The first full-squad drill will be on Friday, and the first call of "Play Ball!" will sound on March 3, when the Pirates will visit the Blue Jays in Dunedin to kick off Grapefruit League action, the day before the same teams meet in the McKechnie Field home opener.As players streamed into the Pirate City clubhouse, name-tags were a popular item. Of the 37 pitchers and catchers, 17 were not in last spring's camp. The newcomer with the highest profile is Gerrit Cole -- one of the early arrivals who has already gotten in some work -- but he also has the lowest expectations. Short-range, at least: Last June's No. 1 Draft pick -- No. 11 on MLB.com's list of Top 100 Prospects -- will ostensibly be here only for the experience. Pirates GM Neal Huntington is urging visiting fans to get a quick look at Cole because "he won't be in camp long." (Actually, that would mean he stays put, since Pirate City transitions into the Minor League camp when the big club shifts its base to McKechnie.) Conversely, the newcomer with the most-immediate impact is veteran left-hander Erik Bedard -- at least, until Burnett's appearance. Non-roster pitchers Juan Cruz and left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes are also of high interest. Interestingly, of the eight catchers the Pirates went through during the 2011 season, only two will be back in camp: Michael McKenry and Eric Fryer, the latter returning on a non-roster basis. Veteran Rod Barajas, signed as a free agent, will also don Pirates colors for the first time. The opening days of Spring Training figure to be critical for a Pirates team hoping to halt a streak of 19 consecutive losing seasons. Manager Clint Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage will want to get an early read on Charlie Morton, coming back from October hip surgery. An assessment of the veteran's ability to answer the season-opening bell will influence preparations. There is also curiosity about Kevin Correia, shut down following his Aug. 19 start with a strained left oblique muscle. Jeff Karstens and James McDonald round out the rotation, which suddenly becomes a competitive arena with Burnett making it a six-pack. Hurdle and staff will also want to set a positive early-tone, playing off the considerable success the Pirates enjoyed through the first half of the '11 season, largely on the wings of their pitchers. "Our strength is gonna have to be our starting pitching," Hurdle emphasized. "For four-and-a-half months last year, we were up there with the league leaders. We have much to improve on, but there is tangible evidence of a new dawn coming to Pittsburgh." It does not get any more tangible than the sound of baseballs pounding into the mitts of catchers, a lot louder than raindrops pelting the aluminum covering of walkways. Beats the sound of robins chirping any day.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.