MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Bucs lead clubs eager to take next step this season

With Giants eyeing repeat, spring camp brings hopes of progress to all other teams

Bucs lead clubs eager to take next step this season

As we speak, there are 29 baseball teams in Spring Training that are all talking about "taking the next step."

The only team that does not have to talk like this is the San Francisco Giants. The Giants could very easily discuss "taking the same step," the one that has led them to three World Series championships over five seasons.

But step-wise, everybody else wants to take the next one. Clubs with losing records want to reach .500. Teams with middling records want to be true contenders. Franchises that just missed the postseason want into the Group of 10. Everybody wants into that group, but there just isn't enough room. And clubs that reached the playoffs want to go deeper into the postseason. The Chicago Cubs hope to take eight or 10 next steps, all at once.

Over the past two weeks in Florida, I have had the privilege of watching the 2015 rebirth of the grand old game. And I have noticed more than ever the prevalence of the next step.

It is kind imagery, in a way. "The next step" suggests that success is not that far away. This is not like Chairman Mao with "the Great Leap Forward." No, no. This is just one step. We can take it. We can make it.

I started making the next step a regular part of my reportorial bag of Spring Training inquiries. Why not? People were going to talk about it anyway. I might as well appear to be on the cutting edge of this phenomenon.

I have to say that the single best response to the question "What does your team have to do to take 'the next step'?" came from Neal Huntington, executive vice president and general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates have already taken some truly impressive steps. They broke out of a two-decade postseason drought by qualifying for the postseason in each of the past two seasons. There is considerable talent here, there are potential impact players coming up through the Bucs' Minor League system, and there is sound, progressive leadership supplied by manager Clint Hurdle and his coaching staff.

But the question was how the Pirates could take the next step, which in their case would be advancing in the playoffs. Here was Huntington's response:

"It's incremental improvement in all areas. We can be a little bit better on the bases, we can be a little bit better defensively, we can be a little bit better in the batter's box, our rotation could be a little bit better, our bullpen could be a little bit better. I can be a little bit better. Our front office can be a little bit better. We can coach a little bit better.

"In everything, there is room for improvement. We do some things well, but there is room for improvement in everything we do. And if we all get a little bit better every day, and show up with the same hunger and passion, we should be in a pretty good spot come September."

You might say, "Well, that's very general." And that would be the whole point. You get into the next-step discussion with a lot of people and they distill the whole thing into one or two specific individuals.

You know, "The sky is the limit if our situational lefty in the bullpen pitches the way he did in 2011." Or, "Our veteran right-hander has had five arm surgeries, but if he can avoid a sixth, we're going to be in great shape." Or, "If our third baseman can play center field as well as we hope, it's going to give our lineup incredible length."

I think Huntington's response is closer to the truth. Taking "the next step" may very well be a question of improvement that can be not only roster-wide, but organizational in its complete nature.

In any case, Huntington's answer leaves the Bucs, both on and off the field, with the sense that each individual bears some responsibility for the success of the team.

So that is the leader in the clubhouse on the issue of how to take "the next step." If the Pirates are in the World Series this year, you'll know exactly what happened. The next step was taken when everybody took it.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.