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Pirates’ troubles in sustaining success offer lessons for Cubs

Chicago Cubs catcher John Baker tags out Pittsburgh Pirates' Clint Barmes who was attempting score from third during third inning

Chicago Cubs catcher John Baker tags out Pittsburgh Pirates' Clint Barmes who was attempting to score from third during the third inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh Thursday, June 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar) ORG XMIT: PAGP110

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Updated: June 13, 2014 12:06AM



PITTSBURGH — Last year, when the rebuilt Pittsburgh Pirates were heading to a 94-win season and the playoffs, it was easy to imagine what the Cubs’ brass had in mind while it sacrifices all these big-league seasons to The Plan.

This year it’s not as easy to see sustained success in Pittsburgh, even with the young core in place, a reminder of how uncertain and difficult winning is in the majors regardless of best-laid plans.

And it perhaps even calls into question the risk of giving away seasons in such processes.

“To win year in and year out is extremely challenging,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said, “and we’ve learned the hard way that it’s much harder to win when you’re expected to win. It’s much easier chasing than being chased.”

Certainly, the season is far from over for the near-.500 Pirates.

Injuries have taken a toll, with homegrown starter Gerrit Cole (shoulder fatigue) landing on the disabled list last week and Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano suffering an oblique injury against the Cubs on Tuesday.

The Pirates remain optimistic.

“We feel we are still in a competitive position,” manager Clint Hurdle said.

Even more important, Hurdle said, is sticking with the plan, which was drawn up 6 ½ years ago when Huntington took over and brought into focus during the last 3 ½ years with Hurdle as manager.

“The one thing I think too many corporations, companies, teams do is they get close, they push through, then they don’t get that same feel-good result and then they change,” Hurdle said. “There’s something to being stubborn with your core values and the core principles on which you built this thing up.”

It took years of remaining steadfast to the plan to even get the Pirates this far. Where they go from here — even if Cole and Liriano come back strong — is anything but certain. Not with first-place Milwaukee and defending NL champ St. Louis in the same division.

The Cubs aren’t even that far into a Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer plan that might take longer than the Huntington/Hurdle plan to produce a postseason. Promised new revenues from the stadium renovation and potential TV rights increases could be three to five years from making a significant impact on the field.

And once Thursday’s starter, Jeff Samardzija, is traded sometime in the next six weeks, the process will seem even longer.

The difference maker, of course, is the promise of all that new revenue at some point.

“It doesn’t mean you’re going to be better; it doesn’t mean it’s easier,” said Huntington, who’s still dealing with small-market realities in the best of times. “You just have a larger margin for error.

“And [the Cubs] got great young talent coming. We supplemented our young talent last year with [free agents] Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano, and with A.J. Burnett the year before. To shorten our cycle a little bit because we felt like our young players were ready.”

The Cubs’ brass might start that process next winter, even before the kids are ready to compete, to provide a support system for the transition. From there, it’ll be about player development, the timeline on new money and maybe even Manny Ramirez, the mentor.

“There really is not a single way,” Huntington said. “It’s really hard to win if you’re going to build completely through free agency. It’s really hard to win if you’re only going to build through trades. And it’s really hard to win if you’re going to build only through your farm system.”

Until then, it’s even harder when you’re not trying.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com

Twitter: @GDubCub



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