Pirates Spring Outlook: Florida is best place to put 'juice' back into bats

No official date marks the turning of the page after a successful season, but a pre-holiday fanfest will do just fine. So when Pirates manager Clint Hurdle fielded a question during a question-and-answer session at PirateFest in December about defensive goals for spring training, he pushed the dialogue forward.

"This year we've got to rekindle and reignite our offensive consistency," Hurdle said in response, acknowledging the weakness of the 2013 squad that won 94 games.

A look at the Pirates as they prepare to open their 2014 spring camp Thursday continues the next two days in the Post-Gazette.
MONDAY: A position-by-position breakdown.
TUESDAY: Scouting the franchise's top prospects.

The superb pitching and defense covered for an average to below-average offense last season. To keep pace in the National League, the bats need some work.

How the offense performs this season will play a role in determining whether or not the Pirates, who made the playoffs last year for the first time in two decades, can sustain their newfound success. As of now, with pitchers and catchers reporting in three days, the team will go after the task with the players they have in-house because it has not added significant offensive pieces.

To bolster production at the plate, the coaching staff will attempt to follow a successful blueprint. After opposing teams scorched the Pirates on the bases two years ago, they invested time and effort last spring training into controlling the running game. It worked. They'll take a similar approach this spring with the offense, soliciting input from players, instilling overarching principles and tailoring the plan to individual hitters.

"There's no secret recipe," Hurdle said last week. "There's no book you can give them. What we do need to do is remind them of the importance of certain things. I think when we put more focus on it, you're going to get more results on what you focus more on."

The Pirates scored 3.91 runs per game last season, ninth out of 15 National League teams and below the league average of 4.0. Their .313 on-base percentage ranked tied for eighth, their 1,330 strikeouts were the third most and their .245 average ranked tied for 11th. They fared better in power numbers, thanks in part to Pedro Alvarez's 36 home runs. They finished fourth in homers and tied for sixth in slugging percentage.

The coaching staff will ask the players for their thoughts on strengths and weaknesses, the way they did with the pitchers last spring. Some individual keys will result, but always as part of the general guidelines. Stubbornness, or sticking to an approach even if that approach is not currently bearing fruit, will represent a portion of those guidelines.

"When we were good, when our offense was rolling, it's because we didn't get out of our plan," said hitting coach Jeff Branson, who served as the assistant hitting coach in 2013. "We stuck with it, we stayed with it and it worked. When we were inconsistent, we would waver. We were letting the pitcher dictate what we did."

PG graphic: 2014 Pirates Roster
(Click image for complete roster)

To deliver their message, the coaches will use positive reinforcement, Branson said. Instead of focusing on habits when the hitters weren't successful, coaches will remind them of their tendencies when they were.

Everyone's areas of focus will differ, but improvement from lineup mainstays as well as those battling for playing time at positions without an incumbent starter should help. For Neil Walker, who will bat second or fifth for the most part this season, improving as a right-handed hitter tops the list.

Walker hit .251 in 2013, his lowest average in a full season, but had a career-high 16 home runs. All 16 of those homers came when the switch-hitting Walker was batting left-handed, a symptom of the platoon issues he faced last season. Walker had a .281 on-base percentage and .238 slugging percentage from the right side of the plate.

"He just has to trust himself," Branson said. "He has to regain his confidence back from the right side."

Walker hits better left-handed because he sees more right-handed pitchers, but in 2010 and 2011, he hit well right-handed. The main remedy: repetition.

"There's no way around it," Hurdle said. "One thing we're going to try and be more mindful of is, we're going to try and hunt as many left-handed pitchers as we can in spring training. Lefties back to back, three days in a row."

Along with Alvarez's 36 homers, which tied for the NL lead, came a league-leading 186 strikeouts and a .296 on-base percentage. Alvarez finished 2013 strong in September and was the team's best hitter in the NLDS, going 6 for 17 with three homers and a double in five games.

"We continue to maximize what he showed in September and October," general manager Neal Huntington said. "And that was the ability to close down and the ability to close some of those holes and to become a better hitter with power [rather] than a power hitter that occasionally gets hits. He's making great strides there, he's so intelligent, he cares so much, he works so hard."

Jose Tabata and Travis Snider, who figure to compete for playing time in right field, can both produce, but injury and inconsistency limited their production last year. Snider went on the disabled list with a toe injury that required offseason surgery and Tabata strained an oblique. In August and September, Tabata posted on-base plus slugging percentages of .851 and .844.

"He got back to who he was last year," Branson said. "He understood that the whole league knows that the way you attack him is pounding inside. In 2012 is when he started trying to cheat in there. He was trying to attack them the way they were attacking him."

Snider hit .300 with a .382 on-base percentage in April before the injury to his left big toe, which had bothered him since the end of the previous season, worsened. He hit .189 with a .249 on-base percentage after May 1.

"In those stretches when he's on the fastball to the big part of the field, he'll pull the breaking ball or the changeup," Hurdle said. "He's seeing four or five pitches an at-bat, he's finding his way on base."

As of now, these are the players set to represent the Pirates on opening day. Huntington said the Pirates walked away from making certain moves this offseason because they felt uncomfortable with how the move would play down the road.

"We'll see if those situations come back available," he said. "If not, we feel good about this club, we feel good about our core. We've got some guys that are deserving of opportunities and if they can't capitalize on those, then we begin to look elsewhere."

Of the potential moves not made, none of the reluctance stemmed from hopes that free-agent starter A.J. Burnett would return, Huntington said. Burnett has not yet signed with a team.

PG graphic: Spring Training Schedule
(Click image for larger version)

The offensive core returns. Alvarez, NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, Walker, Starling Marte and Russell Martin are back. But the club has not signed or traded for any players representing a significant offensive upgrade. The Pirates did not add a proven first baseman, either as a left-handed platoon partner to Gaby Sanchez or a full-time player, or an everyday starter in right field.

Re-signing shortstop Clint Barmes and trading for catcher Chris Stewart strengthened the defense, but not the offense. Aside from trading for outfielder Jaff Decker and first baseman Chris McGuiness, both young players without much major league experience, the rest of the offensive additions this winter came in the form of non-roster players on minor league contracts.

"The reality is, our improvement -- because we're not looking to sustain, we're looking to get better -- will come from the core of our guys internally and their natural growth," Huntington said.

Sustainability remains a goal for the front office, the same as it was before the team broke its streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons. During spring training last year, owner Bob Nutting applauded the baseball operations staff for choosing not to make short-term moves in search of a winning season that would harm the organization down the road.

"The balance swings occasionally, but we always have to be cognizant of the present, the near future and the distant future as we plan out years ahead," Huntington said. "The farther you get out, the more volatility there is. But we started planning for 2014 as we were putting the 2012 club together, certainly as we were putting the 2013 club together."

Pirates fans could see two tangible signs this summer, the way they saw the future when Gerrit Cole debuted last June. Right-hander Jameson Taillon and outfielder Gregory Polanco will likely make their way to PNC Park at some point in 2014. There are no guarantees the top two prospects in the system will bring it from day one like Cole did, but their talent and track record gives them a good chance.

Aside from Burnett, everyone from the rotation and the core members of the bullpen -- both of which posted ERAs that ranked among the top five in baseball -- return. The defense figures to remain at or near its elite level, the only significant change being Jordy Mercer supplanting Barmes at shortstop.

An improved offense would help the Pirates keep pace in the NL Central. The St. Louis Cardinals, who won the division, beat the Pirates in the NLDS and advanced to the World Series, led the NL with 4.83 runs per game. The Cincinnati Reds, their other main division rival, finished third with 4.31 per game.

"The walkaway from last season was, more offensive consistency, there was probably an opportunity to play longer," Hurdle said.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com and Twitter @BrinkPG.

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