BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates' new management has built a bedrock principal of accountability, so having only two-thirds of their invited pitchers report for minicamp yesterday would appear to represent a rather dubious start to the era.
And yet ...
Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit, Zach Duke and, yes, Ronny Paulino, each reported a svelte 10-15 pounds lighter than at the end of last season.
Chris Duffy, already aware he will start this season in the minors and still slowed by shoulder surgery, showed up in what he called "absolutely the best shape of my life ... by far."
"It was a good day," manager John Russell said as he walked off the Pirate City fields. "Liked what I heard. Liked what I saw."
There were even mitigating factors for the attendance: One, the Pirates can do little about it, given that minicamp is a purely voluntary event closely monitored by the Major League Baseball Players Association. Two, although six of the expected 22 pitchers were missing, Bryan Bullington and Phil Dumatrait were excused for personal reasons, John Grabow has bronchitis and is still hoping to make some of the four-day event, and Luis Munoz, Romulo Sanchez and Ronald Belisario had visa delays.
"It is voluntary," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We're happy to have the players who are here."
No happier, it seemed, than some of the players.
Paulino, as expected, was getting most of the back slaps from teammates for dropping 10 pounds to about 235, but he was far from alone.
Maholm's transformation appeared to be the most dramatic, although he added, "I really don't want to give a number" for the pounds lost. He said he was motivated by wanting to eliminate nagging ailments such as the lower back pain that diminished an otherwise encouraging second half of 2007.
"It's just to feel stronger, to hold up better," Maholm said.
Doumit, plagued by injuries all through his professional career, was down 10 pounds to about 210.
"I am ready to go, dude," he said.
Duke has shed a few pounds, too, also aimed at durability after a feeble elbow cost him much of last season.
"I've always worked out hard," he said. "But never like this."
Such pronouncements are common this time of year, of course, and a healthy dose of cynicism usually follows. But there is cause to believe that there is a genuine theme in motion this offseason, if only because many players have acknowledged that management played a direct role.
That is especially true of Huntington, who has been in constant communication with players and not just through the standard letters. He has phoned, e-mailed and dispatched other Pirates employees, usually strength coach Frank Velasquez, to instruct and follow up.
And it has not been limited to lifting weights: Sean Burnett, freshly back from an encouraging winter session in Venezuela, said the Pirates had a representative in the stands monitoring each of his six starts there.
"They were with me every step," Burnett said.
"There have been a lot of things happening behind the scenes, things that people don't see," Huntington said. "We've all been working very hard."
Duffy's upbeat sentiment might have been most surprising out of this group.
A month ago, Huntington made public that Duffy would open the season in the minors while Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan dueled for the center-field job in Pittsburgh. Worse, Duffy's progress from September surgery on his left shoulder has been halting enough -- he is not yet throwing or swinging a bat -- that Huntington yesterday revealed that Duffy probably will not be ready for game action until shortly before the regular season.
To see Duffy laughing, smiling and shaking hands yesterday, it was all difficult to detect.
"I just feel great, physically and mentally, working on everything the shoulder allows," he said, adding that he's amenable to whatever the Pirates have in store for him.
NOTES -- Outfielder Kevin Thompson, the only other position player in minicamp, also is undergoing rehabilitation. His right shoulder was injured late last season on a diving catch while with the Oakland Athletics. He is throwing and swinging and will be ready for spring training. ... The only pitcher who reported and did not pitch yesterday was Adam Bernero, who is coming off elbow surgery that cost him all of 2007. ... The other 15 -- Maholm, Duke, Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Matt Capps, John Van Benschoten, Jonah Bayliss, Dave Davidson, Jimmy Barthmeier, Ty Taubenheim, Evan Meek, Marino Salas, Olivo Astacio and Yoslan Herrera -- had light work off the mounds, as well as hitting and fielding practice. ... Reliever Masumi Kuwata announced on his Web site that he signed his minor-league contract with the Pirates.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published January 9, 2008 5:00 AM