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March 6, 2013

EXTRA INNINGS: Columnist commits blasphemy hoping for .500 season

OPINION — I KNOW I’M going to have my mouth washed out with pierogies for even thinking this, let alone putting it in black and white, but here goes.

This season, I’m pulling for the Pirates to break the .500 mark.

There. I’ve said it.

Blasphemy!

Sacrilege!

Grab the thesaurus and find your own disparaging synonym.

Never mind that the Pirates have only sniffed at .500 in a couple of delirious seasons since 1992.

Any time anyone associated with the organization is questioned about .500, indignation rises up as they proclaim that mediocrity will never be a goal of this organization.

From president Frank Coonelly down to the lowest rookie, such thinking is anathema to athletes, whose ultimate goal is to win championships.

While having .500 as a goal seems logical to those of us who have suffered through two decades of futility, it is important to remember that people like Jameson Taillon hadn’t reached his first birthday when 1992 Pirates won their third consecutive division title. None of the current players has been here longer than 30-year-old pitcher Jeff Karstens, who will celebrate his fifth anniversary with the team on July 26, when he came to Pittsburgh with Daniel McCutchen, Jose Tabata, and Ross Ohlendorf in 2008 for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte.

More than half of the projected roster wasn’t even here to start the 2011 season, Clint Hurdle’s first with the Bucs.

So the players' take is understandable.

But perhaps the 22-game improvement in the Pirates since Hurdle arrived got the better of him last Friday, when he caused jaws to drop all over western Pennsylvania when he told this to a Pittsburgh sports station that asked how many games this year’s team would win:

“`When people ask me a number, 95 is the number I throw out there,” Hurdle said, “and people go, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of…’ and I go, ‘Yeah, you’re right it’s a lot of games!’ I get it, but you know what? If we win 95, we’re going to be in a good place.”

This wasn’t owner Bob “the-best-management-team-in-baseball-maybe-in-all-of-sports” Nutting gushing about his team.

It was the most (only?) highly regarded member of franchise management making such a statement.

“My focus is the playoffs,” Hurdle added. “If you're going to grab numbers, you take 95 because 95 has a really good chance of getting you in. So we had 79 [in 2012]. Where do you find 16 more?”

He said the team could add wins by improving five areas: controlling opponents’ running, pitching inside, “owning” the batter’s box with better awareness of the strike zone, playing “27 outs” on defense, and eliminating soft spots in the line-up.

“I think there are three wins in each of those five categories,” Hurdle said. “That gets us pretty close, right?”

While Hurdle generally gets kudos as field manager of the team, the rest of management doesn’t come close.

Last week, ESPN’s baseball gurus asked Jim Bowden, Keith Law, and Buster Olney to rank all 30 teams in five different categories in an attempt to measure how well each team is set up for sustained success over the next five years. The categories included the majors, minors, finances, players’ ages, and management—the value and stability of ownership, front office, and coaching staff.

The Pirates ranked 29th in management, garnering three of a possible 30 points in that category, only ahead of Colorado (2 points).

And Tribune-Review writer Dejan Kovacevic wrote from Sarasota last week, “[I] just ran into a small group of scouts just outside the press box here…who think a lot less of the Pirates' front office than that.”

Overall, the Bucs ranked 25th, whose 35.9 points out of 100 ranked ahead of Chicago’s White Sox (33.1), Milwaukee (32.9), Cleveland (29.7), Miami (23.2) and Colorado (16.2).

It also didn’t help that three of the Bucs” NL Central foes were among the top seven. St. Louis (84.3) was first, with Chicago (65) sixth and Cincinnati (63.5) seventh.

How much improvement in rankings would .500 bring?

 

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