"There are some pieces that are worth the front office's patience."
Should the Pirates end their streak of 15 consecutive losing seasons -- a stretch of futility surpassed, in any major professional sport, only by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933 through '48 -- John Russell is certain to credit a retired owner of an Oklahoma food distributorship. The new Pittsburgh manager recalls when his father, Jack, would send him to clean the garage as a 12-year-old. "I made it look good on the outside," says Russell, "but when you started pulling things away from the wall, there was dirt and grass. That's not what [my dad] wanted. He wanted it done right."
The club that Russell inherits hasn't done much right, and it'll require hard work to clean up the mess. A long history of poor drafts, questionable player development (an unusual number of recent high picks have flamed out because of injuries) and uninspired free-agent signings have left the Pirates lagging behind even most of their small-market brethren.
There is new attention to detail in Pittsburgh now, and it started after last season with the hiring of Russell, 47, who had success as a manager in the Phillies' farm system, and general manager Neal Huntington, 39, who spent a decade in the well-regarded Indians front office. Though he has set the bar high ("Eighty-one wins is not a goal," he says. "Eighty-one wins is mediocrity and we're in pursuit of excellence."), Huntington advocates a gradual pace to Pittsburgh's rebuilding efforts. "It could have been easy to blow up [the roster]," he says, "but as we look at it, studied it, we felt like patience was the best approach."
There are some pieces worth the front office's patience. Only 25, staff ace Tom Gorzelanny took a major leap last season, winning 14 games and pitching into the sixth inning in 25 of 32 starts. But his increased workload (40 more innings than '06) may have led to fatigue in September, when the 6' 2", 220-pound lefthander had a 5.77 ERA.
Righthander Ian Snell and lefty Paul Maholm were also reliable innings eaters, capable of keeping games close until the relievers took over. When the bullpen was handed a lead after the sixth inning, the Pirates finished a respectable 53-10. That was due largely to imposing closer Matt Capps, a 6' 2", 245-pound righthander with an excellent fastball and command. After being promoted from the setup role in June, he converted 18 of 21 save opportunities.
While the organization has had modest success developing pitchers -- Gorzelanny, Snell, Maholm and Capps are all under 27 -- they've had far less luck with everyday players, which helps explain why Pittsburgh has finished in the bottom five in the NL in runs scored in six of the last seven seasons. During batting practice one morning in Bradenton, Fla., second baseman Freddy Sanchez, 30, let out a sigh of frustration as he watched a pitch he drove 330 feet down the leftfield line roll around short of the fence. "That's a double," said rightfielder Xavier Nady as he stepped into the batter's box next. "That's what you get paid to do.
"I, on the other hand," continued Nady, who passes for a power hitter on this club (20 homers last season), "get paid to hit" -- he swung, and looked up at a weak fly -- "broken-bat infield pop-ups."
Later, as he sat in the remodeled spring clubhouse adjacent to the remodeled training room, Sanchez was asked why he chose to re-sign (two years, $11 million) with a franchise that hasn't had a winning season since he was a freshman in high school. "I've been here for all the losing," he answered. "I want to be here for the winning, too." -- Melissa Segura
Issue date: March 31, 2008