Pirates' winter quest: silver linings

Baseball executives know it can be dangerous to place too much stock in September when it comes time to assess their clubs in November and December and the rest of the offseason. Rosters expand in the final month, teams play tighter or looser depending on where they are in the standings, and the results can be skewed by variables that don't apply for the majority of a 162-game season.

No baseball executive clings to the hope of a September mirage more than Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington this winter. For what it's worth, August wasn't a whole lot of fun either.

To reflect, the Pirates were sending a buzz through their city on Aug. 8 when they were 63-47 and a mere two games behind Cincinnati in the National League Central. With the notable exception of the Baltimore Orioles -- Oakland was 60-51 and 5½ games out of first place at the time -- Pittsburgh was the most uplifting team story in the game.

Then came the: (a) swan dive, (b) face plant or (c) death spiral (insert your favorite collapse term here). The Pirates won only 16 of their final 52 games to finish 79-83 and 18 games out of first place in the division. While failing to make the playoffs, they also extended the franchise's futility record by finishing below .500 for the 20th straight season. The meltdown was a crusher for morale and did a number on Clint Hurdle's Manager of the Year aspirations.

The Pirates' late fade also has complicated life considerably for Huntington, who is trying to improve his roster and adhere to his mantra of patience and a long-range plan while Pittsburgh die-hards are more restless than ever.

"We all hate one loss, let alone a couple of tough months like that," Huntington said. "While winning masks a lot of bad things, losing can sometimes mask some good things, too. At the same time, it points you to ways you need to get better. The biggest challenge in all of this is enhancing the positives, minimizing the negatives and overcoming those. Just keep grinding it out and keep building. Keep moving forward.

"As an organization, we had the worst in record in all of baseball in September of 2010, and in September of 2012 we were playing meaningful games with playoff implications. That's a pretty good two-year turnaround if you shift the lens. But it's hard to do because of how we got to that point."

The Pirates' awful finish obscured some good things that preceded it. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen ranked fifth in the majors with a .953 OPS and fourth with a 7.0 WAR, and finished third in the National League MVP balloting. Pedro Alvarez, with 30 home runs, was second to Chase Headley among NL third basemen in that category. McCutchen, Alvarez and Garrett Jones gave the Pirates three 25-homer men for the first time since Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Donn Clendenon passed that barrier in 1966. And the pitching staff, led by A.J. Burnett and James McDonald, set a franchise record with 1,192 strikeouts.

On the flip side … McCutchen wore down after the All-Star break and didn't have nearly enough help. Alvarez ranked second in the NL with 180 strikeouts, logged a .317 on-base percentage and led major league third basemen with 27 errors. Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider, acquired in deadline trades to upgrade the offense, combined for five home runs and 22 RBIs in 244 at-bats as Pirates. Pittsburgh's hitters also set a franchise record with 1,354 strikeouts.

The Navy SEAL debacle

The Pirates also became sidetracked by a story that rivaled their epic collapse on the incredibility scale. In September, local newspapers were rife with reports about the team's player development group subjecting minor leaguers to some seriously outside-the-box Navy SEAL training methods. Among other things, the organization's prospects spent time in Florida being sprayed by hoses, diving into sand piles, lugging telephone-type poles along the beach and flipping tires.

In an email to the organization's minor league instructors, assistant GM Kyle Stark outlined a plan to help shape "boys into men," as he put it. "Dream and be creative like a Hippie. Have the discipline and perseverance of a Boy Scout. Be crazy and take risks like the Hells Angels," Stark wrote.

What might have been regarded as a creative or innovative approach to teaching became a source of embarrassment, inevitably, because of the Pirates' track record of losing. Things got worse in October when reports surfaced that the hard-core military training wasn't a one-time thing, and two top prospects, pitcher Jameson Taillon and outfielder Greg Polanco, suffered minor injuries during the proceedings.

The revelations prompted a backlash among agents -- never mind the parents of the players -- and the Pirates' methods were widely ridiculed in the media and a source of bewilderment among other organizations.

"There are teams that use the Navy SEAL model for emotional testing," said a talent evaluator for another franchise, "and you're always looking for ways to make players better, stronger and faster. But this stuff was bizarre. There are activities you can do within the confines of a facility that [the Pirates] could have done rather than doing what they did and risking injury. These players are a commodity. You can't put them at risk."

After doing a top-to-bottom review, Pirates owner Bob Nutting decided against an organizational shakeup. Team president Frank Coonelly, Huntington and Stark will stay, but the SEAL training will no longer be a core part of the Pirates' development program.

"We should not be, will not be, are not, a paramilitary organization," Nutting told reporters last month. "We should not be and are not running a boot camp. That's not the intent. We should be focusing on baseball drills."

Nutting's remarks should in no way be construed as a lack of respect for the military. He is just less concerned with the ability of Pittsburgh's prospects to safeguard American freedoms than making sure they can hit a cutoff man or go from first to third on a single.

Huntington, meanwhile, is left to put a positive spin on a well-intentioned initiative that turned into a PR debacle.

"We fully recognize that we had a disappointing major league season, and with a disappointing season and too many losses comes anger, frustration and disappointment," Huntington said. "We can appreciate and respect that our fans have those feelings, and we share them.

"But the bottom line is, everything we do is to develop the best baseball players we can, and there are times we need to be creative and open-minded to do that. In our minds, excellence is excellence. There are traits we can take from different professions, and the military happened to be one portion."

So what's next?

Amid the questions over training methods, Pittsburgh's farm system actually provides some reasons for hope. Taillon and fellow starter Gerrit Cole have consistently ranked among the top 15 prospects in the game. When publications put out their top-100 lists, outfielder Starling Marte, shortstop Alen Hanson, pitcher Luis Heredia and Polanco also make the grade.

Here's the rub: Marte, Hanson, Heredia and Polanco are all products of Rene Gayo's Latin American scouting program. Other than Cole and Taillon, the Pirates don't have much to show for the major league high $52 million in draft spending that Nutting doled out in recent years. Assistant GM Greg Smith, who has run Pittsburgh's drafts since 2008, is under the gun to get it right, and soon. At least Pittsburgh will have the ninth and 14th picks in the 2013 draft. The extra selection is compensation for the team's failure to sign first-round pick Mark Appel out of Stanford last June.

Meanwhile, there are holes on the big league roster in need of upgrades. The rotation could use another arm to complement Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and McDonald, who faded badly after the All- Star break. Clint Barmes was eighth among big league shortstops in the Bill James runs saved rankings, but hit .229 with a .593 OPS. The catching also needs an upgrade now that Rod Barajas is on the free-agent market and Michael McKenry is the lone incumbent behind the plate.

The Pirates reportedly reached agreement with free agent Russell Martin on a two-year, $17 million deal Thursday, pending a physical exam. It had to be a tough investment for Nutting to make, given that Martin hit .211 last season and we're three years removed from Pittsburgh selecting Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez with the No. 4 pick in the draft and giving him a $2.5 million bonus. Sanchez has a nice arm, but he's hit .246 above Class A ball and might lack the bat to be an impact everyday catcher.

Hurdle, a Nutting favorite, appears safe for the moment as Pittsburgh's manager. But he reportedly lost the clubhouse during his previous tenure in Colorado. And when a team goes into a late free fall the way the Pirates did last season, you have to wonder if it's simply a case of mediocre talent seeking its level. Hurdle has a big personality and a commanding presence when he walks into a room, but he needs to be vigilant about making sure the message doesn't go stale.

Nutting, by all accounts, is a diligent and very deliberate decision-maker, but even his patience must be wearing thin. He is likely to find that he has plenty of company when PiratesFest takes place at Pittsburgh's convention center two weeks from now and ticket holders have their say.