PITTSBURGH — The man who symbolized the Pittsburgh Pirates' resurgence offered one final bit of advice before hopping onto his custom-made, Batman-inspired ride and zooming off into retirement.
"Win the division," A.J. Burnett said in the quiet clubhouse Wednesday night after another postseason ended nine innings after it began. "No more wild-card junk."
Fabulous idea. It's the execution part that is going to be tricky.
The Pirates have the second-best record in the majors over the last three years, bedrock proof their turnaround is not only legit but sustainable. All those wins — 280 and counting — haven't translated into a deep October run. The latest setback, a meek 4-0 home loss to Jake Arrieta and the Chicago Cubs in the NL wild-card game, proved all the more alarming because of who it came against.
The Cubs and their steady stream of talented 20-somethings aren't going anywhere. Neither are the Cardinals, who held the Pirates off for a third straight NL Central title. The cost of doing business is sure to go up, leaving Pittsburgh's creative but ever budget-conscious front office with plenty of decisions to make over an offseason that started earlier than a 98-win team probably deserved.
"You'd think 98 wins would be enough, but we had a team that won 100," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said.
A better start in 2016 might help.
McCutchen called himself out for being "under mediocre" in early May with the Pirates languishing around .500. The five-time All-Star responded by kickstarting a torrid summer in which Pittsburgh relentlessly chased the Cardinals into the final days of the regular season. He tied a career high with 96 RBIs, a number that would have been higher if teams had bothered to pitch to him in September.
While McCutchen remains the catalyst, Pittsburgh's best season in nearly a quarter-century proved the Pirates relied just as heavily on the development of the parts they assembled around their franchise cornerstone.
Left fielder Starling Marte showcased the game's best arm — leading the NL in outfield assists — and thrived wherever manager Clint Hurdle placed him in the lineup. Rightfielder Gregory Polanco overcame some growing pains to hit .276 in the second half. Shortstop Jung Ho Kang rapidly evolved from a curiosity into a starter, becoming a fixture on the left side of the infield before his season ended with a broken left leg Sept. 17.
Catcher Francisco Cervelli, acquired last November to offset the expected loss of Russell Martin, turned out to be productive at the plate and durable behind it. Cervelli played in 130 games, hit a team-high .295 and served as the energetic conscience of a pitching staff that finished second to St. Louis in team ERA.
The success stories go on and on. Closer Mark Melancon set a club record with 51 saves. Burnett made the All-Star team for the first time in the last summer of a career that stretches back to the previous millennium.
It's telling of how far the Pirates have come that making the playoffs is no longer good enough. If 2013 was a breakthrough after two decades of misery and 2014 was validation that their rebirth wasn't a fluke, 2015 was the litmus test of the new standards Pittsburgh set for itself.
By nearly all measures, the Pirates surpassed them. Their record would have been good enough to win every other division in baseball. In the NL Central, all it did was provide them one extra game.
And with some of the bills coming due, general manager Neal Huntington will get another chance to retool a system he built by emphasizing "no one is irreplaceable."
Burnett is done — officially this time. So is third baseman Aramis Ramirez. Second baseman Neil Walker and first baseman Pedro Alvarez head to arbitration this winter with the understanding they may be getting too expensive to keep around.
Walker, a Pittsburgh native who along with McCutchen and Alvarez endured the dark days of 2010 when Pittsburgh lost 105 games, knows there's a very real chance he'll suit up for someone else next spring. After pushing most of those thoughts aside for months, they raced to the forefront late Wednesday as he surveyed the only major league clubhouse he's ever called home.
"There's no telling," Walker said.
McCutchen, however, isn't going anywhere. And neither are the expectations. Hey, it beats the alternative.
"I look forward to being a strong team, even stronger," he said. "We've got some depth, some young arms in the minor leagues. ... We did a really good job this regular season and hopefully we can continue to just keep getting better."