PITTSBURGH -- This season, the Pirates will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their 1979 World Series title. It will be a chance to fondly remember the "We Are Family" days, but also a reminder of just how long it's been since the franchise last brought home a championship.As Bucs president
PITTSBURGH -- This season, the Pirates will celebrate the 40th anniversary of their 1979 World Series title. It will be a chance to fondly remember the "We Are Family" days, but also a reminder of just how long it's been since the franchise last brought home a championship.
As Bucs president Frank Coonelly told a crowd of fans last month at PiratesFest, 40 years is "too damn long."
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Last spring, manager Clint Hurdle spoke optimistically about "when" -- not if -- Pittsburgh will win another World Series. He did it again at PiratesFest, expressing his belief that the team can't win another championship without talking about it. Nobody wants to set the bar at 82 wins.
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"What better city in baseball? You win the sixth World Series here, this place will light up like a Roman candle," Hurdle said. "Special. Significant. And with the group of guys, the way we're going to get it done, the approach we've got to take and the model we're working with, we feel like we can do it."
But how? Nobody else is going to talk about the Pirates competing for a World Series title in 2019, even if their 82-win campaign last year was an encouraging step forward after back-to-back losing seasons. They've spent the previous three years stuck in the middle -- not quite good enough to make the postseason, but not bad enough to tear it down and start over.
They've had a quiet winter one year after trading franchise player Andrew McCutchen and starter Gerrit Cole. The Bucs' payroll has continued to shrink after reaching a franchise-record level in 2016. Most projection systems forecast another finish around .500. Playing in the National League Central won't do them any favors, either.
Last year, the NL Central was the only division to feature four clubs with winning records. And the Reds, the only sub-.500 team in 2018, have actively upgraded their roster this offseason to accelerate their rebuild. What path does that leave for the Pirates?
For starters, the Bucs think they can keep up with their rivals. Last year, they went 43-33 in the NL Central -- their second winning record within the division since it was formed.
"They don't get caught up in payroll. They're not going to get caught star-gazing at names on the back of other teams' jerseys," Hurdle said. "More often than not, that just makes that edge a little bit sharper for them. That's what would make it so much sweeter at the end."
The Pirates also believe in their pitching. They had the Majors' fourth-best ERA after the All-Star break last year. They were uncharacteristically aggressive last July, trading away premium young talent to acquire starter Chris Archer and reliever Keone Kela in a pair of non-waiver Trade Deadline deals.
Archer will join Jameson Taillon, Trevor Williams and Joe Musgrove in the rotation. Kela will set up All-Star closer Felipe Vázquez in a bullpen that also features right-handers Kyle Crick and Richard Rodríguez. All of those pitchers are under club control for at least another year after this, giving Pittsburgh a window to win.
They may get a boost from their farm system, too, as Mitch Keller, ranked as the club's No. 1 prospect by MLB Pipeline, should be ready for the Majors this summer. In an ideal world for the Bucs, Keller would provide a midseason boost to their rotation like Cole did when they returned to the postseason in 2013.
But where will the run support come from? The Pirates haven't added a big bat to their lineup, although there is at least a chance that re-signed third baseman Jung Ho Kang will return to form after nearly two years away. They've placed low-cost bets on Kang, slick-fielding shortstop Erik González and veteran outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall, but they're mostly hoping their core players will take a step forward with another year of experience and a pair of new hitting coaches.
The Pirates are expecting more out of first baseman Josh Bell and third baseman Colin Moran. They're hoping for good health and more of the same out of outfielders Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, and catchers Francisco Cervelli and Elias Díaz. They're giving Adam Frazier a shot at second base after a strong second half.
If everything clicks and comes together, the Pirates could contend for a playoff spot. If not? It'll be "too damn long" plus another year.
"If we don't win a World Series, we have not accomplished our goal," general manager Neal Huntington said. "That's why we're here."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and read his blog.