© 2011 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.

02/06/11 10:00 PM EST

Bucs feeling good with Hurdle leading the way

New skipper's impact already being felt heading into camp

PITTSBURGH -- On the heels of one of the worst years in franchise history, the Pirates aren't about to begin Spring Training with subdued expectations. New manager Clint Hurdle won't allow it.

Yes, external skepticism still abounds. But there is excitement bubbling internally. Hurdle's arrival has ushered in a renewed sense of accountability. Players have already gravitated to his presence and his message of outworking and out-preparing everyone else.

Hurdle's task of restoring a sense of pride in this franchise won't be an easy one. But there is a belief that the pieces might finally be in place to begin a move in that direction.

"We've talked a lot about where we've been," general manager Neal Huntington said. "I feel stronger about our plan. I feel stronger about our vision. I feel stronger about our execution than I've ever felt. I stand in front of you more excited about our season than I have ever in the three other times I've stood here. We're beginning to now talk about the Major League team."

On the offensive side of things, the Pirates' lineup appears improved from where it was a year before. Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata have successful rookie seasons under their belts. Lyle Overbay has the ability to change a game with one swing, and Matt Diaz should be a strong complement to Garrett Jones in right.

There are still questions about the team's pitching, though the club maintains that it has better options and more depth than it did a year ago. The organization is encouraged, too, by some of the young pitchers who are inching closer to making a big league impact.

It's for all these reasons that the Pirates will open camp optimistically. There have been no playoff promises or vows of a historical turnaround. But there has been an insistence that improvement will be tangible this season, and that the franchise is on its way back to being a point of pride for the city of Pittsburgh.

"I just feel like I'm lucky to be getting on the bus right now," Hurdle said. "I'm looking forward to being a part of something significant and special here."

Spring Training
Pitchers & Catchers

Spring Training links
Spring Training tickets
Travel packages
Spring Training schedule

Pitchers and catchers report

February 13

Full squad reports

February 18

First Spring Training game

Away vs. Rays, Feb. 26 at 1:05 p.m. ET

Opening Day

Away vs. Cubs, April 1 at 2:20 p.m. ET

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who will win the final rotation spot?
It appears as if the Pirates already have four of their five rotation spots filled, with those expected to be taken by Kevin Correia, James McDonald, Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf. The fifth spot, though, remains up for grabs. Charlie Morton and Scott Olsen will get the most consideration, and there are plenty of variables that will be taken into consideration.

Olsen signed a guaranteed Major League contract -- albeit one with a low base salary of $450,000 -- so he's not necessarily someone the Pirates envision pitching in the Minors. Proving that he is indeed healthy enough for a rebound season will be key for Olsen this spring. With Morton, the Pirates need to see that the right-hander has put a dismal 2010 season out of his memory. Pitching with confidence is particularly critical for Morton, who is also out of options this year.

The dark horse in this rotation competition is Brad Lincoln, whom the Pirates still feel might benefit from a bit more time in the Minors.

2. How will the bullpen be constructed?
There is much to be determined in the Pirates' bullpen, beginning with who will take the ball in the ninth inning. To this point, the club has been mum about whether the closer role will be filled by Evan Meek or Joel Hanrahan. A Spring Training competition isn't in order, but it might not be until after workouts begin that the Pirates announce their choice.

While Meek and Hanrahan are set to anchor the 'pen, their supporting cast has yet to be determined. Joe Beimel is likely to step in as the Pirates' main late-inning lefty. Jose Ascanio and Kevin Hart are a pair of bullpen candidates who are coming off injuries. Chris Resop, Chris Leroux, Jeff Karstens and Justin Thomas are among those who contributed for the Pirates last season. There are also other non-roster invitees, as well as young left-handers Tony Watson and Daniel Moskos to keep an eye on.

3. What early impact will Clint Hurdle and a new coaching staff have?
It's hard to quantify how much of an impact a manager can have on a team's success. However, Spring Training is certain to be run differently than it was under John Russell. How noticeable those changes are isn't something anyone will know until the workouts begin.

Though most of the players have met Hurdle by this point, this will be their first period of sustained interaction with him and his coaching staff. Hurdle's gregarious personality has caught everyone's attention, but the key is now to get this group of players to believe it can improve significantly after a 105-loss season.

2010 record

57-105, sixth in the NL Central

Projected batting order

1. CF Andrew McCutchen:
  .286 BA, .365 OBP, .449 SLG, 16 HR, 56 RBI in 2010
2. LF Jose Tabata:
  .299 BA, .346 OBP, .400 SLG, 4 HR, 35 RBI in 2010
3. 2B Neil Walker:
  .296 BA, .349 OBP, .462 SLG, 12 HR, 66 RBI in 2010
4. 3B Pedro Alvarez:
  .256 BA, .326 OBP, .461 SLG, 16 HR, 64 RBI in 2010
5. 1B Lyle Overbay:
  .243 BA, .329 OBP, .433 SLG, 20 HR, 67 RBI in 2010
6. RF Garrett Jones:
  .247 BA, .306 OBP, .414 SLG, 21 HR, 86 RBI in 2010
7. C Chris Snyder:
  .207 BA, .320 OBP, .376 SLG, 15 HR, 48 RBI in 2010
8. SS Ronny Cedeno:
  .256 BA, .293 OBP, .382 SLG, 8 HR, 38 RBI in 2010

Projected rotation

1. James McDonald, 4-6, 4.02 ERA in 2010
2. Kevin Correia, 10-10, 5.40 ERA in 2010
3. Paul Maholm, 9-15, 5.10 ERA in 2010
4. Ross Ohlendorf, 1-11, 4.07 ERA in 2010
5. Scott Olsen, 4-8, 5.56 ERA in 2010

Projected bullpen

Closer: Joel Hanrahan, 6/10 saves, 3.62 ERA in 2010
RH setup man: Evan Meek, 2.14 ERA in 2010
LH setup man: Joe Beimel, 3.40 ERA in 2010

The new guys

RHP Kevin Correia: Correia signed a two-year, $8 million deal with the Pirates, who need the right-hander to step in and be a stabilizing presence in the rotation. Correia's numbers from 2010 aren't overly impressive, though they don't mention that he spent most of the season dealing with the tragic death of his younger brother. If Correia can perform at the level he did in '09, and give the Pirates 200 innings in the rotation, his presence will be valuable.

LHP Scott Olsen: Though the Pirates signed Olsen to a Major League deal in December, there is minimal risk in the signing. Olsen's contract is laced with performance incentives, so he'll only cash in if he performs. The left-hander will have a chance to earn a spot in the rotation, and is hopeful that two injury-plagued seasons are completely behind him.

1B Lyle Overbay: The Pirates signed the free-agent first baseman hoping that he can be an impact bat in the middle of the order and a defensive improvement in the infield. Overbay is coming off a 20-homer season, though his batting average has dipped the last two years. With some defensive questions at the other infield spots, Overbay's veteran presence should be a plus.

SS Josh Rodriguez: The Rule 5 pick will come into Spring Training with a chance to earn a spot as the team's backup infielder. Rodriguez has not played in the Majors before, but he could be ready for the jump soon. Though Rodriguez has spent most of his time playing middle infield, he can also back up at third and in the outfield. Rodriguez hit .293 in 86 Triple-A games last year.

OF Matt Diaz: After signing a two-year deal with the Pirates in December, Diaz will share the right-field duties with Jones. Diaz has stung left-handed pitching in his career (.335 batting average). Diaz also arrives with the reputation as a clubhouse leader and fan favorite, and those intangibles weren't lost on the Pirates in their pursuit of the right-handed-hitting outfielder.

Prospects to watch

LHP Daniel Moskos: Moskos will be participating in Major League camp for the first time since 2008, which was the year after the Pirates made him the No. 4 overall pick. Since then, Moskos has been slotted into a relief role. He was dominant in Double-A last season, but struggled when he was bumped up a level. He'll have a chance to make the big league roster out of Spring Training, though it seems likelier that Moskos will start the year in Indianapolis.

LHP Rudy Owens: This will be Owens' first time in big league camp, and the left-hander has certainly earned a spot there. He has been named the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year each of the last two seasons. He finished 2010 with a 12-6 record and 2.46 ERA. Owens is a long shot to start the year in Pittsburgh; however, if he shows continued signs of growth during Spring Training and begins the season strong in the Minors, Owens could be ready for his Major League debut next summer.

C Tony Sanchez: After missing much of the season recovering from a broken jaw, Sanchez is back healthy and ready to continue his climb to Pittsburgh. The 2009 first-round Draft pick struggled a bit in the Arizona Fall League, though that was to be expected after such a lengthy injury layoff. The Pirates would like to see Sanchez continue to improve his game-calling and make better contact with breaking pitches. He should start the year in Double-A.

OF Andrew Lambo: Pittsburgh acquired Lambo in a Trade Deadline deal last July, and now he's earned an invitation to Spring Training as a non-roster player. Though Lambo won't be competing for a Major League roster spot, he has much to prove on and off the field. His prospect status was hurt after he was suspended 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy last year. But the Pirates like what they've seen since the deal, which included Lambo's strong showing in the AFL.

On the rebound

RHP Charlie Morton: Morton had an entirely forgettable 2010 season, and is now running out of time to prove to the Pirates that he can make his talent play at the Major League level. Morton was expected to be a significant piece in the Pirates' rotation last year, but he struggled out of the gate and never completely regained his confidence. Some time in the Minors seemed to help, and Morton showed promising signs of getting back on track when he returned to the Pirates' rotation late in the year.

RHP Ross Ohlendorf: Ohlendorf, who won just one game last year, is healthy and ready to make an impact in the rotation. His 2010 season was marred by a back injury early, a shoulder injury late -- and a line drive to the head in between. Ohlendorf's 1-11 record isn't entirely indicative of the way he pitched, though it took him a few months to find a groove.

RHP Brad Lincoln: Lincoln had the hype, just not the results, in 2010. He made his Major League debut in June but was back in the Minors less than two months later, after a mechanical adjustment derailed his delivery and confidence. Lincoln still has work to do on his changeup pitch, and the Pirates are likely to have him start in Triple-A to get that work.

RHP Kevin Hart: Hart lost his projected spot in the rotation with a terrible Spring Training, and then saw his season end in early May because of a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder. Hart is recovering as expected and should be ready for a normal workload in camp. While it's unlikely that Hart will earn a spot in the rotation, he could be a piece for the Pirates' Opening Day bullpen.

Long gone

LHP Zach Duke: For the first time since 2004, the Pirates will have a starting rotation that does not include Duke. Duke had another subpar year last season, and the Pirates decided it was not worth paying a salary that would have likely gone over $5 million through arbitration. As a result, Pittsburgh dealt Duke to Arizona.

3B Andy LaRoche: After losing his starting job to Alvarez in June, LaRoche really had no place left on this team. He showed little consistency on offense and never found a groove pinch hitting, which meant there was little reason to believe he could be an asset off the bench long-term. The Pirates let LaRoche become a free agent when they outrighted him off the roster in November.

OF Lastings Milledge: The Pirates opted not to tender Milledge a contract in order to avoid a potential arbitration hearing with the outfielder. With Diaz and Jones set to platoon in right field, there was no room for Milledge to be a starter anymore.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.