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03/14/09 10:00 AM ET

Russell sees improvement in Pirates

Bucs manager chats about upcoming season with MLB.com

BRADENTON, Fla. -- With the regular season just more than three weeks away, Pirates manager John Russell took some time to sit down with MLB.com to discuss the state of the team in his second year as the club's manager.

MLB.com: Now that we're at the halfway point of Spring Training, what have you been most pleased to see thus far?

Russell: I think the biggest thing is just the energy and life that we've had this camp. It's been a great camp and we've gotten really good feedback, from not only the staff, but the players. It's been very organized. And I think the players are getting a lot of information that they didn't have last year. I see that as the key to this camp being successful.

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We've done some good things to this date. We've pitched pretty well. We've swung the bat pretty well. The little things that we concentrated on, not only during minicamp, but during Spring Training, we're starting to see some of that. We still have some work to do, but I'm pleased with how it's gone.

MLB.com: You talked about the increase in information this spring. How much of that has to do with the additions of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and first-base coach/infield instructor Perry Hill?

Russell: They bring a new insight with their experience. Not only does it give more insight to our players, but it opens up some things with our staff. It gets us talking more and discussing new ideas and old ideas more. It's very helpful. Not that we didn't talk last year, but now we have two other voices.

[Third-base coach] Tony Beasley has grown a lot this camp because of it. I think it's really helped us all. They not only come in with a great passion and energy for the players, but it's also helped our staff, as well.

MLB.com: After having finished your first year as a Major League manager, what do you feel like you've learned about yourself and this job?

Russell: Time management with you guys [the media].

MLB: Are we really that bad?

Russell: No, you're actually not at all. But time management is something that I did learn. From the time I walk in the office, I have so many things I have to cover -- the training room, the strength and flexibility stuff, [general manager] Neal [Huntington], the press, the players. There are certain things you have to accomplish on a daily basis.

Preparation for the game and for workouts in Spring Training, I've really learned how to piece that together. One of my biggest fears as a manager and a person is that I'm not prepared for the day. That drives me crazy, and it's why I like to spend a lot of hours preparing. This year, it's also a little more of an advantage, just because I know the players better. I know how they "tick" a little bit more. I think I've just grown.

Each year, I think I'm going to get better. [Cardinals manager] Tony La Russa and I are friends, and the one thing he told me, is that every year you continue to grow, just like a player. I've always felt that when I managed in the Minor Leagues, and I really sense that now. The day I think I've got it nailed, I probably ought to quit. That's the big thing. I think I've continued to learn.

MLB.com: Everyone in this organization has spoken very freely about the disappointment in the pitching staff as a whole last year. With a competition for four rotation and four bullpen spots this spring, what have you seen that competition breed?

Russell: A sense of urgency from guys. We tell them that we are not necessarily looking specifically at results, but there is a sense of urgency from them in making sure they get their work done and are paying attention. They are following the plan and doing what they need to in order to be prepared. I think you're seeing a sense of urgency because they don't want to be left behind. If they get a little behind, then they are not going to make the club, or they are going to put themselves in a tough position. I think that's one thing I've seen, especially with the starting rotation.

That's one thing that I've really liked seeing. I think our pitching has been very competitive. As a whole, there's a lot of great competition and guys are throwing the ball very well. There are going to be a lot of tough decisions. We can only take 12 [pitchers], and right now our list is somewhere around 20 that we feel very confident about.

MLB.com: So in other words, it sounds like you see improvements in every aspect of this team, from the pitching to the offense to the bench?

Russell: I really do. A lot of people talked about how we tore up a very good bench. But you have to remember that a lot of guys on our bench last year were guys that nobody wanted. We were fortunate [this offseason] to get two guys that a lot of teams wanted in [Eric] Hinske and [Ramon] Vazquez. They are going to add a lot to our bench, not only as a bench player but getting regular time on occasion, too. That's a big plus for us. That's a big piece of it.

There's just a lot of things that we have going into this year that we didn't have last year. We have the competition in the pitching, and I really think that our starting depth is deeper than it was last year.

MLB.com There were a lot of question marks at the end of last season about the readiness of a number of the players acquired in those two July trades. Since a number of those players are going to be depended on to be important pieces this season, have you begun to see the necessary steps forward for each of those guys?

Russell: Yes, I have. They are more relaxed. They feel more a part of the organization now. They feel like a part of the system. They get to spend the entire Spring Training with us. There is more confidence with them. I think [third baseman] Andy [LaRoche] is a big example. He's really attentive to Perry. He's really attentive to [hitting coach] Don [Long] now. He understands what he went through last year.

I'm sure we're going to have to keep an eye on that so that he doesn't put too much pressure on himself. But to date, he's had a good spring. He's using the whole field. He's doing some good things on defense.

All of these guys -- [Ross] Ohlendorf, [Jeff] Karstens, [Craig] Hansen, Brandon Moss -- they feel like they belong. And that's what is important.

MLB.com: What do you see as the biggest key for this team to get off to a good start in April?

Russell: I think pitching is the key to any season. Good pitching is going to win a lot of games for you. You look at the history of baseball, with great offenses, you're going to win. But it's usually good pitching that puts you over the top. It's no secret, and we've said it since the day the season was over that we had a bad year pitching-wise. We didn't do very good in a lot of areas.

For us to be successful, we need to pitch. I think our defense is going to be sound. I think our bullpen is going to be relatively sound. We're going to score enough runs. We might not have the potent offense that we had early last year, but we should hopefully grow into a better offense.

We can't go out and give up five, six, seven runs in the first three innings like we did last year all the time and expect to have a successful season. That's why we've put a big emphasis on being ready, brought in Joe, and have a better plan. It's not like these guys have not had success. We just need to get it out of them again. We have to be better.

MLB.com: And for the most important question of the day, how far do you think your Oklahoma Sooners can go in the upcoming NCAA basketball Tournament?

Russell: You know, if [Big 12 Player of the Year Blake] Griffin stays healthy, they could go all the way. Obviously, we saw that when he got that concussion, they lost a couple of games. He's a big key to it. It's going to be a great tournament. There are some good teams out there. Maybe a matchup with [Oklahoma and] Pittsburgh, who knows.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.