The 2006 Pirates were 30-60 before the All-Star break, but 37-35 after that, putting up a winning second half for the first time since 1992. Based on that second half, they don't have to fabricate reasons for legitimate optimism.
"Our approach to our business is we're looking to pick up where we left off," manager Jim Tracy says. "We don't have to sit around here and feel like we have to start over."
The Pirates' dramatic improvement in the second half came as a result of both tangible and intangible factors. Tracy, coming to Pittsburgh after a successful five-year tenure as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, knew that he had to change the culture, the mindset and the expectations of this club. That didn't happen immediately, but it did eventually happen.
"The respect that I gained for these players, I can't even begin to put into words the respect that I've gained for them, as players and as people," Tracy says.
"When you lose 60 of your first 90 games, and you take a four-day break over the All-Star break and you come back, the general sense is: 'Basically, how much worse can this get?' To turn the tables in the manner in which we did and end up with the second-best record in the division in the second half says an awful lot.
"And I also think that walking in front of a group of people as you begin Spring Training 2007, you feel like you're not only trying to issue encouragement and words of motivation to them, but you have a foundational building block that strongly suggests, 'Hey, we've tried this and it worked.' To go from there, that's what we were striving for. We needed something more than words, to be able to say: 'This does work, look where it took us.'
"There's a mindset that changes. You gain a greater understanding of the team concept in baseball, and the little things you have to do, some of the sacrifices that you as an individual have to make, in order to put the team in a position to win every day. That was not there [at the beginning of 2006].
"It was going to take more time than I wanted it to take. To get everybody on board, to get everybody to join in, at first they're looking at it and they're not sure: 'What direction is this guy going?' Then, slowly, but surely, you found more people coming on board, accepting the fact that, hey, this is pretty good, this works if you do it right."
In that regard, a favorite moment for Tracy was infielder Freddy Sanchez, battling for the National League batting championship, giving himself up to move a runner from second to third. That was exactly the kind of thing that Tracy was stressing and the doubly happy ending was that Sanchez won the batting title with a .344 average.
The tangible reasons for optimism start with a young and indisputably talented quartet of starting pitchers -- Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny -- all of whom made strides in the second half last season.
"It's a growing pitching staff, and it's a matter of allowing people to grow," Tracy says. "You look at our pitching staff at the beginning of last year, if the lugnuts started to come loose on the wheel, more than likely the wheel was going to come completely off. But these same guys, as the season wore on, gained a better understanding of how to manage themselves and how to manage the situations of a baseball game. They gained a much better greater idea of when things are going awry, 'I've got to step back and take a deep breath, understand what damage control is all about and keep my team in the game,' which they did."
The veteran Salomon Torres pitched well in the closer's role in the second half and will remain there. But again, the long-term future holds promise with the tremendous potential of reliever Matt Capps.
"He's got room to grow, but his ability to command his fastball sets everything up," Tracy says. "His slider has gotten much, much better, his changeup is coming, and he's not far away from being considered as a guy who can pitch the ninth inning for you."
There are position players of substantial value here, as well. For instance, in addition to the breakthrough season by Sanchez, shortstop Jack Wilson returned to his best form in the second half of 2006. The outfield could be very impressive. Jason Bay had 35 homers and 109 RBIs last season. In center, Chris Duffy is a superior defensive player, and in right Xavier Nady is solid in all phases, although he has been slowed this spring by an intestinal inflammation.
"It's a real nice critical mass of players, as far as the nucleus is concerned, that gets the process and understands what it is we're trying to do and the direction we're trying to take," Tracy says. "Couple that with the acquisition of this player that we desperately needed, because we had nothing like this in uniform a year ago in the Pittsburgh organization."
This player would be first baseman Adam La Roche, who gives the Pirates the left-handed power they have lacked. La Roche, obtained in a trade with Atlanta for closer Mike Gonzalez, had 32 home runs and 90 RBIs last season. And there's more to like with La Roche.
"One of the things that falls by the wayside a little bit is that this is a terrific defender," Tracy says. "Somebody that watched him play every day over the course of the last three days described him as, 'Keith Hernandez-type hands with not quite the same range.' And that's pretty good. That's pretty good."
Now, the Pirates would appear to be ready to take the next logical step, to use that second half as a springboard to a competitive, winning full season.
"What jumps out at me in Spring Training No. 2 with this club versus my first year with them, is last year at this time you had to deal with the uncertainty that was there," Tracy says. "It was there, it was there. In trying to change that culture, it really didn't start to leave until July. And now you walk into Spring Training a year later and see the looks on the faces of the same people who were here a year ago, and realize that there is now a strong sense of certainty.
"This feels like a solid big-league camp that has the mental approach that you should have at this time of the year. We're preparing to do good things; we're not just preparing to play. Yes, we're going to continue our growth process, but we've added a little more expectation than has been here in the past."
Based on what happened in the second half of 2006, those expectations are more than fair. Some uncertainty has been replaced with certainty, the culture has been changed and now with the Pittsburgh Pirates, winning is no longer some concept for the distant future. It's the thing that would logically happen next.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.