Is this the year: Bucs look to end 20-year skid

The Pirates know it all too well.

Even with the addition of a second wild-card opening in both the National and American Leagues last season, it’s still tough to make the playoffs.

The Pirates had a solid run at a playoff position late into the season last year, and for the second straight year, they faltered in August and September.

Team president Frank Coonelly, during a visit to Altoona this past offseason, termed the Pirates’ stumble in 2012 “painful” to discuss.

The Bucs were in second place in the National League Central Division last Aug. 8 with a 63-47 record before 36 losses in their final 52 games left them with a 79-83 mark – their modern American sports record 20th consecutive losing season – and way out of both the division and both wild-card pictures.

Coonelly knows that the Bucs will have plenty of obstacles in their path as they try to reverse their two-decades trend of frustration in 2013.

In the Central Division alone, the defending champion Cincinnati Reds return the vast majority of their key players.

The second-place St. Louis Cardinals, who qualified for the playoffs as the second wild card, made it all the way to the National League Championship Series before losing there to the eventual World Champion San Francisco Giants.

The third-place Milwaukee Brewers have always given the Pirates fits, and the Brewers put together a sizzling second half last season to make a strong but unsuccessful bid for a playoff berth.

A look around the rest of the National League doesn’t foster any more of a sense of optimism for Pirates’ fans heading into this season, either.

In the National League East Division, the Washington Nationals had the best record in all of baseball last year, while the second-place Atlanta Braves made the playoffs as the league’s top wild card team last season. Both are expected to be neck-and-neck for the East Division title this season.

The Philadelphia Phillies, like the Brewers, took off in the second half, and with a healthy Ryan Howard and Chase Utley for the entire season this year, the Phils will likely be much improved.

In the National League West Division, the Giants will be formidable again after winning their second World Championship in three seasons last year, and the Los Angeles Dodgers – who broke the bank with several high-profile midseason acquisitions last season – are picked as a league championship favorite by many this year.

Throw in the fact that the Houston Astros – who the Pirates beat 12 times last year – are now part of the American League, and the sledding looks challenging indeed for Pittsburgh heading into 2013.

“That’s why they call it the major leagues,” Coonelly said. “There are a lot of good teams out there. The Central Division often gets the short end of the [attention] stick, but two years ago, you saw two Central Division teams – (St. Louis and Milwaukee) – make it into the NLCS, and one (St. Louis) win the World Series. [In 2012], the Central had another team [St. Louis] make it into the NLCS. I think the National League Central is strong, and it will be strong again [in 2013].”

The Pirates – who open the 2013 season at 1:35 p.m. today against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park – may be capable of making a run this season like the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics did last season. Both of those teams came out of nowhere to qualify for the American League playoffs in 2012.

The middle of the Pirates’ batting order, especially with the offseason acquisition of catcher Russell Martin, who hit 21 homers for the New York Yankees last season, can stack up with just about any team in baseball. Martin should also help to shore up the Pirates’ defense against opposing running games that went wild against the since-departed Rod Barajas and Michael McKenry last season.

Last season, the Bucs had three players – center fielder Andrew McCutchen (31 homers, 96 runs batted in and a league second-best .327 batting average), third baseman Pedro Alvarez (30 homers, 85 RBIs), and first baseman/outfielder Garrett Jones (a career-best 27 homers and 86 RBIs) – account for at least 25 home runs and 80 runs knocked in.

Factor in second baseman Neil Walker’s 14 homers, 69 RBIs and .280 average in a season that was cut short nearly six weeks with a nagging back issue that the Pirates say he’s since recovered from, and it’s evident that the Bucs have plenty of pop in the heart of their lineup.

“With those guys in the middle of our lineup, we can match up with anybody,” McKenry said.

There are plenty of caveats, however:

* McCutchen tailed off drastically in the second half for the second straight year last season. He had a .373 batting average in early August, but his average dropped an astounding 46 points in the last two months as he finished second to Giants’ catcher Buster Posey in the National League batting race. McCutchen hit 14 of his home runs in June and July – seven each month – and earned NL Player of the Month recognition in both those months. His tailspin in August and September paralleled the team’s descent in the won-lost column. The Pirates and McCutchen need to figure out a way to keep it from happening again in 2013.

* Alvarez became the power threat that the Pirates envisioned when they made him Major League Baseball’s second overall draft pick in 2008. But buried underneath the home run and RBI totals last year was a .244 batting average and plenty of strikeouts – 180 in 525 at-bats, or more than one in every three plate appearances. Consistency was a problem for Alvarez, who could carry the team with the long ball for a week to 10 days, then go cold for even longer periods.

* Was Jones’ big year in 2012 an indication of better things to come, or was he a flash in the pan?

Then there are the pitching issues.

The Pirates enter the 2013 season with a reliable veteran ace in righthander A.J. Burnett, who re-invented himself last year while winning 16 games. After that, there are plenty of question marks:

* Will the real James McDonald – an All-Star candidate in the first half last season who was demoted to the bullpen in the second half – please stand up?

* Can Jeff Karstens – who has shown flashes of excellence – manage to stay injury-free for an extended period of time?

* Will veteran Wandy Rodriguez and new veteran additions Jonathan Sanchez and Francisco Liriano – who broke his right arm in a household accident last Christmas Day and will start this season on the disabled list – be helps or hindrances this year?

* Can the bullpen survive losing closer Joel Hanrahan, and can veteran Jason Grilli – who is getting up in years – be as good in the ninth inning this year as he was in the eighth last year?

* How soon will 2011 top draft pick Gerrit Cole – who reached 100 mph on the radar gun last season with the Curve – be ready to contribute for the Pirates?

“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Coonelly said. “But what we won’t forget is that for the first four months of last season, we were every bit as good as the teams in the rest of the National League.”

However, as the Pirates found out for the second straight year, playing four months of good baseball isn’t enough to cut through a playoff chase that figures to be a feverish one year after year.

John Hartsock can be reached at