Spring training: Russell pushes to 'break streak'

Pirates' manager shrugs off contract, says he is 'excited' for future

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- John Russell is entering his third season as the Pirates' manager, having overseen a 129-194 record, two last-place finishes, an extension of the franchise's losing streak to 17 seasons and more roster overhaul than any of his peers in Major League Baseball.

He answered questions about the upcoming season, his contract status, his even-keel demeanor and his goal for the current players to end the streak in an interview Friday with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Q: As manager, what has made this spring training different than your first two?

A: The biggest thing is knowing that this is the group we have. We're not in the talent-accumulation mode anymore. The guys we have in spring training are the guys we're going to be with all year. There could be injuries or small changes, but we're ready to move on. We have control of these players for a lot of years. We don't have to worry about trading Andrew McCutchen or Garrett Jones. We're past that. We get to build with this team.


Game: Pirates vs. Tampa Bay Rays, 1:05 p.m., McKechnie Field, Bradenton, Fla. RHP Daniel McCutchen vs. RHP Andy Sonnanstine. Other pitchers: Vinnie Chulk, Octavio Dotel, Chris Jakubauskas.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, FMNewsTalk 104.7.

Camp roster: 45 players, including 24 pitchers, five catchers, nine infielders, seven outfielders.

Injuries: RHP Joel Hanrahan (elbow), INF Ramon Vazquez (shoulder).

Opener: 15 days until the Los Angeles Dodgers at PNC Park.

I'm excited about that, and I think that's the biggest difference.

Q: I know your focus has to be on the present, but can you allow yourself to dream a bit when you see an elite prospect like Pedro Alvarez here? Or Jose Tabata? Do you think about the lineup you might be able to fill out someday?

A: I don't think it's a dream. It's reality. That's who we have, what we're excited about and what we've been building toward. It's not only those two, but Brad Lincoln, Gorkys Hernandez, Starling Marte ... it's not a matter of hoping we get some good prospects. They're here. And they're close. When these guys are ready, they're going to have a spot in Pittsburgh.

Q: The numbers would suggest offense should be a concern. Can this team hit?

A: Yeah, and I think we've shown some of that this spring. You don't want to get caught up in spring evaluations. But Cutch and Andy LaRoche and Lastings Milledge are swinging like they did last year, Jeff Clement's coming along and not chasing as much, Garrett Jones is a threat, Ryan Doumit is getting locked in, Aki Iwamura can add a dimension for us ... so, yeah, we'll hit.

The biggest thing is taking advantage of situations, and that's been our big goal down here. A runner at second has to get moved over, and you have to find a way to get him in. We're starting to see a little power surge with some of the guys coming up, which is a good thing for any organization, but those little things are going to be big for us now.

Q: Especially as it relates to McCutchen hitting leadoff or maybe dropping to No. 3, but also with Jones now at No. 3 and Doumit at cleanup, you'll still have to be flexible about your batting order well beyond opening day, won't you?

A: Absolutely. We're always going to look at the lineup and see how we can make it more efficient, score more runs. That's one of the things I like about this lineup, that we have guys we feel can move into different spots and help us come up with a 3-4-5-6 or a 2-3-4-5 that works.

Andrew is the type of player ... who knows where he's going to end up? Aki's another one. Maybe he's a quality three-hole hitter. Garrett could be cleanup.

We'll play around with it. We're going to look, in some cases, for the lineup that fits best just for a given night.

Q: You are entering the final guaranteed year of your contract. Is that on your mind?

A: No. I've never even thought about it. I can't. I have a job to do. The day you start worrying about your job is the day you're not going to have a job anymore.

We have great support from Bob Nutting, from Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington, and the players are on board with what we're doing.

I've always been a big believer that, if I do my job, that I don't need to worry about it.

Q: Given the experience that was traded away on your watch, is there a fair way to evaluate what kind of manager you are?

A: You know, it's been a challenge in a sense. But I believe in staying the course and trusting what you do, not only as a manager but also our whole staff. And that's what we tell our players: Trust the process.

We've got a good process in place. We've changed the culture. They know what we're about. They know we play hard baseball. And, when there are changes, you have to kind of start over again, so that is is a challenge.

But, all through the turnover and everything else we've been through, I've always maintained a belief in what we're doing and where we're going. That's rock solid. And that's never going to change.

Q: You're not the most animated manager in baseball, you don't come out to argue many calls with umpires, and you've never ripped first base out of the ground or anything like that. Some say it looks like you don't care. Is that an accurate portrayal?

A: Obviously not. People say I don't say anything, but we're talking in the dugout constantly. I have a good relationship with my players, and a big thing for me is to get to know them, about their personal lives and families. I think that's important.

As far as arguing, there's going to come a time. We're not the kicking boy anymore, and I'm not going to let us get pushed around. We're getting to that point now. I'm not going to let things go anymore because we're a young team. You pick your spots.

But to answer your question again, if people say that about me, then they don't know me. I'm passionate about the game, about my players, about the city, and about bringing winning baseball back.

I don't know how much more animated I'm going to be this year, but it's getting to the point where I'm feeling good about our club now. We're not going to be walked on.

Q: Can you imagine how Pittsburgh might react to winning baseball?

A: It will be phenomenal. The city has great fans, and I really saw a lot of that this with our Winter Caravan and PirateFest, the energy that's there for Pirates baseball.

I've told the players this: I would love nothing more than for this group to be the one that breaks the streak. For me, personally, I'm not going to love it until we make the playoffs and win a World Series. For the players, though, I think it would be great for them to be the ones identified with breaking the streak, and it's going to be fun when it happens. And beyond that, too.

People talk about all the talent the Rays and Twins have, and you start looking at our system ... it's going to happen. And it's going to happen more quickly than most people think. This is going to be a fun year.

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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