Physically fit Pirates take the field
Staff notices improved physiques as hurlers, catchers work out
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Before stepping on the fields for the first official workout of Spring Training on Saturday, all 34 Pirates pitchers and catchers in camp, along with the coaching staff and much of the management team, met inside the Pirate City lunch room for a precursory team meeting.
The resounding message from manager John Russell and his staff was an obvious one, considering the collective woes of the pitching staff in 2008. It was not a challenge to perform better as a unit this season. Instead, it was an expectation laid on them that they would.
And then he issued a complementary challenge.
"It's time for us as an organization and our players to realize that losing is not acceptable," Russell said, speaking to many players who were a part of the Pirates' club that finished 67-95 last year. "It's not an acceptable way of life for a Pirate. It's not that we're not going to lose games, I'm not that naive. But it's the mind-set that it's not acceptable. We're not going to accept losing."
While that message isn't all that different than the one Russell presented last year, it was again a stress in accountability.
For all that has been said about how hard overcoming that losing mentality might be because of the number of players returning from the 2008 team, Saturday's workout still had a bit of a different feel to it.
The difference wasn't just in terms of personnel, despite the Minor League coaching staff undergoing a significant overhaul this winter. That obviously meant plenty of new faces and new instructors running the normal Day 1 drills.
The differences ran much deeper than that.
Before the pitchers and catchers even stepped out onto the field at 12:20 p.m. ET to begin their first official spring workout, management was lauding the collective conditioning work by the group.
Some, most notably Tom Gorzelanny and Matt Capps, had shed numerous pounds. Others had toned up. Still others bulked up.
Trainer Frank Velasquez, who structured very stringent offseason workout plans and site visits, relayed to general manager Neal Huntington that in his six previous seasons with the organization, never has a group of pitchers collectively shown up to Spring Training in such good physical condition.
"That's a tribute to Frank and the voluntary camps we had this offseason and the diligence with which our guys followed through," Huntington said, after the end of the workout. "There was a lot of work internally, but the players really deserve the credit. They did it."
The fewer number of bodies present was also immediately evident. The 28 pitchers in camp is a total that's down from 38 last year. It may then seem to be a misstep for Huntington to laud the greater depth in this year's pitching options considering the lower number of options. However, for Huntington, it's simply a statement to the quality of arms.
"We have a lot of competition to make the big league club," Huntington said. "We have a lot of competition to make the Triple-A club, so our numbers are at a very manageable level. We definitely feel better about the number of arms that we have in camp this year as compared to last."
Russell, too, noted the improved options and increased pitching depth after running workouts.
"We've got more depth this year," the second-year manager said. "We look for our pitchers to compete and pitch like they are supposed to."
Part of that success lies in the presence of Joe Kerrigan, who also contributed to the different feel of Saturday's workout. The new Pirates pitching coach -- though the "new" should be cautiously placed in front of Kerrigan's name considering he has 18 seasons of Major League coaching experience -- proved to be much more of an immediate vocal presence during bullpen sessions than his predecessor, Jeff Andrews.
Though Kerrigan had watched video and seen many of these pitchers throw back in minicamp, he seemed pleased with what he saw from 18 pitchers throwing side sessions Saturday.
"The first note that I made [when watching video] was that the deliveries that I see don't match the numbers," Kerrigan said of his inherited staff. "That's the first notation I made to myself. I see good deliveries. I see no major projects. I see a few tweaks, a few minor adjustments here and there, but everybody has that.
"But as a whole, we have a good set of deliveries here," he continued. "That's a good foundation. There are really no major projects to tear down and rebuild, which is great. I saw that firsthand today live instead of watching it on video."
All that would seem to bode well for an organization that is well aware of the fact that its collective success hinges very much on the bounce-back ability of this pitching staff. If nothing else, Pirates management and coaches would like to believe that it's a step back in the right direction.
"We have some young arms that we are excited about," Huntington said. "If they can take some steps forward, there are reasons to feel good about them."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.