Cook: The worst is yet to come for Pirates

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The Pirates' collapse in August and September, after a 63-47 start, made this season the worst of the franchise's 20 consecutive losing seasons. That's bad enough, but this is even harder to accept: This season might be better than any of the 20 that follow. Imagine that. A season that ended with a 16-36 meltdown might be remembered as the golden year of this sad, sad era of Pirates baseball.

Not to ruin your breakfast.

For now, let's focus on next season and not worry about 2014-32. Twenty years is a long time. Who knows? Maybe Bob Nutting will do the right thing and sell the team at some point.

OK, maybe not.

Is there anyone out there who thinks the Pirates will be better next season? Please, if you do, enlighten me.

According to team president Frank Coonelly, the entire management team, including general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle, will be back. Huntington has been on the job for five years and has failed to produce a winning team. Hurdle has been here for just two years but watched the team have a late-season collapse -- perhaps the two worst in Pirates history -- each year.

According to Hurdle, many of the same players will be back. He talked this week about building the team around Andrew McCutchen and said he expects Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Clint Barmes, Garrett Jones, Michael McKenry and A.J. Burnett to be in the lineup for the 2013 opener April 1 against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park.

That's a little too much status quo, isn't it?

The Pirates' approach certainly differs from, say, the Boston Red Sox's approach. "This year's won-loss record reflects a season of agony. It begs for changes," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said Thursday after the team announced it had fired manager Bobby Valentine after one season. "We are determined to fix that which is broken ... "

What a novel idea.

Demanding accountability instead of just preaching it.

Even if the Pirates suddenly decide to spend money to make the team better, it takes two to do a contract. Top free agents don't want to play here. That leaves Huntington to sift through the game's rubble in hopes of finding a jewel. This offseason should be more of the same. The Pirates will end up with players who don't have other job opportunities. Can you say Erik Bedard and Rod Barajas? Or they will overpay -- at least by their minimal standards -- to bring in a marginal player. Can you say Barmes, who was signed to a two-year, $10.5 million contract before this season?

And you wonder why Hurdle already has Barmes written in as his shortstop next season?

It's hard to imagine the Pirates keeping all of their players -- let alone bringing in help from the outside -- because of usual payroll inflation. They must pay Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez $8 million each next season. Walker, Jones, Joel Hanrahan and even James McDonald should get big raises in salary arbitration. Huntington has insinuated he isn't going to tender Jeff Karstens -- another player who is arbitration eligible -- because Karstens has been injury-prone. It will be surprising if the team doesn't trade Hanrahan this winter to get another starting pitcher or the catcher it so desperately needs.

There's no real help coming from the minors, although it's possible Jeff Locke and/or Kyle McPherson could take a spot in the starting rotation. There is no catcher. McKenry, really? There is no shortstop, although the Pirates are so deep into Barmes that they won't eat his contract and play a better player. Most troubling, there is no power bat, especially a right-handed power bat to complement McCutchen. You basically will be looking at the same lineup next season that struggled to score runs and struck out 1,354 times this season, more than eight per game. Good luck with that.

It's nice to think McCutchen will keep improving. It's also nice to think Alvarez will hit 40 home runs. He has that kind of amazing power. But will Jones match his career year from this season? Will Walker's aching back hold up all season? Are you comfortable that some combination of Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata and Alex Presley will play well in the corner outfield spots?

No?

That makes two of us.

But, hey, at least hitting coach Gregg Ritchie is gone, presumably pushed out to take the head coaching job at George Washington University. That will solve all of the problems. Sure, it will. Just keep telling yourself that.

Then, there's the pitching. After Burnett and Rodriguez, there are no locks for the rotation. It's fair to wonder about Burnett's effectiveness. He will be 36 next season and didn't pitch nearly as well in the final two months of this season as he did in the first four.

Hurdle talked of going back to McDonald as a starter, but McDonald was awful after the All-Star break and lost his spot in the rotation. The team must find a way to replace the 12 wins it got from Kevin Correia, who surely will leave as a free agent. Maybe Huntington will trade Hanrahan for another starter, but then who will close? It doesn't figure to be Jason Grilli, who is eligible for free agency and, based on his terrific work during the first 4 1/2 months of this season, will be in some demand.

How did Lucchino put it in Boston?

"[This season] begs for changes."

Well, it begs here, too.

The problem is no one is listening.

Or maybe no one cares.

roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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