COMMENTARY | The Pittsburgh Pirates are about to embark on another attempt to stop the bleeding after two decades of horrendous baseball. The team has come close to applying the tourniquet the past two seasons only to be turned away by crushing, epic collapses.
Those collapses have further jaded a fan base that's already cynical and incredibly critical. For many Pirates fans, it was insult to injury for the team to soar so high and fall so hard. There's no trust level amongst fans that this year's team will be any different than those that came before it. And on the dawn of a new season, not many are optimistic that this will finally be the year.
But there's at least one person who thinks this year's installment of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club is capable of winning, and winning big. The skeptic fan base had a field day when manager Clint Hurdle claimed on sports talk radio that the team could win 95 games this year. Hurdle is well aware that Pittsburgh has been devoid of winning baseball since 1992, the last time the team even came close to winning 95 games.
It was a bold statement to be sure and possibly a little foolish. Hurdle has only coached one team during his 10 seasons as manager to a winning record, a Colorado Rockies team in 2007 that won 90 games and reached the World Series. What makes him think this team is capable of winning 95 games, especially in a division with much better teams like the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals?
Regardless of the method behind his thinking, Hurdle means what he said and truly believes this team can win the National League Central. Should fans buy in?
History as a manager
Hurdle took over as skipper for the Colorado Rockies in 2002 and coached the team until being fired 46 games into the 2009 season. He won 90 games in 2007 and reached the World Series, where the Rockies got swept by the Boston Red Sox. But he never came close again to a winning record, compiling several 90-loss seasons in the process. He came to the Pirates in 2011 and gave the city it's first taste of winning baseball in at least a decade. But the team faltered and still finished with a 72-90 record.
Every fan is painfully aware that the team again fell short last season in finishing with a 79-83 record. Sadly, even with the most epic collapse in baseball history, those 79 wins represent the second highest total for Hurdle in his managerial career. It was the closest he had come to putting together a winning record since the only time he actually did put together a winning record.
But that's not to say there wasn't improvement, at least as far as the front office was concerned. Hurdle won 15 more games in 2011 than his predecessor John Russell did the season before. He managed the team to seven more wins last season for an improvement of 22 wins over two seasons. It's a trend many fans hope will continue, and it's a trend that's very different from his sporadic tenure with the Rockies.
This will be Hurdle's ninth full season at the helm of a team, given he finishes the year out. This year's team doesn't look much different offensively than last season and the pitching staff is weaker because of injuries. It's going to be a very tall task for Hurdle to win with the team he and the front office have assembled.
Will he win?
Hurdle's mantra and core principle is hustle. He famously benched team leader Andrew McCutchen in 2011 for not hustling to first base on an infield grounder. He's a consistent and fair voice in a clubhouse where players are expected to work and compete. He's also a manager who cautions players never to get too high or too low on themselves or the team. A leveled and balanced approach.
Hurdle has installed work ethic into a team that likely has no business sniffing a winning season. Whether it be lack of talent, player fatigue or poor management, the team has gotten so close but landed so far away from winning records the past two seasons.
It's hard to place the blame entirely on Hurdle or his players. The front office has given him a new contract and several new free agents to help plug holes on the roster. He has the respect of his team and his bosses, which goes a long way in the mental health of a major league manager.
The past two seasons of have been ones of trends: One of finishing with more wins than the year before. Another, the trend of gut-wrenching collapses and falters. Which one will prevail this year? My money is on Hurdle leading this team to a winning record, and only because he's going to milk every ounce of talent out of the very mediocre roster put in front of him. And if he doesn't right the sinking ship this season, he might go down with it.
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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