Bob Smizik: Pirates circle of rivals expands

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Until their surprising success of last year, when they had their first winning season since 1992 and advanced to the playoffs, following the Pirates was a one-dimensional task. Did they win or did they lose? Little else mattered, as the fan base, quite understandably, set 82 victories as its only goal.

But with success comes a vastly different way of looking at the Pirates. It’s no longer a matter of just following the Pirates. If the goal is to win the Central Division, and it is, then what transpires with St. Louis and Cincinnati is almost as important as what the Pirates do.

And there’s more. It’s not just the NL Central that must be followed. Winning the division is not the only avenue to the postseason. Two wild-card berths are available and that puts the Pirates in competition with teams in other divisions. All of a sudden, the Arizona Diamondbacks -- a team Pirates fans might never have thought once about, let alone twice -- belong in the discussion. As do teams -- in addition to St. Louis and Cincinnati -- like Atlanta, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

All of those teams are the Pirates competition. What they do impacts the Pirates’ hopes.

With St. Louis, Washington and Los Angeles as the favorites to win their respective divisions, the primary teams competing for the two wildcards are the Pirates, Reds, Braves, Diamondbacks and Giants. Buster Olney of ESPN, who certainly knows what he’s talking about, has predicted San Diego to be one of the 2014 wildcards so that’s another teams with which the Pirates are in competition.

And here’s one more: Philadelphia.

You may not think the aging Phillies, who lost 89 games last season, are a contender. But they do. That’s why they signed A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $16 million contract. The Phillies now have a rotation with Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels (who figures to miss the start of the season) and Burnett at the top. That is formidable. Laugh if you will, but, no doubt, plenty were laughing when the Pirates spent $16 million for two years to sign Russell Martin before last season. And look how that worked out.

The signing of Burnett goes back to the main point of this article. The Pirates no longer are operating in a vacuum.

When general manager Neal Huntington, for example, traded Nate McLouth to Atlanta in 2009, he did not have to concern himself with how the deal would help the Braves. The Pirates, after all, were going nowhere and Atlanta was not competition. Today the Braves are one of the prime teams the Pirates are competing against and Huntington would think much harder before making a deal with them.

Another example of what’s important today that wasn’t last year: Bronson Arroyo signed with Arizona last week. A year ago it would have meant nothing. Now it strengthens the Diamondbacks bid to secure one of the wildcard spots for which the Pirates also are vying.

As for Burnett, those who might be angry with him for going back on his word about either playing for the Pirates or retiring need to remember this: He didn’t. Burnett clearly left himself an out from that promise in one of his final interviews in Pittsburgh. Pushed by Colin Dunlap of The Fan as to whether he really meant he’d either pitch for the Pirates or retire, Burnett answered:

“As of right now, yes sir. As of right now.”

This goes down as one of the classic cases of people -- media, baseball executives, fans -- wanting to hear what they wanted to hear. Burnett -- clearly and obviously -- was giving himself an out. But no one wanted to hear that and the almost universal belief was that his future was with the Pirates or in retirement.

He’s back in the game and he and the Phillies are just one more challenge the Pirates must overcome to return to the postseason.

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