Part of it was a result of the changeover in the front office and field staff. But much of it centered around a promising young starting rotation and the potential it held in its arms.
"I see no reason why we can't be one of the best rotations in the National League," starter Tom Gorzelanny said back on one of those winter days. "We've got youth, but we've got experience. We've got a lot of fire in this rotation. If we can all bring it together, which I think we will this season, we'll be a unit where we can go out there and pick up each other."
Gorzelanny wasn't alone in his prediction. It was nearly unanimous. The starting rotation would be the strength of the '08 club. The question would be whether the bullpen and the offense could match up.
But as the Pirates return from the All-Star break to begin the second half of the season, the reality is that the rotation has been far from one of the best in the league this season. Heading into Thursday's second-half opener in Colorado, the Pirates' starters have combined for the Majors' worst ERA at 5.64.
More pointedly, though, the greatest disappointment has to lie in the unachieved expectations of Gorzelanny and Ian Snell. Expected to be the cornerstone of the rotation, neither strung together much to build off of during the first three months.
"You definitely can look back on what could have been and think about how if we had all done well all year we would have been in a different situation," Gorzelanny said, recently. "But it's in the past and you can't worry about that. Right now I think the staff has learned from that and I think we can build from that in the second half."
Snell's first half included a trip to the disabled list and five starts where he didn't make it through the fifth. After mid-April, he never put together back-to-back quality starts. His walk totals rose, while his strikeout numbers didn't.
For Gorzelanny, the numbers were worse. His ERA has been above six since his first start in May, while his walks total was worst among all NL starters. Now he is in Triple-A Indianapolis, and there's no guarantee that he will be back in Pittsburgh before season's end.
In the meantime, the bullpen has proven to be fairly reliable, and the offense has stepped up to be one of the league's best.
|PIRATES TOP PERFORMANCES|
4/14, PIT 6, LA 4 -- McLouth shocks Dodgers
Nate McLouth connects with two outs in the top of the ninth to sink the Dodgers at Chavez Ravine.
4/27, PIT 5, PHI 1 -- Nady lays out
Xavier Nady covers plenty of ground in making the spectacular diving grab.
5/25, PIT 6, CHC 5 -- Bay wins it late, again
Jason Bay strokes his second consecutive walk-off hit, this one a single in the 13th inning.
6/2, PIT 5, STL 4 -- Michaels delivers in the pinch
Jason Michaels' pinch-hit grand slam knots the game in the seventh inning.
6/20, PIT 1, TOR 0 -- Wilson flashes leather
Jack Wilson makes a terrific sliding stop and a strong throw to end the 11th inning.
So as the Pirates begin preparing for the final months of the season, a push toward .500 will rely heavily on how well the rotation holds up. Paul Maholm and Zach Duke have been the saviors, stabilizing the rotation as best they can when called on. But the Pirates are going to need more.
"We've got to start sacrificing," Snell said of the rotation. "The more we work as a team, like Tampa Bay for instance, the better we're going to be. If we can just all get in a rhythm all together and feed off each other, I think it would be a fun second half for us."
They will need Phil Dumatrait to return to his pre-injury form. They will need Snell to regain his confidence and rediscover his dominance. And they will need someone -- whether that be John Van Benschoten or anyone else -- to step up into the fifth spot in the rotation.
This will also require a change in pattern from last season, in which the rotation posted a 5.44 post-All-Star Game ERA, which was the worst in the Majors.
"Obviously we've hit a few bumps in the road, but if we can get them all the way that we know they can pitch, we're right in the game," manager John Russell said. "That's what we're looking for."