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Nutting: Bucs' 'expectation level' different

| Sunday, April 1, 2012

Andy Chomos said he has calmed down since the time he heaved a Ronny Paulino bobblehead onto Federal Street while leading a protest against the Pirates. However, this condition might only be temporary.

"A lot will depend on what happens this year," said Chomos, 47, who can see the Willie Stargell statue outside PNC Park from his North Shore office, where he is CFO of a medical device company.

Chomos plans to be at the ballpark Thursday when the Pirates open their 2012 season against the Phillies. For owner Bob Nutting, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, it will mark their fifth Opening Day together.

The Pirates have lost 90 or more games in each of the past seven seasons. But 2011 was different. Before collapsing in August, the club found itself in first place in late July, then had a busy offseason. Now, in Year 5 of the current management team, there is talk of ending nearly two decades of losing and maybe even making the playoffs.

Much of the chatter even is coming from the owner. The "expectation level" is different, Nutting said last month, stating that the club is "here to win a National League Central championship." He said the entire organization is "absolutely committed" to that goal.

No standard exists for the time it should take a new management team to turn a loser into a winner. Tampa Bay was 61-101 in 2006 and went to the World Series two years later during Andrew Friedman's third season as general manager. That's extreme, if not miraculous. Some observers believe the Pirates are at least a couple of years away. Others say the time has been sufficient.

"My opinion is that in five years you should see real results," said sports investment banker Sal Galatioto, speaking generally and not necessarily about the Pirates. "I'm not talking about winning the World Series. But you should have a competitive team."

From the start, Nutting, Coonelly and Huntington have peddled the future, eschewing quick fixes and emotional decisions as befits small-market franchises. This year's projected payroll is $52 million, which likely again will place the Pirates in the bottom five. For this franchise, the idea of a big offseason acquisition is pitcher A.J. Burnett, who signed for $13 million — over two years.

Recognizing its free agency limitations, the organization has extended the contract of its best player, center fielder Andrew McCutchen, strengthened the farm system, spent more than any team on the draft in the past four years and waded into international waters. Last week they signed five prospects from Colombia. Player development has been a priority.

Painful to watch

The company mantra repeats a commitment to building a winner "the right way." That is, from within, through judicious spending, diligent scouting and evaluation, and level-headed fiscal decisions. Some fans get it and are willing to wait. For others, averaging more than 97 losses under the current ownership regime is a lot to bear.

Then there is the perpetual cloud of the inglorious and somewhat astounding 19 straight losing seasons, an unprecedented feat among the four major American sports. "I mean, this hurts," said former All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling, an ESPN analyst. "As someone who was born and raised a Pirates fan, it's been painful to watch."

The Pirates' small-market status and payroll limitations pose constant challenges. But Tampa Bay -- the gold standard of doing more with less -- along with Milwaukee and Arizona made the playoffs in 2011 despite payrolls or markets smaller than the Pirates'.

Success can be achieved "by being smarter than your competitors, by hiring absolutely the best people, by not doing stupid deals, by stockpiling young talent and by developing it," said Galatioto, whose company advises and assists in the buying and selling of sports franchises.

This is exactly the Pirates' plan, although management's ability to execute it sooner than later remains to be seen. But even the most ardent Pirates fan knew it would take considerable time given the financial mess and other problems Nutting and Co. inherited.

"We were one of the worst major league teams in baseball, with one of the shallowest farm systems, and with a team at the major league level that was nearing free agency," Huntington said. "That's not a good way to build an organization. We tried to build upon what was good, change what wasn't good. We've worked tirelessly to rebuild, reconfigure, retool."

Huntington, whose best trades over four seasons have landed outfielder Jose Tabata and All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, added, "We expect this club to take another big step forward this year at the major league level. Last season we began to see signs on the tangible improvements we've made in the first three years here. We expect to see continued advancement this year."

Eric Fisher, who covers baseball on and off the field for Sports Business Journal, calls this a "show-me season" for the Pirates, especially given the widespread perception that the division is weaker at the top. Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are gone from the Cardinals and Brewers, respectively, and Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter's status is questionable.

Success would be "getting to .500 or very close and being a team that others feel is to tough to play," Fisher said.

Chomos feels better than he did five years ago when he formed the protest group, "Fans for Change," leading a negatively charged, doll-throwing rally and organizing a fan walkout (it didn't really work). He said he is encouraged by the club's investment in the draft and by McCutchen's six-year, $51.5 million extension.

On the other hand, he said he thinks the payroll remains too low and another losing season might test his newfound patience. "It will be totally dictated by what happens this season," he said.

Contender or pretender?

The Pirates were 72-90 last season under first-year manager Clint Hurdle, who has seemed to invigorate the club after the dormant John Russell years. It was a 15-game improvement from 2010.

But 2011 was really two seasons. For nearly four months, the Pirates were the talk of baseball, occupying first place as late as July 25. Then they crashed with a 19-43 thud.

During the offseason, the Pirates added two starting pitchers (Burnett and Erik Bedard), a starting shortstop (Clint Barmes), a starting catcher (Rod Barajas) and a potential starting third baseman (Casey McGehee) if Pedro Alvarez's mysterious slump continues. Set-up man Evan Meek returns from an injury-plagued season. The rest of the team is essentially the same.

Schilling is not impressed.

"I don't see any way that they're going to be able to contend this year," he said.

Known for his candor, Schilling characterized the two big pitching acquisitions this way: "If you want to look at it realistically, their opening-day starter (Bedard) is a guy the Red Sox were trying to throw into their No. 5 spot last year for three or four September starts, and their No. 2 guy (Burnett) is a guy that somebody was willing to pay millions and millions and millions of dollars for him to go play for somebody else."

The Yankees will pay $18.1 million of Burnett's remaining $31.1 million contract.

Sticking to the program

With the Pirates, it is always more about the future.

"Looking forward, our program is no different than it was two or three years ago, or next year," Nutting said. "We're going to build a championship (team) by bringing in talent, retaining it as long as we can and building as much strength as we can at every level."

It takes time for draft picks to evolve, "a seven-, eight- or nine-year process," Huntington calls it, perhaps generously. Some players, like Matt Wieters, don't need that long. Coonelly and Huntington had not yet arrived, but Nutting was entrenched as the owner during the 2007 draft when the Pirates passed on Wieters, a highly touted college catcher, for reliever Daniel Moskos, who came much cheaper.

The move was lambasted then and looks shaky today because Wieters is on the cusp of stardom in Baltimore and Moskos figures to have a limited bullpen role. Meanwhile, the Pirates' catcher position remains an issue, even after taking Tony Sanchez with their first pick in 2009.

The bigger concern is Alvarez. Reflecting their new draft philosophy in 2008, the Pirates paid top-dollar for the power-hitting third baseman from Vanderbilt, the second pick overall. He showed promise in his 2010 rookie season but regressed last year just when he should be emerging as a big-time talent and has continued to struggle this spring. No Pirate will be scrutinized more this season, and it would hurt badly if he fails to develop.

Otherwise, representing the future (and playing in the minors) are right-handers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon and outfielders Josh Bell and Starling Marte. All are among Baseball America's top 100 prospects, targeted to be with the big club by 2014. Further away but just as tantalizing is right-hander Luis Heredia, who is just 17. The Pirates signed Marte from the Dominican Republic and Heredia from Mexico.

Baseball America ranks the Pirates' farm system 11th among the 30 clubs, although some believe the talent is not all that widespread and that the club has not drafted particularly well beyond the first two rounds.

"There are five guys who clearly stand out, and after that the depth isn't impressive," Baseball America executive editor Jim Callis said. "You look at a team that's spent as much as they have, you'd like to see more depth."

But, he added, "Those are five pretty good prospects, as good a five as anybody has."

Former Cincinnati and Washington general manager Jim Bowden acknowledged the difficulty of turning around a small-market franchise.

"I think the Pirates have made significant progress under the Huntington/Coonelly regime over the last four years, and they are ready to hit their stride in 2014 when Cole and Taillon are ready," Bowden said in an email.

Reinforcing the point, he added, "The front office staff is well-organized and, as long as they stay the course and don't try to add too many veterans and stop gaps, will reach their goal of being a playoff contender in two years."

Additional Information:

Frequently asked questions

With spring training just about over, here are answers to five questions Pirates fans most often asked Trib beat writer Rob Biertempfel before camp opened:

How's Pedro look?

It was not an easy spring for Pedro Alvarez, who never really seemed to find his swing. He tried different hand placements and experimented with a toe tap that got less pronounced as camp went on, but strikeouts continued to pile up. Even so, management remained supportive. GM Neal Huntington said the former first-rounder was stuck in 'a rough stretch' and remains the everyday third baseman. Many scouts say it's likely the light bulb will switch on for Alvarez this season. But it's also possible his struggles will drag on as they did last year.

When will Charlie pitch?

April 14 in San Francisco. Management was extra careful with Morton and brought him along a bit slower than the rest of the starters in camp. As a result, the right-hander's arm strength is not where it needs to be. Morton went on the 15-day disabled list Thursday, will make a rehab start with Triple-A Indy and should be ready by mid-April.

Who will be this year's Michael Crotta?

Crotta was cut from camp two weeks ago, meaning he didn't repeat as the surprise player who earned a spot on the active roster. That honor went to Juan Cruz, a 33-year-old righty who came to camp as a nonroster invitee. Cruz was sharp from the start of camp, so it wasn't entirely stunning that he'll head north with the team. And by putting him on the active roster, the Pirates avoid giving him the extra $100,000 and an opt-out clause he would have received for being sent to the minors.

What role for Cole?

Last year's top overall draft pick spent a couple of weeks in big league camp, then was sent back to join the minor leaguers. That was no surprise, as the Pirates wanted Cole to get just a taste of the majors in spring training. 'Anytime a player gets a chance to spend time around major league players, he has a chance to learn something,' assistant GM Kyle Stark said. 'Gerrit was able to see how some experienced, successful pitchers go about their business and what they need to do at that level. He also got to be around our major league staff, which is always a positive.' Cole will begin the season with High-A Bradenton.

Who's on first?

The plan going into camp called for Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee to platoon at first base. That's still where things stand, although there are some new caveats that point to the emergence of Matt Hague as the eventual starter. Hague lived up to his 'Hit Collector' nickname during camp, catching the attention of manager Clint Hurdle. If Alvarez's batting woes worsen, he may lose playing time to McGehee. That would increase the chances of Hague getting a larger role at first base.

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