time, but ultimately the Bucs were run down (60 steals in the last 42 games, of which they lost 29). And how will the new emphasis on minding runners affect pitchers' effectiveness?

Pittsburgh Pirates, Jason Grilli, Russell Martin