BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) — Clint Hurdle no longer digs his cleats in the dirt. That's a thrill he believes should be reserved for players. Besides, the Pittsburgh Pirates manager has too much on his mind these days to fool around in the batter's box to take a few hacks.
Hurdle has six weeks to turn the group of 61 players who will be on the field in Pirates City this weekend into a 25-man club by April 1. He has to find a fifth starter. He has to figure out what his bullpen will look like and who will flank All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen.
Oh, and then there's the pesky little business of trying to figure out how to turn around — for good — the fortunes of a franchise that has gone two decades since playing meaningful games in October.
The Pirates flirted with success last season. More than flirty actually. From mid-June to mid-August they were arguably one of the best teams in baseball. They soared to 16 games over .500 and appeared to be a legitimate threat to Cincinnati for the NL Central title.
Then the bottom fell out. Pittsburgh plunged to a 79-83 finish. And Hurdle, who is entering the final season of his three-year deal, knows it can't happen again.
"These men want more and they know if you want more you've got to do more and that comes down to getting better every day, to create a mindset where you're going to improve as the season goes on," Hurdle said.
Something that didn't happen as August turned into September. Yet Hurdle believes the Pirates are ready to take the elusive step to respectability.
"My feeling is that these men are definitely committed to winning," he said. "You look around to our core players ... we're all in."
Hurdle's task over the next few weeks is filling in the gaps.
While the front end of the rotation is set and the Pirates appear to be strong up the middle with new catcher Russell Martin, healthy second baseman Neil Walker and McCutchen, things on the fringe appear to be murkier.