Notes: Bucs explain losing Shelton

Notes: Bucs explain losing Shelton

PITTSBURGH -- Even before former Pirates prospect Chris Shelton became the fastest player in American League history to hit nine home runs by going deep again for the Detroit Tigers on Monday afternoon, it seemed that everyone in baseball was asking the same question: How on Earth could the Pirates have left a player like Shelton exposed to the Rule 5 Draft in the first place?

Shelton after all, was selected as the Pirates' 2003 Minor League Player of the Year just months before being scooped up by the Tigers with the first overall selection in the Rule 5 Draft.

Pirates GM Dave Littlefield answered that question Monday.

"As we evaluated Shelton at that point in time, we definitely liked his bat," said Littlefield. "But the thing we weren't confident about was his defense and where he was going to be able to play [defensively]."

As surprising as it might seem now, the Pirates also had concerns about Shelton's ability to hit for power in the big leagues. After being promoted to Double-A Altoona in 2003, Shelton did not have a home run in 122 at-bats.

"In retrospect, it was a mistake," said Littlefield. "If I had it to do all over again, we certainly wouldn't have [left Shelton unprotected]. As we are now seeing, the power is obviously there."

"I tip my cap to Chris," Littlefield added. "He's obviously performing well and I hear he's improved his defense as well."

Starters must step up: Pirates manager Jim Tracy certainly doesn't need a stats page to know that his starting pitchers haven't carried their weight during the first two weeks of the season.

But the numbers are quite telling.

Entering action Monday, the Pirates ranked last among the 16 teams in the National League with a 6.45 team ERA, a figure that is nearly three-quarters of a run higher than the next worse team. Pirates starters have gone 2-7 with a 7.25 ERA through 14 games. A Pittsburgh bullpen that has been overtaxed due to consistently brief outings by the starters is 2-3 with a 5.25 ERA.

On the other hand, the Pirates ranked second in the NL in both fielding percentage (.988) and home runs (22), sixth in team batting average (.271), and they've been successful in eight of their first nine stolen base attempts.

"There is one element of this club (starting pitching) that we have to see consistency from," said Tracy. "It's going to make us a very competitive club. If all of these other elements stay in place and hold their own, we're a formidable opponent for anybody we play against. But you can't climb out of five- and six-run holes every day. You can't do it."

At least for the time being, Tracy said Monday, there won't be a shakeup in the starting rotation.

"Not in the immediacy of the situation," Tracy said. "I don't want to have those guys out there feel like you are just completely jumping the gun now."

Tracy did, however, let it be known that changes will be forthcoming if his starters don't step it up several notches in the very near future.

"I want to also make it perfectly clear we are definitely interested in results," said Tracy. "We're going to get to the point where we expect to see some of those very favorable results.

"In the interim, do we sit around every day and talk about different possibilities? We certainly do because I want it very clear to this group of players, like I said to them on the 22nd of February, we're looking at moving forward. And we're looking at dramatically improving this club."

The top internal candidate for a spot in the big league starting rotation is southpaw Tom Gorzelanny, who has gone 1-1 with a 2.57 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 14 innings during his three starts with Triple-A Indianapolis. Because Gorzelanny started Monday, he would not be able to join the Pirates staff until Saturday, at the earliest.

Ian Snell, assuming the Pirates don't skip him the next time through the rotation, is in line to start Saturday against the Houston Astros. Tracy said Monday that Snell was not in immediate danger of losing his starting job.

Tracey praises Cards, La Russa: Don't expect to see the kind of on-field confrontations between the Pirates and Cardinals coaching staffs that occured during Llyod McClendon's tenure as the Pittsburgh skipper.

Tracy, who as manager of the Dodgers was eliminated from the 2004 playoffs by the Cardinals, holds the Cardinals and their manager, Tony La Russa, in very high regard. As Tracy sees it, the Cardinals are an organization to be emulated. "They are very well-managed. They are strategically managed as well you can manage a Major League Baseball team can be managed."

The Cardinals have dominated the Pirates during their run of four playoff appearances in the last five years, particularly in Pittsburgh. The Redbirds have won 30 of the 40 meetings between the two teams since PNC Park opened in 2001, including eight of the last nine.

Paulino gets the nod: Catcher Ronny Paulino got his first start Monday night after being recalled from Indianapolis a day earlier to replace injured backstop Ryan Doumit.

Paulino had two hits in just four at-bats with the Pirates as a late-season callup last September. He's hoping to make a bigger impression during his second go-around in the big leagues.

"Now that I was here before, I know how everything goes and what I have to do during the games," said Paulino. "When you have a chance, you have to do the best you can and work 100 percent to stay."

On deck: The Pirates and Cardinals will continue their three-game series at PNC Park on Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. ET. Southpaw Oliver Perez will take the ball for the Bucs against former Pirates right-hander Jeff Suppan.

Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.