MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Huntington, Bucs on track for 'next step'

Pirates GM hopes to follow Royals' path to ultimate goal

Huntington, Bucs on track for 'next step'

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is talking about "taking the next step."

"This group believes it can," he said, "and is hungry to do so."

This is a line he may repeat a half-dozen times a day when he's approached by fans and reporters and talk-show hosts. For all the Pirates have accomplished the last three seasons -- and it's a remarkably impressive list -- it's human nature to focus on what they haven't done.

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To sum up: They lost the National League Wild Card Game in 2014 and 2015. And this: They won the NL Wild Card Game in 2013 but lost a deciding Game 5 of a Division Series to the Cardinals.

In those three elimination games, they were beaten by Adam Wainwright, Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta. As Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said after the loss to Arrieta last fall, "Sometimes, you draw a tough bull."

Indeed, sometimes you do. And sometimes, the focus on a half-full glass overshadows all that went right. If someone had tapped Huntington on the shoulder three springs ago and told him what the next three seasons would be like, he would have signed up in a moment.

"Oh absolutely," he said. "I understand that part of it. We're proud of what we've done. But we all believe there's more for us."

So amid talk about taking the next step and those disappointing Wild Card Games, let's not forget what has happened to baseball in Pittsburgh.

It has been resurrected.

PNC Park, a rock star in its own right, is rocking with energy. Pirates merchandise is cool again. Television ratings are solid. In short, this is the kind of renaissance many didn't think possible a mere three springs ago when the Pirates hadn't played a postseason game in 21 years.

During a nine-season period between 2005 and 2013, they averaged 92 losses. In that time, only one Major League team lost more games: the Kansas City Royals.

Now the Pirates and Royals are among baseball's model franchises. Yep, the difference is the Royals have been better in October, surviving close calls in both 2014 and 2015 to make back-to-back World Series appearances.

That said, no one should lose sight of what the Pirates have done. For instance:

• In the last three seasons, only one team -- the Cardinals -- has won more regular-season games.

• The Pirates are one of three teams -- the Cardinals and Dodgers are the others -- with three straight postseason appearances.

• They've shown every other franchise that winning is about smarts, not just money. Pittsburgh's three postseason teams have ranked 27th, 27th and 25th in payroll.

• It's about pitching, too. Only the Cardinals (3.29) had a better ERA than the Pirates (3.32) the last three seasons, and only the Royals had a lower bullpen ERA (2.90 vs. 2.84).

Huntington has constructed a baseball operation that's among the gold standards in the industry. The Pirates do a tremendous job scouting and developing their own talent. They also see things in players that others don't.

In left-hander Francisco Liriano, second baseman Josh Harrison and closer Mark Melancon, the Pirates found players who've flourished for them.

Center fielder Andrew McCutchen and left fielder Starling Marte are the only position players who got 500-plus plate appearances in 2013 and are still on the club.

Marte's three-run homer

Huntington -- much like his Kansas City counterpart, Dayton Moore -- credits organizational patience and sticking with a plan. While the Pirates averaged 92 losses in Huntington's first eight seasons, Chairman of the Board Bob Nutting and team president Frank Coonelly continued to believe they had the right guy for the job.

Huntington knew the Pirates wouldn't compete for the big-ticket free agents, so he focused on player development, scouting and analysis. Once the Pirates turned a corner, he wanted them to be able to sustain success.

And now, they're rolling.

Fresh off a 98-64 season, they appear to be good enough to make a fourth straight postseason appearance despite the strength of the NL Central, which was the only division with three playoff teams in 2015.

Huntington reworked the right side of his infield with Harrison taking over at second and John Jaso, Michael Morse and recently signed David Freese competing for playing time at first.

Pirates' broadcasters on Freese

But the real strength of the Pirates hasn't changed: That's McCutchen, one of baseball's resplendent talents, ace right-hander Gerrit Cole and Hurdle.

Huntington is effusive in his praise of all three.

On McCutchen: "He's the face of the franchise. He is our best player and our quiet leader. When he shows up the way he does to win every single day and prepares the way he does, it's hard not to follow him. He's the guy that seems to be in the center of every big rally we have. He's also an unbelievable person. He's very easy to follow."

Cutch's RBI single

On Hurdle: "Clint brings energy and leadership and connectivity every single day. So many people miss that. The role of manager is not just in-game decisions. The role of manager is communicator. It's the driver of the culture. Clint excels at all elements of the job but in particular the things that people don't see. Clint has a huge role in our pitchers' success -- the way he manages the workload, keeps the bullpen fresh."

On Cole: "Gerrit is so driven and so smart. He's our union rep. He's in a position of leadership in that role. In an ideal world, your best players are also your leaders. They don't have to be the rah-rah vocal-type leaders. They can lead by example. They can lead in subtle ways. They can lead behind the scenes. We do think Gerrit is ready to take on a leadership role -- in his way and his pace."

Finally, the Pirates are in position to keep going awhile. Melancon is a year away from free agency, but most of the nucleus of the team could be together at least two more years.

In right-handers Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, the Pirates have two of baseball's best pitching prospects. Both could pitch in the big leagues this season. First baseman Josh Bell and outfielder Austin Meadows are two others who are on the cusp of reaching the Majors.

"We feel good about the track we're on and how we've gotten here," Huntington said. "This is a group that's driven to do more and take that next step. We do take pride in fans thanking us for re-establishing baseball and making it relevant again in Pittsburgh. We are appreciative of all the work that so many really talented people have done -- selfless people -- to put us in position to be pursuing a fourth straight playoff run. At the same time, it's not going to be enough for us. Maybe 15 years from now we'll take a look back and think, 'Wow, that was pretty cool.' Right now, it's continuing to focus on taking those next steps."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.