For four months, they were a feel-good story -- the end, it seemed, of a nearly 20-year pursuit of a winning record, with National League Central contention, to boot. They were percentage points ahead of the Cardinals for first place in the standings as late as July 25, before reality intervened.
And in the end, the 2011 installment of the Buccos did what the 18 previous installments had done -- limping off with a losing record.
And so manager Clint Hurdle has made "finish" a mantra here in camp -- one he hopes has lasting impact over the long haul of a 162-game season.
"These guys have bought into it," Hurdle says, "and they believe it."
General manager Neal Huntington believes it, too, for he knows a bit about the importance of finishing what you start.
The process of signing blossoming star center fielder Andrew McCutchen to the six-year, $51.5 million contract announced last week lasted, on and off, for two years. It was a particularly plodding pace, but the end result underscores the organizational direction Huntington and his staff have worked so hard to implement here.
That McCutchen has opted to stay -- giving up three years of free agency -- is, for the Pirates, affirmation that the franchise's phase of pure player acquisition has shifted to the next, natural phase of molding and retaining a championship core.
And that is a not-small distinction for a club that had grown all too accustomed to parting with its developed talent -- guys like Jason Bay and Aramis Ramirez and Brian Giles -- because of the lack of depth surrounding those stars.
"We spent a lot of time trying to rebuild from one of the worst Major League teams with one of the worst farm systems to taking steps forward," Huntington says. "Unfortunately, in baseball, it takes a lot longer than it seems to take in the other sports. It's a much longer process. But we knew that we needed to add more talent, and that's what led to a lot of the more uncomfortable and unpopular trades. Now we're starting to show some of the signs of some of the guys we've acquired."
The acquisitions extend, of course, to the First-Year Player Draft, where the Pirates have been aggressive spenders. They've invested about $48 million into the Draft in Huntington's four-year tenure -- the most in the Majors in that span. And the fruits of those finances are power arms like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, impact outfielders like Josh Bell and Robbie Grossman and a promising young shortstop named Chase d'Arnaud.
"We've made our share of mistakes," Huntington says. "I'm never going to run and hide from that. But we try to learn from the mistakes in the process and work hard to understand why we've had success in the areas we've had success."
When you stockpile as many prominent picks as the Pirates have (just as the Rays once did) in their legacy of losing seasons, you simply have to get it right with regularity. The jury is still out as to whether the Pirates got it right with Pedro Alvarez, the second overall pick in 2008, and so his development at the Major League level after a wayward 2011 that saw him hit .191 and get demoted back to Triple-A will be closely monitored.
"We're very happy with his progress," Hurdle says. "I think in his case, there were a lot of challenges last year. In a mature way, he was able to go into the winter, self-evaluate and prepare for how he's going to be the best player he can be physically and mentally. His balance is there, and he's driving the ball like he did in 2010. He's in a good place."
No one's in a better place right now than outfielder Starling Marte, a product of the Bucs' Dominican scouting who has been tearing up the Grapefruit League to the tune of a .643 average and 1.143 OPS. It won't be enough to earn him an Opening Day job, given that he's never played an inning above Double-A, but it's certainly appealing.
"It's been fun to watch the tools and the talent and the reputation show up here in Spring Training," Huntington says. "The bat speed, the athleticism, the run tool, the throw tool, the power that came on last year. There's every reason to believe this guy is going to be an extra-base machine, as well as a guy who can steal bases."
Marte is one part of a dynamic outfield assembly that could one day lead to some difficult decisions on the Pirates' part.
In their view: Bring them on.
"We want to have really, really challenging decisions, because that means we're getting better," Huntington says. "And it's not just at one level. As we put together the rotations in Double-A or High-A or Low-A ball, we want to have those difficult decisions, we want to have more guys than roles. That will allow us to have the depth, in case of the attrition rate, and it will allow us to make some trades and build and win at the Major League level without sacrificing the future."
The immediate future is a little cloudier than the long-term view. The Pirates' offseason acquisitions -- A.J. Burnett (out until mid-May after fouling a ball off his face), Erik Bedard, Casey McGehee, Clint Barmes and Nate McLouth -- aren't enough to bridge the gap between 72 wins and, say, 90 wins. Last year's rotation exceeded expectations initially, but ultimately fell flat when injuries and a lack of swing-and-miss stuff took their toll.
Realistically, these 2012 Pirates probably aren't in a place to contend in a top-heavy NL Central featuring the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds.
But there is victory and value in the fact that an assessment of the Pirates' pool of prospects isn't limited to one or two "can't-miss" types. A depth of options at a variety of positions is brewing here, and that's half the battle for a small-market franchise.
"It's improved," says second baseman Neil Walker. "It's definitely improved. You've got guys that when they step into the big leagues, there's no more 'deer in the headlights' look. The talent level has improved, and that makes the competition even better."
Major acquisitions at the free-agent level remain a pipe dream in Pittsburgh, and that's what made the McCutchen signing so significant. The difficulty in building a championship core from within is aligning all the respective timetables of the pieces in play. The rest of the roster might have flourished just as McCutchen neared a free-agent foray. Instead, one of the game's more electric players is locked in for the long haul at a reasonable rate (and Pittsburgh fans ought not fret over Walker not getting inked to a similar deal just yet, considering he's not free-agent eligible until 2016).
McCutchen signed the dotted line because he doesn't think the entire franchise's fate will rest on his bat and legs.
"We've been moving in the right direction regardless of whether they would have gotten this deal done or not," McCutchen says. "But this shows to the outer world that we're moving in the right direction."
They're moving, and that's a start.
But they need to finish.