BRADENTON, Fla. -- After accepting a Sportsman of the Year Award a few days ago at the 78th Annual Dapper Dan Banquet in Pittsburgh, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had declared:
"It's been Bucapalooza all winter. For me, this will be the closing of the 2013 book."
The time to take pen to the 2014 volume is here.
The Bucs begin writing the prologue on Wednesday, when pitchers and catchers report the day prior to holding their first formal workout at Pirate City to launch the club's 45th Spring Training in this pastoral burgh on the west coast of Florida.
Since encamping here in 1969, then, the Pirates have hoisted two World Series championship banners (1971 and '79). The immediate goal is adding to that collection.
Hurdle said so. People did not take him seriously either when he inherited a 105-loss club in 2011 and set a postseason appearance as its immediate goal. Then 2013, at the peak of three seasons of steady improvement, happened.
This is where the Pirates will rekindle the brushfire of emotion that swept across PNC Park in the National League Wild Card ambush of the Reds. And this is the "when."
The team's batterymen will be joined by numerous position players -- not officially due here until Monday, the day before the first full-squad workout -- arriving early to begin preparing for the most-anticipated season of Pirates baseball in decades. Years of exasperation have been replaced by high expectations following 94 tide-turning wins that showered the Bucs with the offseason celebrity to which Hurdle alluded.
The health which contributed to that 2013 success is reflected in the fact only one team member will be on full medical watch during the spring: Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who missed the last four months with forearm pain ultimately attributed to arthritis. Observed with a little less anxiety will be Travis Snider, who underwent postseason surgery on a painful left big toe and will compete for playing time in right field.
Other pitchers will embark on recovering from painful performances: All-Star lefty Jeff Locke from that second-half meltdown, newcomer Edinson Volquez from a five-year spiral out of prominence. Not even the biggest teeth in the bullpen Shark Tank are exempt: Did you realize Jason Grilli (who, significantly, was on the last legs of recovering from forearm tightness) and Mark Melancon combined to allow 28 hits and 12 runs in 18 1/3 September innings?
Early reports on all will be predictably upbeat. Then the real tests will begin with the exhibition games, when the Pirates open Grapefruit League play on Feb. 26 by hosting the New York Yankees at McKechnie Field. The Bucs' spring slate is again NL light -- six meetings with Philadelphia are the only ones versus the NL included on the 31-game schedule.
This time, however, it comes with a good preview angle. The Bucs draw the AL East in 2014 Interleague Play, and 20 of their 31 exhibitions will be against the World Series champion Red Sox (3), the Yankees (5), and the Orioles, Blue Jays and Rays (4 each). The Bucs will also have two meetings with the Detroit Tigers, their "natural rivals" whom they'll again see four times during the regular season.
There will be a tangible benefit to all these exhibitions versus AL teams: The DH will be in play most of the spring, affording a volume of extra at-bats to the many left-handed bats the Pirates will be auditioning for platoon roles both at first and in right.
The cast of candidates to pair with, ideally, Gaby Sanchez and Jose Tabata includes Andrew Lambo, Chris McGuiness, Jaff Decker and Snider, and non-roster invitees Travis Ishikawa and Chris Dickerson.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.