By John Perrotto
Beaver County Times
September 30, 2011
Neil Walker(notes) #18 of the Pittsburgh Pirates high fives Ronny Cedeno(notes) #5 after scoring during the game against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on September 27, 2011 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
Frank Coonelly said during spring training that it was time for the Pirates to "turn the corner" in 2011.
With the 2011 season now in the books, how does the Pirates club president feel about his team?
"I'll let you be the judge of that," Coonelly said.
OK, here's Judge John's verdict: Hung jury.
On one hand, the season can be considered a success because the Pirates improved by 15 victories over their 57-win debacle of 2010. Arizona and Milwaukee were the only other major-league clubs to raise their win totals by a larger margin and both won division titles.
On the other hand, the season can be considered a failure. The Pirates led the National League Central as late at July 26 then collapsed and finished 24 games behind the Brewers by losing 43 of their last 62 games.
So, the Pirates headed into the off-season as an unknown commodity. Are they ready to contend into September in 2012 or will it still be a few more years before the postseason is a realistic goal?
General manager Neal Huntington, armed with a three-year contract extension through 2014, is bullish on the Buccos.
"Our expectation is we're going to play better baseball for six months next year," Huntington said. "We focus on the process of improving. If we follow the process, the result will take care of itself. We showed a lot of good things for four months. The next step is doing it for six months.
"We had a lot of injuries but not once did you hear (manager) Clint Hurdle or our coaching staff ever talk how broken we were at times. Our team fought and it battled and it was a great learning experience for our young players.
"You look at the center of production in the batting order, the top of the rotation, the back of the bullpen on other teams and almost all have older players than we do in those spots. That presents a challenge but also an opportunity for us to improve."
There were reasons for optimism in 2011.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen took another step toward becoming a superstar, second baseman Neil Walker built on his fine rookie season, Joel Hanrahan became a lockdown closer and enigmatic Charlie Morton showed signs he might still become an above-average starting pitcher.
Yet the final two months of the season also provide reason for pessimism in 2012. The Pirates of August and September were a long way from respectable.
That dichotomy from the April-July Pirates and the August-September Pirates is what is already setting up 2012 to be an intriguing season, though.