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Hurdle tabs Francisco Liriano as Opening Day starter

One team has a new starting pitcher. The other team has a new manager.

But for the Pirates and the Cubs, the 2014 season starts like 2013 did -- with an afternoon game between the two National League Central rivals at PNC Park today.

Jeff Samardzija, who beat A.J. Burnett in last season's opener, will face left-hander Francisco Liriano this time around. The cast around the starting pitchers will look a lot like it did a year ago, as neither the Pirates nor Cubs made major personnel changes in the offseason.

But there is one difference, and it is a big one.

By winning 94 games the Wild Card playoff game last season, the Pirates, under general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle, have cemented themselves as a team that Cubs president Theo Epstein and new manager Rick Renteria would do well to emulate.

Chicago fans, of course, hope it doesn't take their team nearly as long as it did the one in Pittsburgh. But while the Bucs had suffered through 20 consecutive losing seasons post-Barry Bonds, the time frame that really matters ran five years. That's how many sub.-500 seasons that owner Robert Nutting gave Huntington and his staff to lay the foundation of the team that reached the playoffs in 2013, with bigger aspirations this season.

Russell Martin, the former Dodger and Yankee who rediscovered himself after signing with Pittsburgh last season, arrived at the perfect time.

"[Last] spring, it was just the realization there was a lot of talent here, a lot of young talent, a lot of guys who didn't even know how good they were,'' Martin said. "As the season went along, you start getting good results, you start feeling better about yourself, then go out there and gain some confidence.

"You just reaffirm the belief that you are good. That's what happened. We showed glimpses early on, and then there was a point in the season where we showed up at the field and we expected to win.''

At some point down the road, possibly as soon as 2016 or '17, there could be a player in the Cubs' clubhouse talking about their break-through season. But while that must still seem like a distant concept for a team that has lost 197 games the last two years, it brings a renewed sense of excitement to Hurdle and his team.

At times, it must feel like there is still champagne in their hair from the celebrations to clinch a playoff spot and that wild, fantastic night at PNC Park when Liriano beat the Reds' Johnny Cueto to send the Pirates on to the Division Series against St. Louis. It took two dominant performances by Adam Wainwright for the Cardinals to get past Pittsburgh, and it says a lot for the depth of the team that Huntington built for it to stand toe to toe with such a powerhouse in a series.

Success on the field usually brings an increase in revenue, but the challenge for Huntington remains to produce more talented prospects -- like outfielder Gregory Polanco and pitchers Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham, who are in the next wave headed to Pittsburgh -- so he doesn't need to consistently add expensive reinforcements. The Pirates' payroll has grown beyond $70 million, which is a $30 million increase from 2011, but only a small bump from the start of 2013. Huntington allowed Burnett to walk (without giving him the qualifying offer that would have brought draft-choice compensation) because the salary increases to veterans ate up his increased payroll.

Sustaining success with one of baseball's lowest payrolls won't be easy. That's why there are as many reasons for the Pirates to be envious of the Cubs as the other way around one.

Heading into the third season for the front office headed by Epstein and Jed Hoyer, the Cubs have slashed their payroll from $134 million in the last year for the Jim Hendry regime to less than $90 million. That includes $14 million they will pay Alfonso Soriano to play for the Yankees.

But this is the season that their future cornerstones should begin arriving from the Minors -- with power-hitting infielder Javier Baez leading the charge -- and no team in baseball should have more money to spend the next few offseasons than the Cubs, who have only $31.2 million committed to their 2015 payroll.

Along with the buzz created by seven prospects rated among MLB.com's top 100 (Baez, third baseman Kris Bryant, outfielders Albert Almora and Jorge Soler, infielder Arismendy Alcantara and pitchers C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson), there's excitement inside the organization because the Cubs are finally on the verge of getting beyond the bad contracts left over from the unsuccessful buildup under Hendry and Lou Piniella.

"I think we've made tremendous progress,'' Epstein said in Spring Training. "The prospects we have have gotten a lot of attention, and they're moving up the ladder. They're exciting, potential impact players. But just the general talent level, the organizational depth, is improving. … It takes time to turn an organization around. It takes time to build impact talent and the requisite depth, but it's happening.

"People in the organization really believe we're on the verge of something special. We understand that we're perceived otherwise, and that's our fault. We've been a last-place club the last couple of years. We're not protesting [the perception], but we have to earn our way into a point where we're championship contenders on an annual basis, and we think we're certainly moving in that direction.''

Hiring Hurdle as manager for the 2011 three years ago was a major step toward success for the Pirates. The Cubs hope that they will look back at Renteria's hiring the same way in a few years years.

Unlike Hurdle, who took the Rockies to the World Series in 2007, Renteria is a first-time manager. He was hired to replace Dale Sveum because of his track record with young players, with shortstop Starlin Castro his top priority.

"We really trust Ricky to connect with players as human beings, to be on their side, to be consistent, to hold them to high standards and ultimately to get the most out of them,'' Epstein said. "He's a great baseball guy, a great communicator. He's fully invested in what we're doing here. He believes in young players, that you can win with young players. I think he's the right guy to create the environment we need at the big league level, to establish a winning culture.'

Along with Hurdle's experience, patience and relentless optimism, it was the arrival of high-level pitching that got the Pirates over the hump. Acquiring Burnett from the Yankees was a major step, but it was the signing of Liriano and emergence of former first-round pick Gerrit Cole last year that made the difference, along with with a shutdown bullpen led by Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon.

Samardzija, who gave up only two hits in eight shutout innings on Opening Day last season, can be a free agent after 2015 and has declined the team's attempts to sign him long term. He has been the subject of trade rumors since the offseason began, but he hasn't said or done anything to add to the drama.

Samardzija has said he would love to stay in Chicago and do his part in turning around the franchise. He said this spring that while he loves Baez, the Cubs need "six or seven'' players like him. It's just as true that they need a few more Samardzijas, not one less.

What plot twists lie ahead this season? It's time to find out.

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