Mailbag: Is culture change legit?

Mailbag: Is culture change legit?

So I have to admit, I'm missing Pittsburgh. I really think I significantly decreased the mean age of the population in Bradenton, Fla., when I arrived, so as you can imagine I'm beginning to miss seeing people relatively close to my age.

I've resolved never to complain about tunnel traffic in the 'Burgh again after there was so much traffic here at 2 p.m. one afternoon last week that it took me 40 minutes to drive seven miles. How that happens in Bradenton is still beyond me. And not to mention, while I like an array of restaurant choices, it kind of ruins the aesthetics of this place when there is one chain restaurant built as close to the next as is physically possible.

OK. I'm done venting. Now, onto what's important.

With all I'm reading, I am getting the feeling that the players are excited and there really is a culture of change in the air. Is this all really legit, or is this just the press trying to paint a positive picture? If this is legit, it should translate into wins, right?
-- Eric S., Annapolis, Md.

Loaded question there. Challenging our journalistic integrity, eh? I like it.

Well, Eric, here's what I can tell you. I've heard a lot of players compliment the efficiency and instruction level of John Russell's first spring camp. Now to be fair, since I wasn't on the beat last season during Spring Training, I'm not in a position to comment on differences that I see. So, since I can't, I have to put a little more trust into what the players have told me, and they sense something different.

They like the message that they have heard from the top (president Frank Coonelly), all the way down to what they've been told by the field staff. They are excited about a fresh start under new eyes, and they are looking forward to doing it under a coaching staff that has taken a more hands-on instructional approach than had been present in recent years. Players have commented that leadership is more evident, and that the direction the ballclub needs to go is more defined.

The focus under Russell is preparation, not wins and losses. The thought is that with unmatched preparation, the team has to improve its results.

We've been hearing that the starting five has been set as far back as November. I've always thought Spring Training decides who is best and who isn't. Why have the Pirates shut out other possible pitchers from breaking into the starting five?
-- Paul H., Ross Township, Pa.

General manager Neal Huntington told me a while back that he is not a fan of Spring Training battles, which could maybe explain why he was so quick to name his rotation when it would seem that there should still be some question marks. However, just because it's been named doesn't mean that it's been definitively written in ink. Just like Ryan Doumit can challenge Ronny Paulino for more playing time than management had expected before camp opened, the rotation can change.

It would seem that the one spot that isn't locked up as an absolute given is Zach Duke's. It's understandable that management would want to assure him of a rotation spot before spring, simply for psychological reasons. Duke has enough pressure on him already with the need to bounce back after a rough 2007 season. Having to do so knowing that he'd also have to be battling for his spot in the rotation could have made it that much harder. Instead, he's been told that he's already in.

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But, with plenty of starting pitchers in camp, the Pirates aren't going to go into the season with Duke if they feel that one of these other starters would make the club better. This is something to keep your eye on all spring.

OK, Jenifer, I know most fans are more concerned about the team's personnel moves (or lack thereof), but let's talk uniforms. Plain and simple: The red home jerseys are awful, and I'm really hoping that they don't bring them back for a second year. What will our Buccos be wearing in 2008? When cheering for the black and gold, I like to see them wearing their actual colors.
-- Ned S., South Park, Pa.

Yes, the red jerseys will be back for Friday home games this season. And yes, the traditional jerseys with the red accents will also be back. Please don't blame me, I'm just the messenger.

What is the possibility of us seeing the Pirates enter August with both Jason Bay and Xavier Nady gone? It seems that if both put up productive numbers this could be high time to sell.
-- Phil S., Pittsburgh

There's no doubt that a fast start by either Bay or Nady could give the Pirates the trade bait that they need to land some solid young players in return. The Pirates have enough capable outfielders to lessen the blow of losing one of them, and with the way offseason trade talks progressed, it seems fair to assume that the key reason the Pirates didn't trade Bay and/or Nady over the winter was because the club didn't feel that the return value for either was up to par.

Now, with that said, you do have to consider two scenarios. If the Pirates approach the July 31 trade deadline still within an ear shot of a playoff berth, I'd expect there to be hesitation to ship off either of the team's more experienced players. It would seem more likely, at that point, that they would do so after the season instead of risking rocking the current chemistry.

However, if the Pirates are out of the hunt for October at the mid-season point, and Bay and/or Nady have had solid first halves, expect the Pirates to look to make a deal that would benefit the club's future.

Does Indiana, Pa., native Michael Ryan have a shot at making the Major League roster?
-- Shawn W., Buffalo, N.Y.

There's often room to disagree with my responses here in the mailbag, but on this one, I can say with 100 percent confidence that no, Ryan will not make the Pirates' roster. Ryan became a Minor League free agent after the season and was not re-signed by the club. Currently, Ryan is not participating in any big league camp.

What happened to Chad Hermansen and Adam Hyzdu?
-- Mark F., State College, Pa.

Once deemed to be the Pirates' center fielder of the future, Hermansen spent 2006 playing in an independent league before playing in the Minor League systems of the Marlins and Mets last season. Early last month, he signed a Minor League contract with the Angels and is now working out with that club at Spring Training.

After leaving Pittsburgh after the '03 season, Hyzdu split time with three other big league teams over the following three years. However, the outfielder only appeared in a total of 48 Major League games during those three seasons. Hyzdu then spent last season playing in the Japanese Pacific League.

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