Pirates eager to put another dismal season behind

After the Pittsburgh Pirates hired Clint Hurdle as manager in

November, the team’s players picked up their cell phones and went

to work.

They called other players who had worked with Hurdle during his

recent stints as manager of the Colorado Rockies and hitting coach

for the Texas Rangers. Both teams went to the World Series during

Hurdle’s tenure.

The Pirates, shell-shocked after losing 105 games last season,

wanted to know if Hurdle really could make that kind of a

difference with their club. The overwhelming consensus was, yes, he

can.

”Everybody had nothing but great things to say about Hurdle, so

I’m excited to work with him,” catcher Ryan Doumit said.

After finishing below .500 the past 18 seasons, the longest

losing streak in North American pro sports, the Pirates can use any

sign of hope.

”I asked (Rangers slugger) Josh Hamilton and he said Clint’s

the loudest individual you’ll ever be around,” pitcher Paul Maholm

said, grinning. ”Clint is energetic, he expects a lot out of us

and he’s going to kick us in the rear when we need it. I think it’s

going to be a positive thing for everyone in the clubhouse.”

Hurdle’s arrival seemingly has sparked some enthusiasm – all 62

players had reported to camp by Friday, a day before the deadline.

Saturday morning, the team assembled for a talk with president

Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington before beginning

its first official full-squad workout.

”We were getting rumblings that a bunch of them were going to

show up (early) and they did,” Hurdle said. ”It’s another sign of

them taking accountability and responsibility for what’s in front

of us.”

The Pirates were minor players in the free-agent market over the

winter, but did try to shore up one of the league’s worst starting

rotations by signing right-hander Kevin Correia to a two-year, $8

million contract.

In other deals, outfielder Matt Diaz, who’ll give some

much-needed offense against left-handed pitchers, got a two-year,

$4.25 million deal to be a platoon player in right field, and first

baseman Lyle Overbay, who hit 20 homers last season with Toronto,

got a one-year, $5 million contract.

All three said the presence of Hurdle, an outgoing and

player-friendly skipper, helped sway them toward signing with the

Pirates.

”Signing here just felt right from the very beginning,” Diaz

said. ”Especially after they laid out their plan for the future,

it was really easy to get excited about it.”

Four players at the center of that rebuilding plan are

outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, second baseman Neil

Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez.

The 24-year-old McCutchen is going into his third season. The

MLB Network recently rated him the best active center fielder in

the game. He hit .286 with 16 homers, 56 RBIs and 33 stolen bases

last season.

Both Tabata, who hit .308 last season, and Walker, who hit .296,

got a vote for rookie of the year. Walker was a first-round draft

pick in 2004 as a catcher, but last season blossomed at second

after Aki Iwamura was sent to the minors.

”It’s amazing what Neil did,” Huntington said. ”He played 21

games in his life at (second), then not only competed, but did well

at the major league level. And he got better as the season went

on.”

The starting rotation went 34-84 with a 5.28 ERA last season, a

big reason the Pirates finished last in the NL Central for the

fourth straight year.

The likely opening day starter is left-hander Paul Maholm, who

went 9-15 with a 5.10 ERA. Correia, a right-hander, replaces lefty

Zach Duke, who was traded to Arizona.

”It’s going to be fun to be on a team that is transitioning

from a young team that’s just trying to figure it out to a good,

competitive baseball team,” Correia said. ”I think I can make a

difference here.”