The calendar will flip to 2010 in four days, and two of the Pirates' most important figures, general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell, will enter into the final guaranteed years of their contracts.
A big deal?
Not to team president Frank Coonelly, the man who ultimately will decide their futures.
Coonelly steadfastly has declined to comment on such matters -- and he apparently has no intention of changing that -- but he has, in various ways, made clear over time his general thinking:
1. Lame-duck years will not be regarded any differently by the Pirates than any other years, and allowing someone to enter a lame-duck year without an extension will not be seen as a lack of faith.
2. Coonelly would prefer that those under him never go into survival mode and attempt short-term solutions that deviate from the team's overall plan. By not focusing on contract terms or arbitrary lame-duck precedents, the concept goes, those involved are less inclined to single out any year as one in which it would be OK to abandon the plan.
3. Coonelly displays a strong, genuine and unwavering confidence in Huntington and Russell.
The latter might not last forever, of course, but it is easy to see now.
What could change?
In Huntington's case, he will continue to be judged, for now, more on how he builds up the entire system as opposed to simple wins and losses at the major league level, though the latter will take on more importance when top prospects such as Pedro Alvarez arrive. So, too, will time allow for fairer judging of Huntington's many trades, especially those that involved the greatest risk, such as Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Nate McLouth.
Russell's case will be similar. Although management has insisted that his mandate is to do his best to win every game, so, too, has Russell deployed players for extended stretches even when ineffective -- such as Brandon Moss and Steve Pearce -- because management believed it was important to see what they had. Ultimately, Russell and his staff will be judged by their ability to take the talent at hand and make it better.
In the interim, do not expect to hear much about the lame-duck subject from the Pirates.
• If the Pirates had to pick one player they most wanted to see upgrade his game this winter, it probably would have been Ronny Cedeno, their tenuous everyday shortstop. And it would appear he has: In 40 games for Aragua of the Dominican Winter League, he has 10 home runs and a .300 average. He still is not walking much, though, with just six in 150 at-bats.
• One ominous thought as the Pirates prepare to enter the season with Jeff Clement at first base, a position he never has played in the majors and scarcely played in the minors: Even when assigned to Instructional League in October to get extra work at first, he was limited to off-field rehabilitation because of a strained oblique. "From our brief look at Jeff in August, we need to give him a foundation and get him acclimated over there," director of player development Kyle Stark said.
• Huntington, on what he wants to see from Ryan Doumit in 2010: "Health, first and foremost. And a return to the way he played the game before the injury last year and the way he carried himself in 2008. But I think it all starts with his health." Doumit missed 10 weeks this past summer to a fractured wrist, and it clearly hampered his production after returning.
• The Pirates still might fare well in the Lastings Milledge/Joel Hanrahan trade, but it bears mentioning that, in addition to giving up Nyjer Morgan, they sent away one of the National League's best left-handed relievers as per a few 2009 metrics: Sean Burnett ranked among the top three in opponents' batting average (.181, including .176 vs. right-handed batters), walks and hits per innings pitched (1.11), inherited runners scored (15.7 percent) and first-batter efficiency (.159).
• Baseball America, in announcing this week a list of baseball's top 20 prospects that ranked Alvarez at No. 7, wrote that he "has a chance to follow the Jim Thome career path as an early career power-hitting third baseman who eventually settles in as a mashing first baseman."
• Fifty-two days until pitchers and catchers report.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com .