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Forget .500, Pirates shooting for playoffs

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PITTSBURGH (AP) -Give them this: The Pittsburgh Pirates are doing it an entirely different way than has been seen before in baseball.

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They lost 99 games last year during a record 17th consecutive losing season, the longest such streak in any of the four major American pro team sports. Then, with their dwindling fan base wearying of this endless cycle of losing in the same city where the Steelers and Penguins won championships last year, they responded by cutting an already thin payroll.

Their offseason moves were signing some aging relievers and a couple of bench players. They wouldn't even discuss adding a big-ticket player - something rising star Andrew McCutchen says simply isn't in their culture. And they're about to supplant Florida for having the majors' lowest-paid team.

No wonder an outsider might wander into Pittsburgh and start asking: Is this club even trying?

The Pirates' response: Not only are we trying, we're about to start thriving.

Mark this down as perhaps the most ambitious goal for any major league team as spring training approaches: The Pirates aren't aiming to finish .500 or to lay the groundwork for ensuing good teams, but to make the playoffs in 2010.

Not too far down the road, team president Frank Coonelly said Friday, a World Series is a very realistic possibility.

``If they want to call it setting the bar high, OK, we can use that,'' manager John Russell said.

If nothing else, they're the essence of optimism.

Pittsburgh doesn't have a player making even $5 million a year, a position player who's hit more than 21 homers or a starting pitcher who's won more than 11 games. The Pirates' returning RBIs leader drove in 64 runs. The projected starting first baseman has barely played the position.

The possibility that a team that has lost at least 95 games every season since 2005 could be a contender immediately without adding a single premium player might seem farcical, yet the Pirates insist they can be that team. The Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers must be wondering if they Pirates are delusional.

``Obviously, a lot of other teams are going to be picked to finish ahead of us, but that doesn't mean they're going to finish ahead of us,'' pitcher Ross Ohlendorf said. ``We have a chance to be very good.''

As the reason to believe, the Pirates point to an improving farm system that's about to send them outfielder Jose Tabata, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and starting pitcher Brad Lincoln - even if industry publication Baseball America rates that system as being only the 16th among the 30 clubs.

Russell and Huntington also like having more depth on the bench with outfielder Ryan Church and infielder Bobby Crosby and a deeper bullpen that's added Brendan Donnelly and Octavio Dotel.

On paper, the Pirates would seem to be weaker going into spring training than they were a year ago with the since-traded Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Adam LaRoche and Nyjer Morgan in their lineup and Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow and Matt Capps on their staff.

Russell, however, thinks this team is dramatically better, even though the only starting position player added was second baseman Aki Iwamura.

``I was asked this week, `Do you see the light at end of tunnel?'' Russell said. ``I thought for a second and said, `I think we're through the tunnel, the dark times of wondering where we are and what we need to do as far as the players we've acquired. We've made it to the other side of the tunnel. Our goal now is to go out and prepare to start winning championships in Pittsburgh. Our goal this year going into spring training is to come together and start thinking playoff baseball.''

Coonelly dared to compare the way these Pirates are being built to the 1960 World Series champion Pirates. That team won the title only two years after Pittsburgh's their first winning season in a decade.

While it wasn't apparent as the Pirates lost 23 of 26 games late last season, Coonelly and Huntington believe a similar core group capable of winning big exists in McCutchen, Alvarez and Tabata, first baseman Jeff Clement, left fielder Lastings Milledge and pitchers Paul Maholm and Zach Duke.

``We've talked about having a vision and having a plan, and the key to it all is the execution,'' Huntington said. ``We are in the middle of that vision and we are in the middle of executing that plan. While it may not happen overnight, as everyone would like it to happen, it is happening.''

The opening day payroll figures to be in the $35 million range, or about what it was when the Pirates last won a division title in 1992. However, owner Bob Nutting is adamant the club is focused on winning games, not turning profits.

``A lot has been made of our payroll,'' Huntington said. ``The easiest way to describe our payroll is it's a result, not a goal - the result of trading players on the downside of their prime who were making a lot of money.''

Huntington also believes this year ould the cornerstone season of a Pirates turnaround.

``The 2010 Pirates, as you look at them, (they're) easy to dismiss,'' Huntington said. ``It's easy to say, it's just another year. You will never hear me say we're going to win in 2012 or 2013 (and not win now). We are going to give John Russell the tools, the players to go out and win.''

If they do, Maholm said, ``In September, this place will be crazy. ... They'll embrace us as they have the Steelers and the Penguins.''

AP NEWS
The Associated Press News Service

Copyright 2014
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved

  
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