BRADENTON, Fla. -- Under summery sweet, 60-degree skies, the Pirates' pitchers took to the four fields of this sprawling complex for an opening day of minicamp that, for all its positives, carried unmistakable clouds of uncertainty.
How can a staff that finished 2008 with some of the worst numbers in franchise history turn it around?
Is help on the way?
And can any starter other than Paul Maholm be dependable?
Ask Maholm, and he will answer in the affirmative.
"We've all got to push each other, try to outdo each other," he said, wiping sweat after finishing the four-hour session by running laps. "Pitch better than the guy who pitched the night before you. I think we've got the guys here to win consistently. It's just a matter of going out and doing it."
The trouble last season, of course, was that only Maholm did it consistently, posting a 9-9 record, 3.71 ERA and career highs with 31 starts, 206 innings and 139 strikeouts. Now, the Pirates will look to Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny to recover from backward steps, Zach Duke to build on his slight improvement, newcomers Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf to blossom in their first full seasons and ... well, just about anything they can grasp.
But they apparently will do so by staying in house. General manager Neal Huntington has inquired about multiple trade possibilities and free agents, but no signings of significance appear to be on the horizon.
"We're always looking to get better, but we like the competition we have here, and we want to give these young players a chance," Huntington said.
According to one high-level source yesterday, the Pirates were one of the main suitors for veteran Paul Byrd. But Byrd yesterday told Fox Sports he does not plan to pitch in the first half of 2009, choosing to spend more time with his family, then hook up with a contender down the stretch.
It was mostly contenders that were showing interest.
"I also got an offer or two from small-market teams that said they wanted me to come in and be their No. 1 or 2 guy," Byrd told Fox Sports. "That doesn't appeal to me. I wouldn't mind being in a grandfather role, teaching other people. But I was one game away from the World Series two years in a row."
That was with the Cleveland Indians in 2007, with the Boston Red Sox last year.
With the rest of the free-agent pool apparently holding little appeal to the Pirates, then, their only chance at improving the pitching is ... well, to improve the pitching. And what they hope were the first two signs of that were on display yesterday:
The first was that new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan took bold command of the camp, barking out orders, using blunt language and repeating and repeating a drill until it was done right. The opening hour of the morning session, for example, was dedicated solely to pitchers covering first base on a grounder in that direction.
"Old school," Snell said, smiling.
The second sign was that two key pitchers, Gorzelanny and closer Matt Capps, reported in dynamic shape. Each had his 2008 ruined in part by conditioning issues, and Gorzelanny reported 15 pounds lighter, Capps only about 5 pounds lighter but much more solid.
"Those two look great," Huntington said.
Their teammates noticed, too.
"I think it's big. It shows that they learned," Maholm said. "To be honest with you, I'm still kind of mad at myself for not being in this kind of shape my first few years. I feel way better, and the results showed last year. I've pushed myself even harder this offseason. And I'm sure they feel the same way, a lot better with their bodies, their arms ... it really helps."
And that comment might raise a third necessity for this pitching staff: A leader. Maholm began to blossom that way last season, especially after the release of veteran Matt Morris, and the Pirates expect that to continue.
"It helps to have that type of player and, certainly, Paul's starting to grow into that role," Kerrigan said. "But I've also had situations where, yeah, you have a leader, but all five guys are that way. All of them show what you want to see in a leader."
Maholm sounds ready to embrace such a role, either way.
"I definitely put the pressure on myself to do things the right way, whether it's showing up on time, getting my stuff done or just being prepared to go out there every fifth day and win," he said. "I'm not a vocal guy. I'm just going to do my thing and, hopefully, guys pick it up. Hopefully, they want to win, to have this be a team thing and not necessarily about individuals."
NOTES -- All invited players participated except third baseman Andy LaRoche, who was ill. ... Reliever Sean Burnett was ill, too, recovering from strep throat, but he insisted on doing all drills, including the grueling finishing run. ... Nine pitchers -- Maholm, Gorzelanny, Snell, Ohlendorf, Karstens, Evan Meek, Daniel McCutchen, Jeff Sues and Donnie Veal -- threw off mounds. ... Veal, the hard-throwing Rule 5 draft pick, was throwing bullets even though pitchers were instructed by Kerrigan to throw only to their current peak, "whether that's 60 percent or 75 percent," Kerrigan said. So, what was up with Veal? "That's him at 75 percent," Kerrigan replied. ... Projected cold weather this morning -- as low as 30-40 degrees -- prompted management to push today's session back two hours to 11 a.m. ... The Pirates signed right-handed pitcher Jeremy Powell, 32, to a minor league contract. He made 27 starts with the Montreal Expos in 1998-2000 -- 5-16, 5.84 ERA -- and has pitched in Japan since then.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com. First Published January 15, 2009 5:00 AM