A.J. Burnett is still the man
Fan reaction to the return of pitcher A.J. Burnett has been mixed. Many are still upset because he left the Pirates after the 2013 season for the Philadelphia Phillies for a huge payday ($15 million). Fans didn't want to welcome him back when the Pirates re-signed him in the offseason.
But even at 38, Burnett is a wise $8.5 million investment for what he brings with his arm and his heart. Most of his work last year in Philadelphia was unremarkable except for one fact — he pitched nearly the entire season with a sports hernia.
"I don't know many men that would have been able to get through the season that he got through last year with the physical [ailment] that he dealt with. He kept taking the ball," says Hurdle.
During the two seasons Burnett spent in Pittsburgh, he became a team leader at a time when the team desperately needed one. That role in the clubhouse has served him well on his return.
"[Burnett] coming back now has been a seamless transition because of the relationships that had already developed," adds Hurdle. "What we know we're going to get is a fierce competitor on the mound that takes the ball 30 to 35 times a year and gives you 200 innings. He brings an edge to everything he does."
Winning the division won't be easy
Look over the rosters of the other four teams in the National League Central, and it's hard not to have a panic attack. The Cardinals, Brewers, Reds and the Cubs — yes, the ones from Chicago — all have the potential to be in the postseason mix. There was a time when the Cardinals ruled the roost alone, but not anymore. In the offseason, MLB.com's Mike Baum predicted that the Central would be "the most dominant division in 2015."
No one needs a primer on the Cardinals. Since 2005, they have won two World Series crowns, three National League pennants and five division titles. They've got power in Matt Holliday, Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter, plus as a good a starting rotation as anyone in the game, led by Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha.
And it doesn't get easier from there. The division is a who's-who of MLB's best talent. The Brewers come to the table with Ryan Braun, Jonathan Lucroy, Carlos Gomez and Matt Garza. The Reds are loaded, with Joey Votto, Billy Hamilton, Todd Frazier, Johnny Cueto and Aroldis Chapman.
Then there's Chicago. While the rest of the world expects the Cubs to choke regardless of the talent they possess, that would be a fatal error. There are few teams with a deeper minor-league system than the Pirates, but the Cubs are one of them, and many of those players will take the field in 2015. The Cubs are stacked with young stars including Anthony Rizzo, Starlin Castro, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler. Add to that Jon Lester, the most highly sought free-agent pitcher in baseball, and the Cubs are no easy out in 2015.
When asked about the rest of the division, shortstop Jordy Mercer says the Pirates can't worry too much about what other teams are doing.
"Some guys might pay attention, but I don't," he says. "All I can do and all we can do as a team is get ready to go out and play and win games, [and] control what we can control.
"If we get everybody on the right page at the right time, we'll be fine."