Pittsburgh is one losing season away from making it 17 sub-.500 finishes in a row. That would break the American professional sports record they share with the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies, who were so bad that they changed their name to the Blue Jays for two seasons during that streak in an attempt to change their image.
However, while the Pirates have been the kings of losing for a generation, second baseman Freddy Sanchez says there is a shift in thinking in the clubhouse.
"I think things are going to be different this season," said Sanchez, who is beginning his seventh season with the club. "I see a different attitude around the clubhouse. There is more of an upbeat atmosphere. Guys are excited and feeling positive about this team. You just have a feeling good things are going to happen for us this season."
Manager John Russell shares Sanchez's enthusiasm but isn't ready to proclaim the Pirates as potential contenders in a National League Central that is weak beyond the two-time defending champion Chicago Cubs. Russell certainly isn't proclaiming any Tampa Bay-style worst-to-first transformation like the one that boosted that downtrodden franchise all the way to the World Series last season.
"I do think it's been a good spring for us," Russell said. "We've gotten a lot of work in, and I think we're moving in the right direction. We certainly want to improve over what we did last season, and I think we will. We have guys who are capable of playing better, and I'm sure they will."
The Pirates were 67-95 last season, falling apart late as they finished 17-37 following the trades of veteran outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady.
The two key hitters acquired in those trades, third baseman Andy LaRoche from the Los Angeles Dodgers and right fielder Brandon Moss from the Boston Red Sox, both struggled to make up the production. LaRoche hit a sickly .152 with three home runs and 12 RBIs in 49 games, while Moss batted .222 with six homers and 23 RBIs in 45 games.
The Pirates also have a new leadoff hitter in left fielder Nyjer Morgan, which will allow center fielder Nate McLouth, who made the All-Star Game and won a Gold Glove in his first season as a starter last year, to drop down to third in the order.
Morgan is one of the fastest players in baseball and has a .296 average and .351 on-base percentage in 86 career major league games the last two seasons. However, he is just getting a chance to play regularly at 28.
Morgan will be followed by Sanchez, McLouth, catcher Ryan Doumit, first baseman Adam LaRoche, Moss, Andy LaRoche and shortstop Jack Wilson. It is not the most fearsome lineup in the league, but the Pirates were also expected to have trouble scoring last season but were fourth in the 14-team NL in runs before Bay and Nady were traded.
The Pittsburgh pitching staff, meanwhile, had plenty of trouble keeping the opposition from scoring runs last season, as its 5.08 ERA was the worst in the NL. Jeff Andrews was fired as pitching coach after only one season on the job, and he was replaced by the well-traveled Joe Kerrigan.
Left-handers Paul Maholm and Zach Duke and right-handers Ian Snell and Ross Ohlendorf give the Pirates four talented starters who are 27 are younger, a good foundation upon which to build a team.
The bullpen, though, is shaping up as a potential disaster. There no relievers the Pirates can seemingly rely upon beyond closer Matt Capps and setup men John Grabow from the left side and Tyler Yates from the right side.
"As a staff, we were embarrassed about what happened last season," Duke said. "I think we all have a lot of motivation to pitch better. I don't think you're going to see a repeat of what happened a year ago."
If the pitching staff does re-enact 2008, then it figures to be another long year for the Pirates. However, they vow that will not be the case.
"Things are different this year," Doumit said. "We're tired of losing, and there is a different attitude now. You could feel the buzz since the first day we got to spring training. This isn't going to be the same old Pirates anymore. It's time to start changing things around here."
THE PIRATES WILL CONTEND IF ...: The pitching staff comes up big after finishing last in the National League with a 5.08 ERA last season. The Pirates have a potentially good young rotation with LHP Paul Maholm, RHP Ian Snell, LHP Zach Duke and RHP Ross Ohlendorf, while the back end of the bullpen should be solid with RHP Matt Capps as the closer and LHP John Grabow and RHP Tyler Yates as the setup men.
PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: RHP Ross Ohlendorf has been dominant through the exhibition season. He gives the Pirates the hard-throwing righty they lacked in the rotation. He seems poised for a breakout at age 26.
ON THE DECLINE: LF Nyjer Morgan has struggled to get on base throughout the spring, which is not a good thing for a leadoff hitter. Many scouts feel he will be exposed by playing regularly.
The Pittsburgh Pirates reduced their spring training roster to 37 players Saturday by optioning outfielder Steve Pearce and catcher Robinzon Diaz to Triple-A Indianapolis and assigning infielder Anderson Machado to their minor league camp.
Diaz was sent down after the Pirates settled on Jason Jaramillo as catcher Ryan Doumit's backup. Jaramillo was acquired during the offseason from the Phillies for former Pirates starting catcher Ronny Paulino.