When the Pirates open minicamp this morning in Bradenton, Fla., the pitchers will be the focus.
But it likely will be a catcher who raises the most eyebrows.
Ronny Paulino, speaking yesterday from his home in the Dominican Republic, said he has lost 10 pounds, added plenty of muscle and is prepared to show that his richly criticized performance in 2007 was the exception and not the rule.
"This season means a lot to me," Paulino said. "It's going to be a new start, a new chance. I'm going to work hard and prove that what I did in 2006 was the way I can play."
That year, he batted .310 as a rookie and was quickly anointed a franchise fixture behind the plate.
But last year?
After a .218 start through two months, he gradually clawed back up to a modest .263. His defense, too, regressed in all facets. And, most glaring, his effort regularly was called into question to the point he was hearing frequent boos at PNC Park.
The Pirates' previous management and coaching staff never called out Paulino, but, already, new general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell have issued public challenges for him to work harder.
Which might explain why Paulino, who never acknowledged a lack of effort at any point in 2007, sounded far more forthcoming on the topic yesterday.
"People sometimes can see something like that better than myself," Paulino said. "I could be out there and feeling like I'm trying, but it maybe didn't look like it. But other people can see that I could do more. But, you know, you can make a lot of excuses. You have to work hard, and that's what I'm going to do."
Paulino said the presence of Russell, a former catcher, will help. The two developed a good relationship while Russell was the Pirates' third base coach, and they have stayed in close contact this offseason.
"He knows who I am and what I need to do to be successful," Paulino said.
Russell said yesterday he appreciates Paulino's work this offseason.
"We want all our guys to come in with that type of intensity," he said. "I don't want a player to ever feel like he's got to prove anything, but I do want him to go out and perform the way he's capable of. And that doesn't just go for Ronny. It's unfair to single him out. All of our players need to be ready to have their best foot forward this spring."
The four-day minicamp begins with a two-hour session at 10 a.m., and it will be with a much lighter turnout than the 22 pitchers the team originally expected: Starters Bryan Bullington and Phil Dumatrait will be absent for personal reasons, reliever John Grabow is sick and likely to be delayed if he can make it at all, and a few of the five Dominican invitees are experiencing visa trouble.
All throwing will be light, Russell said, even off the mounds.
"We're just trying to build up to spring training, and this is the beginning," Russell said. "Nobody's going to make the team out of minicamp."
"This is just a good chance for the pitchers to get to know John, myself and the staff and to understand what John expects of them," new pitching coach Jeff Andrews said. "When you're going full-throttle in spring training and have all fields occupied, you don't always have time for nice, casual conversation with pitchers about pitching. This will be our springboard for that."
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .