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Pirates to search for identity during offseason

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011

One hundred games into the 1987 season, things seemed bleak for the Pirates. They were in the midst of a weeklong losing streak and stuck in last place in the NL East.

But over the final 62 games, the Pirates were eight games over .500, including a 19-8 finish. That was the launching pad for a second-place finish in 1988, followed by three consecutive division titles from 1990-92.

One hundred games into the 1997 season, things looked good for the Pirates. Despite a $9 million payroll, the "Freak Show" team spent 32 days in first place, went 30-32 down the stretch and finished five games behind Houston for the NL Central crown.

The unexpected success fueled hopes for another pennant chase in 1998. Instead, the Pirates sunk back to last place and pretty much have stayed there since.

This season, the Pirates got off to a strong start like the 1997 team and had a core of young, mostly homegrown players -- Neil Walker, Charlie Morton, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, Andrew McCutchen -- like the '87 team. They were in first place after 100 games but faded badly in the final 62.

Will the flashes of success build momentum next year and beyond, as happened after the 1988 season• Or was the 2011 club a one-year wonder like in '97?

"I think we're somewhere in between," manager Clint Hurdle said. "The goal for next season is to finish what we start."

After a 15-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 18, Hurdle grumbled that his players had lost focus. The clubhouse vibe -- the attention to detail and high-intensity execution -- that carried the Pirates in May and June began to evaporate after July.

Some of that was caused by two waves of injuries that forced the Pirates to reach into their farm system too often. The inexperience caught up with them.

"We dealt with adversity well ... initially," Hurdle said.

As the physical demands increased, it began to take a mental toll. It really began to show when the Pirates lost 10 straight in late July and early August.

"Did we change• Maybe a little bit," pitcher Jeff Karstens said. "I think we started to put pressure on ourselves instead of just having fun. Hopefully, we'll learn from it and see where it takes us next year."

The '87 team's roster was heavy with budding stars. Barry Bonds was 22. Bobby Bonilla and Doug Drabek were 24. Andy Van Slyke and Mike LaValliere were 26. They all were still in place when the team hit its stride in 1990. When they left, the ongoing string of 19 losing seasons began.

The 1997 Pirates also had young talent -- Jason Schmidt, Esteban Loaiza, Jose Guillen and Jason Kendall were in their early 20s. But ownership's low-budget approach -- the payroll went up to just $14 million in 1998 -- made it impossible keep traction.

"We did not have a line of talent coming to insert into spots where we had voids," said Cam Bonifay, the Pirates' general manager in 1997. "And we could not attract any free agents. We couldn't even get a middle-of-the road guy because of money."

Bonifay said the Pirates' farm system is better stocked than it was 14 years ago. But that doesn't mean current GM Neal Huntington can ignore the free-agent market.

"You can't exclude any facet of the pool of talent," Bonifay said. "You've got to do well in the Latin American market. You've got to do well in the draft and develop guys. You've got to do well in your professional scouting so you do well in trades. And you've got to sign some free agents every now and then. You have to hit on all of them in order to give yourself a chance to be competitive every year."

Huntington admitted he did not do a great job with the free agents he signed last winter. Kevin Correia won 12 games, then went on the 60-day disabled list. Neither Lyle Overbay nor Matt Diaz contributed much.

"The most encouraging thing about this season is the players who got us to first place on July 25 are going to be here next year and in 2013, '14 and '15, for the most part," Huntington said. "We showed some flaws. We showed we still need to do a lot of work. I need to have a better offseason. But there are a lot of good things to grab hold of."

Additional Information:

Looking to 2010

Why they'll be better

• Pedro Alvarez rebounds. He'd better because the Pirates have no other true power hitters in their system.

• The starting pitchers stay healthy. That's assuming a solid replacement is found for potential free agent Paul Maholm, who until this year has been an innings-eater.

• Fewer strikeouts. Hurdle admitted he didn't use the hit and run as much as he would've liked this year because he didn't trust his batters to make contact.

• The NL Central (maybe) will be weaker. If Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder move on, that's fewer homers the Pirates will give up.

Why they'll be worse

• Speed kills. Pirates pitchers cannot control the running game. For example, the Brewers got three stolen bases, including one from catcher Jonathan Lucroy, on Wednesday.

• Power outage. If, as expected, Derrek Lee and Ryan Doumit leave as free agents, it's doubtful anyone will arrive to replace their pop in the lineup.

• The NL Central (maybe) will be stronger. New ownership could start spending money in Houston, and the Reds could regain their footing.

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