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Kevin Gorman: Pirates need to turn World Series talk into title

Kevin Gorman
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Chris Adamski | Tribune-Review
The Pirates’ Clint Hurdle talks Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019, at PiratesFest at PNC Park.

Just when the January weather had turned frigid, and fatigue was starting to set in on the Pittsburgh Steelers and the daily dose of Antonio Brown’s antics, the Pittsburgh Pirates provided a delicious diversion.

They are going to win the World Series!

Nothing compares to the optimism of the offseason, and the Pirates are coming off an 82-win season and return one of the best young starting rotations in baseball and … well, did I mention the 82 wins?

“Trust me, nobody is pleased, satisfied or happy with 82 wins last year,” Pirates president Frank Coonelly said Saturday in an hour-long Q&A session with fans at PiratesFest at PNC Park. “It does, in my view, represent a move in the right direction, but it’s not nearly enough.

“Eighty-two wins will not get you in the postseason. We need at least 10-12 more wins to get to where we need to be. It’s too damn long, 40 years! … Nobody is satisfied with 82 wins in this organization. Everybody is committed to doing what we can to putting a World Series championship team on the field, and we do know that we can do it.”

Before you break into a “Let’s Go Bucs!” cheer and start to raise the Jolly Roger, Coonelly prefaced this by statement by saying that he wasn’t trying to be “Pollyanna-ish.” This wasn’t a pompous prediction but a mere mention that they share the same goal as every other team.

Of course, the Pirates also are projected to have MLB’s second-lowest payroll, and owner Bottom-Line Bob Nutting was nowhere to be found at the fan festival. It’s one thing to proclaim that your team will be championship-caliber, and something entirely different to enter the free-agent sweepstakes for superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

“I’d love it if we were in on Harper and Machado, just like everyone else,” Pirates pitcher Jameson Taillon said, matter-of-factly. “That’s just not realistic for us.”

What is realistic is Taillon blossoming into the bona fide staff ace the Pirates envisioned when they selected him second overall in the 2010 MLB Draft, after Harper and before Machado.

Now the Pirates are promoting a rotation that features formidable 1-2-3 starters in Taillon, Trevor Williams and Chris Archer and one of the best bullpens with Keone Kela setting up All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez. The lineup lacks a superstar, but they are banking on strong seasons from Gold Glove outfielders Starling Marte and Corey Dickerson and power provided by first baseman Josh Bell and outfielder Gregory Polanco.

Fans are focusing on the major moves made by their NL Central rivals: The Milwaukee Brewers signed catcher Yasmani Grandal, the St. Louis Cardinals traded for power-hitting first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and the Cincinnati Reds dealt for outfielders Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig and starting pitchers Alex Wood and starter Sonny Gray.

The Pirates, meantime, slashed payroll by parting ways with starter Ivan Nova, second baseman Josh Harrison and shortstop Jordy Mercer. They re-signed third baseman Jung Ho Kang to an incentive-laden deal and added cost-effective free agents in outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall and right-hander Jordan Lyles and traded for shortstop Erik Gonzalez.

Those moves don’t inspire the idea of 10-12 more wins, but nothing about their trades of Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole last January gave the impression that the Pirates would improve their 2017 win total by seven games. No wonder Taillon warns not to discount another aspect of building a contender in this analytics-driven era.

“I think it’s easy to say that it’s like a video game, that we need to just trade for this guy and get this guy, but there’s a human element to it and I bet on these guys to get better, I really do,” Taillon said.

“I might get made fun of for being such an optimist, but people thought we were going to lose 100 games last year. We’re not happy with it, but we were above .500 and played our division extremely tough. Go ask the Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers if they liked playing us.”

The Pirates went 43-33 against NL Central opponents last season. That’s thanks in a large degree to a 14-5 record against the Reds and a 12-7 record against the division-champion Brewers, but they were competitive against the Cubs (9-10) and Cardinals (8-11). Problem was, the Pirates were 12-20 against the NL East, 12-21 against the NL West.

That the Pirates made trade-deadline deals for Archer and Kela represented a step in the right direction. That they will start the season with a low payroll provides room to add players and keep their young stars when they reach arbitration the next two seasons.

The Pirates might not appear to be in win-now mode, but they are building a team that could be a contender. They will spend this season celebrating the 40th anniversary of their 1979 World Series champions — something Pirates manager Clint Hurdle hopes sinks in with his players, something he hopes to deliver to the city of Pittsburgh.

“What better city in baseball to win a World Series?” Hurdle said. “You win a sixth World Series here, this place will light up like a Roman candle. Special, significant, and with the group of guys and the way we’re going to get it done and the approach we’ve got to take and the model we’re working with, we feel like we can do it.”

Hurdle believes the Pirates won’t win a World Series unless they talk about it, but talking about a World Series doesn’t mean they will win one, either. It’s time the Pirates turn the talk into a title.

They did get one talking point right: Forty years is too damn long.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.