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Pirates enter important offseason with momentum and plenty of questions

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PITTSBURGH — The chant started the second Russell Martin stepped into the batter's box in the top of the ninth on Wednesday night. The National League wild-card game all but officially lost to the San Francisco Giants, whatever remained of the record crowd at PNC Park remained offered the glue of the Pittsburgh Pirates' surprising run to a postseason berth a token of their appreciation while simultaneously pleading for a return engagement next spring.

The catcher and impending free agent flied out to center. Martin jogged to the dugout and tipped his cap at the standing ovation as roars of "Russ-ell Mar-tin" echoed into an otherwise gloomy night.

"That was definitely one of the coolest moments I think I've had in baseball," Martin said.

Even if it served as a coda to an abrupt playoff exit. San Francisco's decisive 8-0 victory put an end to "Buctober" only hours after it began. Yet there is plenty of reason for optimism heading into arguably the club's most important offseason in decades.

The Pirates proved their breakthrough 2013 was no fluke, winning 88 games this season and taking the St. Louis Cardinals all the way to the wire before ceding the NL Central.

Yet their inability to catch the Cardinals or knock off the experienced Giants — who have combined for three of the four World Series titles won this decade — only served to prove as a painful reminder that while Pittsburgh has closed the gap on baseball's elite, the Pirates aren't quite there yet.

"The expectation has been just to win and get ourselves in a position to be able to win a championship, have a championship-type ballclub," centerfielder Andrew McCutchen said. "We still have work to do with that going into this offseason."

The decisions that await over the winter will test Pittsburgh's commitment and owner Bob Nutting's wallet. Martin will be one of the most coveted players looking for a contract following a rock-solid year in which he hit .290 with 11 home runs and 67 RBI and nurtured a sometimes threadbare pitching staff into one of the National League's steadiest. He also threw out 37 runners — the most in the majors — and provided the still maturing Pirates with veteran leadership.

While the 31-year-old is open to sticking around, he's also well aware this could be the last major deal of his career. So is Nutting.

"We're going to need to do what we can, we're going to need to stretch," Nutting said. "We're going to need to go beyond what a rational deal is and he's a player organizationally we love and respect and we hope he's back."

PHOTO: Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin tips his helmet to the cheering fans after his last at-bat against the San Francisco Giants, in the ninth inning of the NL wild-card playoff baseball game Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, in Pittsburgh. The Giants won 8-0, advancing to the division series. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin tips his helmet to the cheering fans after his last at-bat against the San Francisco Giants, in the ninth inning of the NL wild-card playoff baseball game Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, in Pittsburgh. The Giants won 8-0, advancing to the division series. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Pittsburgh faced a similar dilemma last winter, when pitcher A.J. Burnett hit the open market after going 26-21 in two seasons with the Pirates and helping change the culture in a clubhouse that spent two decades posting one losing season after another.

Burnett initially said he would re-sign with Pittsburgh or retire only to take a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. The Pirates did more than survive without Burnett, they thrived despite losing ace-in-training Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton for long stretches due to injury.

In their place rose Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley, baseball vagabonds who resurrected their careers by helping Pittsburgh recover from a 12-20 start to finish with the second-best record in the National League after the All-Star break.

Worley is all but assured a spot in the rotation when spring training opens. Whether Volquez and Liriano will be joining him is uncertain. The Pirates took fliers on both of them with the hope of helping them recapture the form that made them All-Stars earlier in their career. It worked out better than they imagined, so well in fact that both players will hit the free-agent market running.

There's no telling if their paths will lead back to Pittsburgh.

"I would like to," Volquez said after taking the loss in the wild-card game, marring the end of a season in which he went 13-7 with a 3.04 ERA and was unbeaten over the final two months. "I'm going to see what happens."

Pittsburgh, whose $77 million payroll in 2014 was the highest in club history but still ranked just 27th in the majors, will be pragmatic but is unlikely to reach deep into the vault for anyone other than Martin.

The Pirates have been steadfast in their approach since general manager Neal Huntington was hired in 2007. He revamped the farm system into one of the best in baseball. The fruit of years of hard work was on full display in 2014.

McCutchen put together another sublime season, leading the NL with a .410 on base percentage. Josh Harrison evolved from utility player to All-Star into perhaps the third baseman of the future while finishing second in the NL batting race by hitting .315. Starling Marte was perhaps Pittsburgh's best hitter in September. Cole looked ready to take over as the staff's No. 1 starter whether Liriano comes back or not.

The Pirates didn't make another leap forward this season, but they didn't take a step back either, something manager Clint Hurdle reminded his players as they quietly packed up as the Giants celebrated a trip to the NL Division Series.

"There should not be any shame," Hurdle said. "You walk out of this clubhouse head held high. You look people in the eye. We created something here that's becoming special."

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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: Pittsburgh Pirates relief pitcher Justin Wilson is removed by manager Clint Hurdle, right, in the sixth inning the NL wild-card playoff baseball game against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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