Confident Pirates report to camp with winter in rearview

Despite loss of past contributors, Bucs have eyes on NL Central prize

Confident Pirates report to camp with winter in rearview

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Throughout the offseason, general manager Neal Huntington reiterated that the Pirates will never "win the winter." But they've gotten pretty good -- better than almost every other club, in fact -- at winning the rest of the time.

There may be snow falling in Pittsburgh, but here's the good news for Pirates fans: The offseason is over. Pitchers and catchers officially reported to the Pirate City complex Wednesday, signifying the start of Spring Training and a new season.

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"You've got to feel good," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "We still have the core group of guys. ... If we get good pitching, we know we're going to be a good team. We've won before. We know how to win. Just got to keep it rolling."

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They started rolling earlier this month, when players began to fill up the Pirate City clubhouse. They took to the back fields on Wednesday morning, many of them wearing shirts with a classic Spring Training message printed on the back: "Victories are won before the game is ever played."

Already, the pitching staff is ramping up for the season. Starters Jon Niese and Ryan Vogelsong threw off the mound Wednesday morning under the watchful eyes of pitching coach Ray Searage and catcher Francisco Cervelli.

A number of position players have arrived well before their scheduled Monday report date. Andrew McCutchen and first baseman John Jaso have been working out at Pirate City, and they were joined Wednesday by Mercer and Jason Rogers.

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The Pirates' goals this year remain the same. After being bounced out of the postseason for the second straight season in the National League Wild Card Game, the Bucs would like to move to the top of the NL Central. They're hoping to push deeper into the postseason. Before that, they'd like to replicate last year's regular-season success -- albeit with a better April.

The Pirates won 98 games last season, the second-highest total in the Major Leagues. They have gone 280-206 over the past three years, also the Majors' second-best record. The only thing standing in their way on both fronts was the Cardinals.

St. Louis will be a threat again this year, but Pittsburgh's biggest challenge may be congregating in the Arizona desert this week. The Cubs added expensive, high-profile talent to their outstanding young core this offseason, and they're being picked by many to win the World Series.

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If anyone won this winter, it was probably the Cubs. The Pirates, meanwhile, had an offseason more notable nationally for who they lost (Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ and so on) than who they added.

"That's kind of been the Pirates' M.O., to be the quiet guys," closer Mark Melancon said. "But then at the end of the day, you look at us and you're like, 'OK, this is a really good club.'"

The Pirates like their core, most of which returns from last year, and the young talent rising through their system. Huntington may not have "won" last offseason, at least not at the time, but his shrewd additions -- Cervelli and Jung Ho Kang among them -- helped make the Bucs' 98-win campaign possible.

Can they do it again, but be better? We'll find out in time. For now, the Pirates will continue to pour into their Spring Training home, ready to prove once again that winning the winter doesn't lead to October.

"Since I've been here, it's been a sneaky-good club that nobody really pays attention to," Melancon said. "But we've made the playoffs the last three years."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.