ALTOONA - For so long, top-tier free agents would look at the Pittsburgh Pirates and think, "Why on Earth would I want to play for them?"
Now we could be looking at a situation this offseason where those type of players are thinking, "Why would I NOT want to play for them?"
The Pirates are coming off a great season, they seemingly have a very bright future with a core of outstanding young talent and they play in perhaps the best ballpark in the majors. What free agents wouldn't want to play alongside young stars such as Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole with the promise of winning?
If the price is right, that is. And that probably will always be a big issue for the small-market Bucs.
"(Players) want one thing, and that is to play for a winning organization and have a legitimate shot at a championship ring," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said during a visit Monday to Altoona for the Curve Booster Club's annual banquet. The Curve are the team's AA affiliate.
"We couldn't in the past with a straight face say that you would have a legitimate shot if you came to Pittsburgh. But after 94 wins and what we did at the end of the season, we can legitimately say that to players. So I think the reception that we'll receive out there, not only from our peers but most importantly players that we're trying to entice to come to Pittsburgh or stay in Pittsburgh, it's meaningful," he said.
It's no secret the Pirates have three big needs this offseason: right field, first base and shortstop. Don't count on Marlon Byrd or Justin Morneau returning to the first two positions, and the Bucs might want someone more proven than Jordy Mercer at short.
They aren't going to be able to afford a superstar free agent who's looking for $15 million a year, but at least the days of having to settle for the likes of has-beens such as Jeromy Burnitz, never-weres such as Matt Diaz or completely awful reaches such as Aki Iwamura are over.
The Pirates are going to have to spend money to get one or two top-notch free agents. There's just no other way around it.
But they're now in position to contend, which means revenue growth in a lot of areas, so the days of having dreadfully low payrolls should be over.
"A lot of other things go into (those decisions), the main one being the dollar figure," Pirates broadcaster and former pitcher Bob Walk said of what free agents are looking for. "But I think in situations where everything else is even, the way the organization is going now, the success that they've had, the type of players that are on the team now, I think that might swing some guys that are on the fence in our favor."
Walk was the featured speaker at the Curve Booster Club event and talked about how a big change he's seen in the Pirates the past few years has been in the overall pride department.
"This team lost that sense of pride for a long long time," he said.
Losing for 20 straight years will do that, but all it took was one fantastic bounce-back season to remind everyone of just how great Pittsburgh can be as a baseball town.
"A large step forward, no question. A very large step forward," Coonelly said of the 2013 campaign. "Still didn't meet our objectives. The objective never was, hey, let's get a winning season and get that monkey off our back and we'll be satisfied.
"The objective is to become a champion again, so we didn't get to that objective. But huge step forward for the organization."
Pirates broadcaster Greg Brown introduced a video for the crowd that showed highlights of the team's memorable season. Interestingly enough, the video also showed two of the most infamous plays of the past 21 years - Sid Bream's slide to end the 1992 NLCS and the Jerry Meals blown safe call in the 19th inning at Atlanta in 2011 - to illustrate how this year's Bucs were able to help people forget about past disappointments.
"It was a dream season," Brown said, using an appropriate word since the video featured Aerosmith's classic song "Dream On."
Keeping the dream alive for several more years will depend on many factors, from identifying and signing the right free agents to keeping the current stars healthy to continuing to build a strong minor league system that helps sustain the big league club.
It also will take some good fortune, if for no other reason than that the Pirates play in a very tough division that sent three teams to the playoffs and one (Cardinals) to the World Series.
"Nothing's given to you, nothing's guaranteed," Coonelly said. "We've got a lot of work to do to make sure we're in this position next year."
That work begins now.