For the second straight year, the Pittsburgh Pirates were the feel-good story in Major League Baseball through the first four months of the season, before watching their season implode over the final two months.
For Pirates team president Frank Coonelly, who visited Altoona Tuesday night with team broadcasters Steve Blass and Greg Brown for the annual Altoona Curve Booster Club Members dinner at the UVA Club, the ending to the Pirates' 2012 season was particularly difficult to digest.
"It's painful [to discuss],'' Coonelly said. "We really had a terrific year going. We were playing very good baseball through the first week of August and into September, and we had put ourselves into a position where we could meet our goals and objectives of winning our division. Then, obviously, we did not play well the last two months of the season.''
Entering play on Aug. 9, the Pirates had a 63-47 record and were in second place in the National League's Central Division, just 2 games behind the eventual division champion Cincinnati Reds. Less than three weeks later, they trailed the Reds by a full nine games.
The Pirates finished the season with a 16-36 record and a National League-worst winning percentage of .308 over their last 52 games. They wound up with a 79-83 record and a fourth-place finish in the NL Central, 18 games behind the Reds.
"It was a story of two seasons - the first four months and the last two months,'' said Blass, who served as the evening's guest speaker. "It's a very long season. It's a grind. You've got to be good enough to sustain excellence over the entire season. If you're not, you'll be exposed.''
Coonelly and the Pirates have been soul-searching since this past season's end, examining the reasons for the team's latest collapse. They'll spend the winter addressing issues to prevent a re-occurence in the future.
"We've spent a lot of time from the day the season ended trying to figure out what happened over the past two months of the season,'' Coonelly said.
Among the major problems were a pitching staff that performed exceedingly well through the All-Star break, then wore down in the second half, an offense that was one of the National League's best in June and July but which underperfomed in the other four months of the season, and the inability of the team's catchers and pitchers to stop opposing baserunners.
The acquisition of veteran lefthander Wandy Rodriquez from the Houston Astros at the trade deadline and the stability of veteran righthander A.J. Burnett provided a boost to the pitching staff, but was offset by the inexplicable tailspin of righthander James McDonald in the second half of the season, as well as injuries sustained by righties Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens.
"We had more pitching depth last season than we've had in recent years, and the pick-up of Wandy Rodriquez at the trade deadline helped considerably,'' Coonelly said. "Having Wandy for an entire year next season will be very helpful. In my opinion, James McDonald should have been an All-Star based on the first half of his season, but he really struggled in the second half, and we have to figure out how to get James back on track.''
With righty Kevin Correia likely to take the free-agency route out of town, the Pirates will be in the market for more pitching help this winter.
"As we saw with teams that went deep into the playoffs this year, you can never have enough pitching depth,'' Coonelly said. "We'll be continuing to look into both the free agent and trade markets for pitching. But we need to address our catching situation as well.''
Both Michael McKenry and veteran Rod Barajas struggled mightily against opposing running games this season.
"We did not control the running game last year, and that is not entirely on the catchers,'' Coonelly said. "Our pitchers need to give our catchers a chance to throw out runners. Addressing our inability to control the opponents' running game will be a main focus for us going into next year.''
The Pirates featured a pair of hitters with 30 or more homers - Andrew McCutchen (31) and Pedro Alvarez (30), and another, Garrett Jones, with 27 - but the Bucs lacked offensive consistency over the entire season.
"We were up and down offensively,'' said Coonelly. "We have to figure out how to get a more consistent approach at the plate.''