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Pittsburgh • Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly borrows an analogy from manager Clint Hurdle when talking about the way the long-struggling franchise is perceived by the best players in baseball.
"We used to not be the prettiest girl at the dance," Coonelly said with a laugh. "We're a little bit prettier this year but we're still not as pretty as some of the other clubs in the eyes of the dance partners. Like in many areas, we're making positive strides to get prettier."
Certainly, the addition of former Yankees starter A.J. Burnett, with 121 wins and 1,791 strikeouts in a 13-year career, is going to help.
The Pirates, who report to Bradenton, Fla., for spring training on Saturday, certainly played an attractive brand of baseball for the first four months of 2011, rising to the top of the National League Central in late July before crashing to earth. The final record said 72-90, a 15-game improvement over 2010. It some ways, it felt like Pittsburgh took a bigger leap forward.
Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen became an All-Star. So did closer Joel Hanrahan. Neal Walker continued his evolution into one of baseball's better second basemen and the pitching staff was a major surprise before wearing down as summer turned to fall.
While the rest of the NL Central underwent a major shakeup in the field or the front office or both during the offseason, the Pirates quietly went about their business of trying to build around their young core, bringing in a group of veterans they hope will provide a young clubhouse with a stabilizing presence.
Burnett has two World Series rings, catcher Rod Barajas has one and third baseman Casey McGehee and shortstop Clint Barmes all have postseason experience. Throw in lefthanded pitcher Erik Bedard and outfielder Nate McLouth and Coonelly is certain what the signing lacks in sex appeal it makes up for in professionalism.
"The thinking was be aggressive, fill needs with players at the top of our board and not wait until this time in the free agent market when you start to see prices go down after players don't get what they're looking for," Coonelly said.
Bedard and Burnett give the Pirates a solid 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation. Barmes will almost certainly be an upgrade over erratic Ronny Cedeno, while McGehee should be insurance if Pedro Alvarez continues to struggle or Garrett Jones doesn't pan out at first. Throw in McLouth, who was a fan favorite during his first stint with the Pirates from 2005-09, and Coonelly thinks his team has invested wisely.
Did Pittsburgh go out and make a serious bid for Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or Jose Reyes? No. Despite a 25 percent increase in attendance from 2010 to 2011, the Pirates are still a long way from competing for the top talent on the open market.
Coonelly doesn't think that should stop the Pirates from becoming legitimate contenders this season. The division will almost certainly be weaker with Pujols and Fielder now in the American League, the Cubs dealing with new management and the Astros marking time until they switch leagues in 2013.
Yet Coonelly refuses to buy into the idea the Pirates will be competitive simply because the class of the division is weaker.
"I do believe we have a good opportunity here, but I think it's more of the growth potential that we have," he said.
Coonelly remains confident Alvarez can develop into the middle-of-the-lineup slugger the franchise envisioned when it drafted him with the second pick of the 2008 amateur draft. Alvarez struggled with injuries and his bat last season, batting .191 with just four homers in 74 games though Coonelly insists Alvarez can "be a force."
He'll have to if the Pirates want to take some of the pressure off a pitching staff that wore down over the last six weeks of 2011. The addition of Burnett and Bedard, both No. 1 starters at some point in their career, should give the rotation some durability and flexibility.
"We didn't hit the way this team can hit," Coonelly said. "I do think we pitched the way we can pitch. And now, I think we need to sustain that."
That's always been an elusive concept in Pittsburgh since the Pirates won the NL East in 1992, the last season they finished with a winning record. There have been flickers of improvement during the last two decades. They flirted with .500 in 1997 then lost 91 games the next season. They won 75 games in 2003 only to stall.
Yet that was all before the current regime was in place. Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington have been intent on spending lavishly on draft picks and investing in minor league instruction in hopes of churning out young talent.
In the case of McCutchen and Walker, it appears to be working even if the new collective bargaining agreement will prevent the Pirates from opening up the checkbook as wide at draft time. That's fine by Coonelly, who pledges to take the money they'll save on draft picks and use them in future free agent markets.
"It will curtail spending in that area but it will give us the ability to grow the major league payroll as this roster matures and as we mature as a team because we will have additional resources there," he said.
Will some of that cash be used to lock up McCutchen long term? It's a nice idea, though the sides appear to be far apart on any kind of extended deal. Huntington raised eyebrows a few weeks ago when he said he wouldn't rule out trading McCutchen at some point. Coonelly, conversely, didn't bat an eye.
"We have no intention of trading Andrew, but if somebody pulled up a truckload would we consider it? Yes," Coonelly said. "But Andrew is under contract here for at least four more years. We're looking forward to Andrew being here much longer than four more years. Andrew is a critical cog in what we're trying to accomplish here."
The goal, Coonelly hopes, is closer than ever. He doesn't think the first four months of 2011 were a mirage. He also doesn't think the late-summer swoon means it's back to the same old Pirates this season.
"We got punched in the mouth, no question and we learned some lessons from the adversity we had the last two months of the season," he said. "We learned some lessons from the success too. The players had a taste of what this season can be like if this team is in contention which we hadn't seen here in a long time."
Yanks trade A.J. Burnett to Pirates
The Yankees agreed Friday to trade much maligned pitcher A.J. Burnett to Pittsburgh for two minor leaguers, a deal that clears the way for New York to add Raul Ibañez.
Pittsburgh will pay $13 million of the $33 million due Burnett for 2012 and 2013, a person familiar with the negotiations said Friday.
New York will get righty Diego Moreno, 25, and outfielder Exicardo Cayones, 20, both low-level prospects.