It is hard to paint the Pirates as contenders this season, particularly after they went 18-41 following the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline on their way to a 62-99 finish. In fact, Pittsburgh would need to win 20 more games this season just to break its string of 17 consecutive losing seasons, the longest streak in North American major professional team sports history.
However, there is at least a sense of calm as the Pirates go into this season.
"We don't have people looking over their shoulders wondering if they're going to be the next guy traded," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We know we're going to be together, so we can really bond together into one unit. I can already feel this team becoming close. It's going to be a much different atmosphere than you saw here at the end of last season."
The team that finished 2010 was like an expansion team in many ways as it was a grouping of players from many different organizations thrown together. However, the introductions are out of the way now, and the Pirates can concentrate on playing baseball.
"The biggest thing is knowing this is the group we have," manager John Russell said. "We're not in the talent-accumulation mode anymore. The guys we have now are, more or less, the guys we're going to have at the end of the season. I'm not saying we might not make a trade or call some guys up from the minor leagues, but we're no longer in a situation where the team you see on opening day isn't going to look anything like the team we put on the field in the last game of the season. That makes a big difference. Instead of rebuilding, we can start to build."
The Pirates are trying to build around pitching and defense. None of their starting pitchers is older than 27, but none have won more than 11 games in a major league season. Furthermore, their closer has not held that high-pressure job in six years.
Left-hander Zach Duke and Paul Maholm are the anchors of the rotation, but neither is ace material. Right-handers Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf throw hard and showed signs of becoming potentially dominant pitchers in the second half of last season but are still basically unproven at the major league level. Daniel McCutchen, a 27-year-old rookie, will be the fifth starter.
Octavio Dotel was signed in the offseason to serve as the closer, but he was sidelined with a strained muscle in his left ribcage through much of spring training. Dotel had a combined 36 saves for Houston and Oakland in 2004 but has had a total of 20 in the succeeding five seasons.
The Pirates also have few proven performers in their lineup and only two players who have hit as many as 20 home runs in a major league season. One is right fielder Garrett Jones, who connected 21 times in 82 games last season as a 28-year-old rookie, and the other is utility infielder Bobby Crosby, who went deep 22 times in 2004 when he won the American League Rookie of the Year with Oakland but hasn't reached double digits since.
McCutchen has the look of a potential superstar, and he enjoyed a strong rookie campaign last year despite not being called up from Class AAA Indianapolis until June 4. He hit .286 with 12 home runs, 54 RBIs and 22 stolen bases in 108 games.
Doumit, suddenly the Pirates' graybeard at 29, and third baseman Andy LaRoche are the only starters who were in the lineup on opening day in 2009. McCutchen and Jones were called up from the minors last season, while first baseman Jeff Clement, shortstop Ronny Cedeno and left fielder Lastings Milledge were acquired as part of in-season trades. Second baseman Aki Iwamura was the Pirates' biggest offseason acquisition, as he came from Tampa Bay in a trade for reliever Jesse Chavez.
Three prospects the Pirates feel can play a large part in fueling a long-range turnaround for the franchise are expected will start the season at Indianapolis but are almost certain to make their major league debuts at some point in the season: right-hander Brad Lincoln, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and outfielder Jose Tabata.
"It's not easy to turn around a team overnight, especially in baseball, where you can't take the No. 1 pick and put him on the ice or the court or the football field right away," general manager Neal Huntington said. "Sometimes you have to develop young players. That has to be our focus. We have to give these guys a chance to grow and develop but pull the plug when it comes time to pull the plug.
"We have a mission. We have a vision. We have a plan. We're in the middle of it, and we believe it will work out."
THE PIRATES WILL CONTEND IF: RHP Charlie Morton and RHP Ross Ohlendorf have breakout seasons and become big winners ... CF Andrew McCutchen takes another step forward after a fine rookie season and emerges as a superstar ... C Ryan Doumit doesn't get hurt as he seems to on an almost annual basis, RF Garrett Jones proves that he is not a one-year wonder, and 1B Jeff Clement sheds the flop label he gained in Seattle; and that all three combine to give the Pirates good middle-of-the-order production.
PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: SS Ronny Cedeno has long been considered to have the talent to be an above-average shortstop since his days as a Cubs prospect, and he showed flashes of power and outstanding range after being acquired from Seattle last July. Cedeno then hit 10 home runs in 150 at-bats while playing winter ball in his native Venezuela, which leads to the hope that the 26-year-old is ready for a breakout season.
ON THE DECLINE: RHP Octavio Dotel was signed by the Pirates as a free agent to be their closer after the team non-tendered Matt Capps over the winter. However, no other team pursued Dotel, 36, for that role, mainly because he offset a fine 3.32 ERA in 62 1/3 innings last season with the White Sox by allowing 5.2 walks per nine innings, a recipe for disaster in trying to hold ninth-inning leads. It also didn't help that Dotel missed the first three weeks of the exhibition season with a strained muscle in his left side.
--LHP Zach Duke has been selected to start the April 5 opener against the Dodgers at PNC Park despite leading the National League in losses last season when he went 11-16 with a 4.06 ERA in 32 starts. Duke was selected to his first All-Star Game, though. This will be Duke's second opening-day assignment, as he also faced the Dodgers in 2007 in Pittsburgh.
--RHP Daniel McCutchen won the competition for the fifth starter's job over RHP Kevin Hart, who was optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis after walking 12 batters in just 4 2/3 innings in major league exhibition games. Also optioned to Indianapolis were RHP Chris Jakubauskas and 3B Neil Walker, while LHP Brian Burres, LHP Wil Ledezma, RHP Jean Machi, C Hector Gimenez and OF Brian Myrow were reassigned to minor league camp.
--OF Ryan Church missed a week after suffering a hairline fracture of his left middle finger but is expected to be 100 percent by opening day. Church was injured when, of all things, he tried to catch a teammate's foul pop-up during a game, and the ball smashed his finger against the cement roof of the dugout.
--RHP Vinny Chulk was sidelined by tightness in his right biceps. He is hoping to pitch during the final week of the exhibition in his bid to make the major league bullpen as a non-roster invitee.
--2B/OF Delwyn Young has started working out at third base in an effort to increase his versatility. Young finished last season as the starting second baseman but will be used a bench player this season because of his poor defense.
BY THE NUMBERS: 6-14-1 -- The Pirates' record through their first 21 exhibition games. They had yet to win consecutive games with just eight games left in the spring.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've told the players that I would love nothing more than for this group to be the one that breaks the streak. I think it would be great for them to be the ones identified with breaking the streak, and it's going to be fun when it happens." -- Pirates manager John Russell, on the hopes that this is the year the Pirates break their string of 17 consecutive losing seasons, the longest in the history of major North American professional team sports.