Adam LaRoche: Hopes hard work brings barn-burner season
Pitcher Paul Maholm mugs for the camera during an inhouse promo to run during games at PNC Park this season.
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Adam LaRoche regularly took himself out back to The Barn. He hacked. He worked.
The place is his own private Pirates hitting academy, behind his Fort Scott, Kan., house. There's a batting cage, weight room, video area, pool table, and more. A hitter's home away from home, a few feet from his.
It was completed last year, while he was with the Pirates, but just in time for him to return home for offseason toil. Baby brother Andy, who arrived by the trade deadline to join his big brother's club for their first baseball time, spent most of a month laboring alongside him in The Barn.
Tomorrow: Position players must report to Bradenton by midnight.
Tuesday: First full-squad workout, noon, Pirate City.
Feb. 25: Grapefruit League opener vs. Philadelphia Phillies, 1:05 p.m., McKechnie Field.
March 16: First TV game on FSN Pittsburgh vs. Tampa Bay, 7:05 p.m.
"It's nice," Adam LaRoche said from a Pirate City where Team Self-Help begins formal work this week toward its 2009 season. "A pretty big barn. Great for the kids: When it's freezing out, we can go in there."
Such a self-created habitat is where these do-it-yourself Pirates come into play because the club that limped to a 17-37 finish remains relatively intact.
Free-agent signee Eric Hinske is expected to platoon in left field, if not win it outright. Ramon Vasquez is a utility infielder. Jason Jaramillo, traded for Ronny Paulino, provides depth at catcher.
And those are your Pirates offseason acquisitions. Two backups. Three players. Barely $4 million spent.
In other words, the returning players are on their own. If the team is to progress, much less end a streak on the precipice of a 17th consecutive losing season that would set a U.S. pro sports record, these Pirates need more from each returning part. They need more from Adam and Andy LaRoche, from previously ailing Freddy Sanchez, from surgically repaired Brandon Moss, from a break-out Nate McLouth who dipped to .269 and four home runs plus 22 RBIs in August and September, from all the young pitchers.
"You know, take a look at it on paper, you don't see a ton of moves," the elder LaRoche said, echoing comments made earlier by the only Pirates player making more than his $7.05 million this season, Jack Wilson. "We have the same core coming back. What we have going for us is the same guys with a little bit more experience, hopefully a little more established as a group, a little more confident. We still have to prove to ourselves that we're a good ballclub. It's going to be a grind.
"Again, clubs are going to look at us as not a threat. That's a fact. We're not going to scare a lot of people. Which is good, really; we can sneak up on people.
"We don't have the luxury of having injuries this year. I mean, can't do it. We got to get guys to stay well and grind it out. There aren't going to be a lot of homers hit. There aren't going to be a lot of shutouts. It's going to be a grind. But it's going to be fun. Guys want to win. Guys are competitive."
No wonder LaRoche, 29, went to work in the offseason. The first baseman had 46 homers and 173 RBIs in his first two seasons with the Pirates, but only started 128 games last year. He went on the disabled list from late July through early August with a strained rib muscle, rallying for a 25-homer, 85-RBI, .270-average finish after opening with his ritual thud, a 2-for-27 start and a .163 April.
"He's my pick to click," catcher Ryan Doumit said of 2009. "The word's out that he notoriously has slumped in the first half. He knows it. It's kind of an inside joke. This year, I think, is the year he's going to break that trend. Call it a gut feeling, but he's going to carry us."
Added hitting coach Don Long: "If you look at where he finishes at the end of the year and the kinds of numbers he puts up, he has a great impact on our club.
"Every hitter, I don't care who you are, is going to have a month where they're not their best. The fact that a particular hitter has a bad month is not a story.
"I'd rather spend time talking about what he did in July, when he hit .390. Or what he did in September [.321 with a team-high seven homers and 26 RBIs that ranked fourth in the National League]. I want him to move in that direction, too."
NOTES -- Twenty-eight pitchers and a half-dozen catchers, along with a handful of assorted early reporting position players, took the field a few minutes before the scheduled 12:30 p.m. official opening of spring training. ... A strident manager John Russell talked about the message he, his coaches and the front office all are giving the players this season: "It's time for us as an organization and our players to realize that losing is not acceptable. It's not an acceptable way of life for a Pirate. Not that we're not going to lose games. ... It's the mind-set. We're not going to accept losing, because we're going to strive to give ourselves a chance to win each night, find ways to win, pitch better, do the little things better."
First Published February 15, 2009 12:00 am