Baseball: Pirates’ losing ways could come to an end soon

By Gwenn Barney

If it takes a winning team to get fans into seats, even the casual Pirates fan might wonder:… If it takes a winning team to get fans into seats, even the casual Pirates fan might wonder: Just how close are the Pittsburgh Pirates to breaking the .500 mark again?

The answer depends on whom you ask, but for the most part the returns are positive.

“The difference between before the current management team arrived and today is night and day,” said Matt Bandi, a Pitt alumnus and author of “Pirates Prospects 2011 Prospect Guide,” a book that features player profiles, analysis, predictions and historical essays.

Bandi places himself in the faction of fans who believe the team is finally headed in the right direction.

He predicts that because of stronger player development and increased spending to acquire players in the amateur draft and international market, the team could break its streak of 18 consecutive seasons with a losing record by the 2012 or 2013 season. He even says the team might be able to reach the playoffs again by 2014 or 2015.

Rob Ruck, professor of sports history and recent author of the baseball-centric book “Raceball,” maintains a more tempered optimism when discussing the Pirates’ future.

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “The team is operating with a very constrained budget in the league. They have a long history of making decisions based on bottom-line considerations.”

Ruck added that he’s encouraged by the fact that management has invested more in South America as of late. Ruck recently visited the team’s baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, and said the facility is top-notch.

Unlike Bandi, Pirates President Frank Coonelly isn’t ready to commit himself to a timeline for victory.

“I’m not big on timelines because my timeline is to win as quickly as possible,” he said.

Coonelly believes that all the pieces are nearly in place for the Pirates to make a run for baseball glory once again. Since his arrival in Pittsburgh three years ago, the team has acquired a core of four players with tremendous potential: Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez.

Many fans are hopeful that this core of four can bring the offensive firepower to overcome the 18-year hump, but — and this is a big but — it will only matter if better pitchers reach the majors before the top hitters’ contracts are expired and they decide to leave the Pirates between 2015 and 2016.

The Pirates recently signed a number of strong pitching prospects, including drafted players Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. They also dished out $2.6 million for 16-year-old Mexican pitching sensation Luis Heredia. But the youth of these players prompts concern that they won’t reach the majors in time to play alongside the core of four as it takes even the best prospects at least a couple years to progress through the minor league ranks.

Coonelly said that this scenario should not be cause for concern, as the Pirates have perfectly good pitchers in the majors and plenty of talent at the top of the minors. He cited Brad Lincoln, Bryan Morris and Rudy Owens, among other pitchers in the minors, as examples. He also explained that there is no way to be certain that the members of the core of four will leave Pittsburgh when they reach free agency.

“Our young core is going to be here as long as we can keep them.” Coonelly said, adding: “We are going to pitch much better this year than the guys in Pittsburgh did last year, but knock on wood because it’s still early.”

New Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is also considered a new ingredient to the team who might be able to lift them from their funk.

Hurdle already implemented a new policy during spring training where coaches from the Pirates’ major league program spend a day coaching a minor league team. He’s also an expert at firing up fans at games by contesting umpires calls.

“Clint has a big personality and a tremendous passion for teaching baseball,” Coonelly said. “He’s got these guys believing in themselves. We finally now have a product that is fun to watch and we will be competitive. I truly believe this team in 2011 is going to play exciting baseball.”