Jim Tracy will open his second season with the Pirates, his seventh as a manager in Major League Baseball, when pitchers and catchers report for spring training Thursday in Bradenton, Fla.
His 67-95 record last season was the worst of his career, and it matched that of his predecessors from the 2005 season. But, as Tracy is immensely fond of pointing out, the team went 37-35 after the All-Star break for its first winning second half since 1992 and the greatest half-to-half turnaround in the franchise's 120 years.
Tracy answered questions about what he expects from his players -- and himself -- this spring training:
Q: What will be the biggest difference this spring for you as a manager?
A: It's the familiarity, which I didn't have a year ago. I was aware of the capabilities of some guys, having managed against them. But, after a full year with this group, I feel like I know not only the physical capabilities but also the people.
I think that's a huge step forward for me and my staff. Now, let's get to the next level.
Q: You have been emphasizing a goal of carrying over the second half from last season. Why take that approach rather than just starting fresh, given the team's overall record?
A: Well, the first half of that season wasn't a lot of fun for anybody. But when you look at the youth of our pitching staff and that some things we were trying to implement weren't getting done very efficiently ... you keep pounding the rock, keep making it clear that, hey, this is the way we're going to play. This is a formula that we feel has been very successful for us as a staff with other teams.
We stayed right with it, and the second half became a lot of fun. Our clubhouse became a much better place to go into.
Now, look at the personnel who made that possible. They're all walking back into that clubhouse.
Q: Your batting order sounds pretty much set, especially the top five with Chris Duffy, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche and Jason Bay. Any chance you could change your mind in the spring?
A: You always have to be flexible. You can have a general thought process going in, and I have one. But I don't know how it's all going to play out.
Q: You have said Jose Castillo must win back his starting job, and that Jose Bautista will have a chance to take it. What kind of challenge is Castillo facing to impress management?
A: You know what? I'm not going to single out Castillo or get into a big dissertation about him.
He's not facing any obstacles, OK? He's not going to be any different from anybody else. Jose Castillo knows from conversations that we've had -- and I'm not going to get into specifics -- what kind of a baseball player I think he is. I think he has as much natural ability as any player on our ballclub or in our system.
What we are looking for is to have that ability come forth. And consistently. When you've been in the league three years, as he has, you want to see the consistency that suggests this is a winning player.
Q: Do Castillo and Bautista have an even chance?
A: We're very open-minded about the two Joses. We'll let them dictate.
Q: Wilson publicly criticized Castillo last month and, at the same time, challenged Castillo to perform up to his potential. How did you feel about that?
A: I think those are situations that you handle in-house. If you've got something that you need to talk to a teammate about -- like some of those comments that made it into print -- I just feel like those are things that can be handled behind closed doors. As you know, that's how I've handled a number of things in the past year.
I just don't think there are things that need to be laundered for everybody to read about. It's just like a family. You get close to one another, and you don't tell everybody what's going on inside the walls of the house.
Q: Sanchez will stay at third if Castillo wins the job, or move to second if Bautista does. If that takes most of the spring to decide, any concerns about not having a set position for Sanchez so close to the season?
A: That'll be easy. You just want to make sure Freddy's getting his work out there and, if he's moving around, that's fine. Then, as you get down to those last 10 days or two weeks, you start reeling things in.
Q: The team has invested nearly $7 million in Shawn Chacon and Tony Armas Jr., two of the pitchers in line for the one vacancy in the starting rotation. How realistic is it to expect that Shane Youman or Marty McLeary -- pitchers you liked late last season -- will get a shot?
A: Well, No. 1, we're looking for five guys who can give us what we need. Obviously, there has been an investment in Shawn and Tony, and we're very hopeful that one or both of those guys step forward. We really are.
But I know this: You develop strength in numbers, and I couldn't be more pleased with what I saw from Youman and McLeary in September.
Honestly, I've got no commitment on this. I have to be open-minded.
Q: With the slow starts Salomon Torres has had the past two years -- not to mention his heavy workloads -- what is your plan to help him adjust to being the closer?
A: We're going to talk about it, and that discussion will involve myself, Salomon and his pitching coach, Jim Colborn. And another guy we're going to involve is Kent Tekulve, who's certainly no stranger to learning how to stretch himself out while being a closer.
Q: Last spring, the team had pleasant surprises in Bautista, Nate McLouth and Matt Capps. If you had to pick one player who might do that this year, who would it be?
A: I would say Ryan Doumit.
We saw late last season that he made major strides and gained a much better understanding of what we, as a ballclub, are trying to be. If he realizes one thing, that all we're looking for is for him to meet us halfway, I know this: He's a couple adjustments away on the offensive side from becoming the kind of hitter I think he can be.
Q: What are those?
A: It's a couple adjustments mechanically so that it's a little tougher for the opposition to pick spots to throw the ball. If does that, he has a chance to be quite a major-league hitter. I firmly believe that.
Q: Can the Pirates contend in the Central Division this year?
A: You know what? Who knows? I don't like getting involved in predictions, so I won't. But I will say this: I think we're very capable of picking up where we left off in 2006.
We've got some young players here who have been playing in the big leagues long enough to understand what this is all about. They've seen it. They get it. They understand that there has to be a measure of consistency and unselfishness.
Are we capable of doing that? I think the answer to that is yes. But where does that put us in relation to the Central Division? I think that's why you go out there and take the field 162 times.
I'm excited to find out.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Freddy Sanchez was the National League batting champion in 2006, but he remains without a position heading into spring training.
Click photo for larger image.
Thursday: Pitchers and catchers report
Friday: First workout for pitchers and catchers, Pirate City
Feb. 20: Position players report
Feb. 21: First full-squad workout in major-league camp, Pirate City
Feb. 28: Annual scrimmage vs. Manatee Community College, McKechnie Field
March 1: Grapefruit League exhibition opener vs. Reds, McKechnie Field
March 4: First workout for pitchers and catchers in minor-league camp, Pirate City
March 8: First full-squad workout in minor-league camp, Pirate City
March 13: The only full day off of spring training
March 15: Minor-league exhibition opener with Class AAA/AA game, Pirate City
March 31: Grapefruit finale vs. Twins, Fort MyersDates to remember: Spring training 2007
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .