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Pirates dodge the 'what if' game

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McCutchen hoping to avoid one-game playoff in '16 (1:40)

Andrew McCutchen speaks with Britt McHenry about his preparation for this season, his thoughts on MLB's one-game playoff and the new additions to the Pirates. (1:40)

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It never accomplishes a whole lot to play the old "what if" game. Not in baseball. Not in life. But if any team has a right to play that "what if" game, the Pittsburgh Pirates are that team.

Two years in a row, they rolled into the National League wild-card game as the hottest team in baseball. Then Madison Bumgarner and Jake Arrieta got in the way. Baseball can be cruel like that.

If the Pirates had just found a way to win either of those games, they easily could have turned into the Kansas City Royals. But the magic word there was "if." And for this team, those "ifs" are painful.

"I'm over it," said the face of the franchise, Andrew McCutchen, on Monday, the day Pirates position players reported to spring training. "It hurt the first month, when you're still sitting there, still in that baseball mood and you want to go, but you're just sitting home watching. Then it stings. But now it's a new season. And a new year."

Oh, it's a new year, all right. But the "what ifs" from last year still floated in the February breeze Monday.

"We felt like we could have made a big run, no doubt about it," shortstop Jordy Mercer said. "We knew how tough it was going to be playing that wild-card game because we knew we were going to face Arrieta. ... It's just one of those things where, if we do get past that wild-card game, we don't know how far we could have gone. We could have gone a long ways, we felt like, as a team. But we ran into a buzz saw in Arrieta. And the year before that, we ran into a buzz saw in Bumgarner. So the wild-card game hasn't been too kind to us."

Did the best team win either of those games? You'd have a tough time convincing the Pirates of that.

Last season, over the final 122 games, they went 80-42 and won five more games than any other team in baseball. The year before, they started 18-26, then went 70-48 the rest of the way. Over that span, the Pirates won 10 more games than the Giants team that beat them and went on to win the World Series.

So is there a lesson to be learned from all that? Mercer laughed as he mulled that thought.

"I don't know," he said, chuckling. "Win 101 games instead of 98?"

Yeah, that would have been really helpful, actually. The Pirates won 98 games in a division where that total just sentenced them to a third straight trip to the wild-card game. Then Arrieta sent them home, where they were forced to watch a World Series that featured a New York Mets team they had beaten six times in six games. Of course, the Mets were clever enough to play in a division where a mere 90 wins allowed them to say, "We're No. 1." Smart move.

So as McCutchen trained his eyeballs on that World Series, he couldn't help but say to himself: "Damn, we could have been there," he admitted. "But we weren't there. It's a tough pill to swallow. But it's something that you have to accept."

What he has a tougher time accepting, however, is an entire season's work being decided by one game. Asked whether his team was better built for a series versus just one game, McCutchen snapped: "Baseball is built for a series more than one game.

"You don't ever see, anywhere in the game of baseball, 30 teams play a team one time," he went on. "It doesn't happen. And I believe the reason behind that is because the game is so unpredictable, you don't know what's going to happen. That's why we play more than one game. Because any team could win that day. And it doesn't matter who's the better team on paper. It's just who had the better game. ... So yeah, it makes it a little tougher. I don't think baseball is built for that. But that's the way that it is right now."

"From a philosophy standpoint, we feel like we've got a lot of good things in place, based on the track record within the league for the last three years. So we're not looking to change a whole bunch of stuff, just because we got beat by [Madison] Bumgarner and we got beat by [Jake] Arrieta."

Clint Hurdle, Pirates manager

McCutchen made it clear he'd be in favor of making the wild-card round a best-of-three series, because "I think it gives both teams a little better of an opportunity to be able to win," rather than having the fates of those teams come down to "what pitcher is on that day."

Well, if that's the way he feels and that's the way his teammates feel, this would be an excellent year to make that case as loudly as possible, since negotiations on a new labor deal will begin any day now. And union chief Tony Clark will be visiting the Pirates this spring in preparations for those negotiations.

But when McCutchen was asked whether he would lobby for a best-of-three when Clark comes to town, he sounded like a man convinced that wouldn't be necessary.

"I don't know if I'd lobby for it," he said. "I'm sure that's probably one of the things that they've been talking about. I'm certain about that. ... If they're talking about it, they're going to ask us. And it's up to us to put our 10 cents in, or whatever that is.

"I think they know where a lot of us stand," he said, with a knowing grin, "especially people on the losing side. They know where we stand. But if that ever happens, I'll be for it."

If it ever does happen, however, it won't be in time to turn this year's Wild Card Extravaganza into a best-of-three. So the Pirates understand their mission: Win those 101 games, or whatever it takes to finish first and avoid the wild-card game. And that's the plan.

"We get to have every opportunity to move forward and do more," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "From a philosophy standpoint, we feel like we've got a lot of good things in place, based on the track record within the league for the last three years. So we're not looking to change a whole bunch of stuff, just because we got beat by Bumgarner and we got beat by Arrieta."

The Pirates have made changes, of course, because reality forces them to make those changes. So they'll have to find a way to score runs despite the departures of first baseman Pedro Alvarez and second baseman Neil Walker, who accounted for 43 of Pittsburgh's 140 home runs last season. And the team will try to avoid another awful April by putting newfound emphasis on what Hurdle describes as "competing offensively," starting with Game 1 of spring training.

But the truth is, there's nothing that's truly broken about the Pirates. So if those losses in the last two wild-card games have left any scars, the manager believes that's actually a good thing, not a bad thing.

"It just makes us hungry," he said. "It makes us work a little harder. It just creates the edge that we like to play with."

And when he gives his annual speech to the troops Tuesday morning, before the first full workout of the spring, he's ready to "close the book on 2015." And here is what he'll tell them:

"It's going to take all of us," he said. "We believe that with our hearts. And we believe that with our heads. Every man counts. Every man matters. There's no small thing. The small things can turn into big gains. So we've got work to do. There are some things left out there to get done, that we haven't gotten done. So we're hungry to do those things. Very hungry."