Hot Stove: Status quo just fine with some players

BRADENTON, Fla. -- It seems absurd that a 68-94 team can improve much the next year with its roster virtually unchanged. And that probably goes double when the only meaningful change is a weakening of the bullpen and bench.

And yet, the overwhelming sentiment being expressed these days by the Pirates' players is not one of dissatisfaction but, rather, one of appreciation ...

"I like it," closer Matt Capps said. "I think it's a great sign of commitment on their part. It shows they believe in what we're all capable of doing. I believe it, too. There are some good players in here, and a lot of us can do better than we did last year."

"There's no doubt in my mind we all can get better, including myself," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "And I think we will. I like the direction this team is headed in, just like I did last year."

"We've got the pieces," starter Paul Maholm said. "But, like they've said, it's a matter of having some accountability. We need to step up. We need to win. No excuses."

Such a stance from players is to be expected, especially given the time of year. Internal grumblings about a team's shortcomings tend not to surface until after a lengthy stretch of losing.

Few outside observers share similar optimism about the Pirates, of course. They are sure to be the consensus last-place team in the Central Division in preseason surveys of the game's insiders and pundits. But there does linger a widely held view that the 2007 edition did underachieve.

"I'll tell you, I saw that Pittsburgh team last spring, and I liked it," a prominent American League executive said recently. "I didn't think they were going to win the World Series, but I liked what their lineup was going to be, and their starting pitching ... well, everybody liked that. I'm not sure what happened to them."

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington often has made clear his feeling that the previous team underachieved, but he hardly promises an instant reversal.

"We're going to send the players out there, prepare them as best as possible, and see where it takes us," he said. "Are we going to contend? Are we kidding ourselves that we can contend? We'll see. But I do know that there is a lot to like about this nucleus."

Buried treasure

• LaRoche, determined to avoid another slow start, has been swinging a bat for three weeks now, much earlier than he usually begins. "I'm going to be ready," he said.

Ian Snell recently approached the Pirates about a long-term contract and was rejected. He will be arbitration-eligible for the first time after the coming season, and the team can keep his rights through that process for three years.

Chris Duffy has been pushed to No. 3 on the depth chart at center field, behind Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan, and is a lock to start out in the minors. Does he see a future with the Pirates? "That's for them to decide," he said. "Whatever they've got for me, I'm going to be fine with it. I want to get healthy and get back to how I used to play. I know what I'm capable of doing."

• The Winter Caravan rolls out today at Seven Springs with manager John Russell, Tom Gorzelanny, Capps and McLouth. Tomorrow, that foursome will be in Washington, Pa., and Uniontown. Tuesday, it will be in Fairmont, W.Va., and Morgantown, W.Va. Wednesday, it will be in Columbiana, Ohio, and Weirton, W.Va. Check for details.

• When two fans at Pirate City complimented Ryan Doumit on his new physique this week, he turned, smiled and shot back playfully, "I'm getting my act together. I'm growing up!"

• Only 32 days until pitchers and catchers report.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at . First Published January 13, 2008 5:00 AM


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