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No. 25 Pirates: Nearing end of dubious streak?

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports will examine the offseason of every MLB team before spring training begins in mid-February. Our series continues with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

2012 record: 79-83
Finish: Fourth, NL Central
2012 final payroll: $61.3 million
Estimated 2013 opening day payroll: $66 million
Yahoo! Sports offseason rank: 25
Hashtags: #hokahey #gooddaytodie #20 #witherfamily #dudewheresmycloser #cowerofZoltan #waittilnextgeneration #cutchnstuff

OFFSEASON ACTION

The Pirates secured their 20th consecutive non-winning season on Sept. 28, a night they were no-hit by Cincinnati Reds right-hander Homer Bailey. The loss was their 81st of 2012. Two days later, No. 82 arrived – as did their 20th consecutive losing season, the longest in North American professional sports – on, yes, Fan Appreciation Day.

That's style, folks.

If only the Pirates had simply slogged through another stinker. Instead, they'd again promised more. In early August they'd been competitive, standing a mere 2½ games behind the NL Central-leading Reds. They lost 36 of their next 52 games. In so doing, they'd revived memories of '11, when reasonable competency had given way to an 18-41 finish and No. 19.

This time, they'd freshened up a disgraceful generation by failing to sign their first-round draft pick (Stanford's Mark Appel), and endured reports they were risking prospects by putting them through Navy SEAL-style drills and encouraging in them characteristics of hippies, Boy Scouts and Hells Angels.

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Andrew McCutchen carried Pittsburgh's offense last season in hits, runs, RBIs and HRs. (AP)

So began Neal Huntington's sixth winter as Pittsburgh's general manager, having had his contract extended by three years after last season. In dire need of starting pitching, a catcher, and more to make the offense go, Huntington signed free-agent catcher Russell Martin. He traded closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox for what he hopes amounts to more than organizational depth. A deal for left-hander Francisco Liriano – 11 games under .500 with a 4.85 ERA since the '09 season – is on hold because of arm issues. (On Wednesday, the Pirates traded for right-hander Jeanmar Gomez.) Martin, who batted .211 but hit 21 home runs in '12 for the New York Yankees, got $17 million over two seasons.

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Three additions prior to last summer's trading deadline – Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez – did little to stem the Pirates' slide to sub-.500, but will count toward Huntington's body of work in '13.

The payroll continues to lay with the least competitive in the game, so Huntington was limited to second- and third-tier free agents. That serves as part of the explanation for a somewhat uninspiring winter. The rest?

REALITY CHECK

Right about the time the Pirates tanked, Andrew McCutchen was the best player in the National League. He faded and the Pirates went with him. As a unit, starting pitchers had their worst month in August. When they corrected, the bullpen had its worst month in September, when the offense batted .227.

By the end, the Pirates were where they probably should have been – better (79 wins were seven more than the season before and matched their best since the Barry Bonds era), yet still not entirely competent.

Optimists would call that a bridge year. Pirates fans did all they could not to throw themselves from it.

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Gerrit Cole is a projected top-of-the-rotation pitcher for the Pirates. (AP)

The big-league roster has talent and promise. McCutchen is 26. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who hit 30 home runs, is 25. Second baseman Neil Walker is 27. Left fielder Starling Marte is 24. Jerry Sands, who arrived in the Hanrahan trade and hit at least 26 home runs in three different minor-league seasons, is 25.

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Tim Brown on HOF voting fallout]

The offense may not blow anyone away. But if Alvarez has begun to find himself at the plate, the middle of the lineup – with McCutchen and Garrett Jones – will be more consistent. The leadoff position, which saw eight different men and was every bit the problem that would suggest, has not been solved. (Only the Miami Marlins scored fewer runs out of the leadoff spot.) Marte finished the season there and posted a .320 on-base percentage.

The farm system, assuming all the fellas survive Basic Underwater Demolitions training, is better. Pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are coming, and that's where reality comes hunting the Pirates.

The rotation is A.J. Burnett, Rodriguez, James McDonald, and competition for the fourth and fifth spots. Maybe that's good enough. Probably, it's not.

SAVIOR

This might be asking too much. This may be unfair. This could be rushing things.

After all, Gerrit Cole is just 22. He's played a single professional season and made a single Triple-A start.

But the Pirates need to pitch. From the first inning to the ninth they need to pitch, and from April to September, yeah, pitch.

Cole was the first overall pick in the '11 draft. He possesses a fastball that threatens triple digits, a swing-and-miss slider, near-Strasburg expectations and an arrival date of 2013. If Cole doesn't make the rotation out of camp, it won't be long after that.

HAIKU

The seasons drift by
Yellowed, blue, darker, and yet
Never in the black

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