PITTSBURGH -- At the end of a tumultuous 2008 season, Tom Gorzelanny had all the incentive he needed to buckle down and reprioritize his offseason conditioning. Gorzelanny had watched Paul Maholm's focused offseason preparation be parlayed into breakout results for the left-hander. And while Maholm surged, Gorzelanny floundered. He hadn't arrived at Spring Training in peak shape, which contributed to a minor shoulder injury early in camp. That injury set Gorzelanny back in his preparation, and he never caught up. Soon, early struggles spiraled into a prolonged slump. And just at the midpoint of the season, Gorzelanny found himself not only out of the Pirates' rotation, but out of the big leagues all together.
Before the season started, it would have been hard to imagine that Gorzelanny would take so many steps back in '08. He had emerged as one of the league's top young lefties in 2007 after finishing 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA. Those 14 wins made Gorzelanny the first Pittsburgh left-hander with that many victories since 1996 (Denny Neagle). But as promising a season as '07 was for Gorzelanny, 2008 was at least that trying. "I tried to fight through it, which I had been able to do in the past, but I just couldn't," Gorzelanny said recently, reflecting on the year. "I couldn't do what I wanted to do and be effective on the mound. When I didn't feel as good mentally, then it made me do things mechanically that I didn't want to do. At that point, I was just fighting." One year after eclipsing the 200-innings mark for the first time in his big league career, Gorzelanny narrowly passed the century mark last season. He averaged just five innings in his 21 season starts and finished 6-9 with a 6.66 ERA. His walks total (70) was higher than his number of strikeouts (67). But rather than lamenting what had been, Gorzelanny used '08 as a springboard for what should be in '09. "It's something that you try to forget as quickly as possible," Gorzelanny said. "Dwelling on what happened in the past is not something that's going to make you any better. You can learn from what you've done in the past, though. I'm not going to say that I am going to take back every mistake. I am going to learn from every mistake." The first mistake was that lack of conditioning. Consequently, as soon as Gorzelanny recovered from a ligament sprain in his left middle finger that prematurely ended his season, he dedicated himself to a rigorous workout regimen all offseason. The results of that conditioning will have him arriving in Bradenton, Fla., next week 15 pounds lighter than he was in September. "Especially after what happened last year, I know the importance of coming into Spring Training in great shape," Gorzelanny said. "It shows that I am taking my preparation seriously and that I'm ready to be a good Major League pitcher." Physically, Gorzelanny is in as good condition as he has been during his career. But questions still linger about his mental fortitude. Enduring the season that Gorzelanny did in '08 rocked his confidence and left him battling his mind even more so than his body. The question is whether those scars still remain. Gorzelanny doesn't believe they do. "Just feeling better and being in good shape and knowing that I feel so strong after throwing off the mound or playing catch, plays a big part," he said. "The mental part might play the biggest part. Now, I feel like I can almost do anything. "I realize that it was one of those things where I saw what I did, and I understand what I have to do to be better," he added. "It's more moving forward and knowing that I'm good enough to be at this level." Gorzelanny's obstacles don't end because of successful offseason condition work and a refocused mental approach, though. The left-hander will open Spring Training knowing that he has to fight for five rotation spots among about eight suitors. Maholm already has one of those slots locked up. Ian Snell and Zach Duke, both of whom will be paid in excess of $2 million this year, have an upper hand at the next two spots because of how much the Pirates have invested in them financially. And if those three starters are in fact a part of the Opening Day rotation, that would leave Gorzelanny, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, Daniel McCutchen and Jimmy Barthmaier battling for two remaining rotation spots. Of those five potential starters, Gorzelanny has the most Major League experience with 65 big league starts to his name. That experience would seem to make him favored to crack the rotation, though general manager Neal Huntington has clearly said that past success will play little role in the impending spring tryouts. Still, having seen what Gorzelanny did in 2007 and the preparation he prioritized this offseason, he certainly has a chance at making the rotation and making an impact. And for a staff that finished at the bottom of most league categories last year, that would be a significant cumulative boost. "Going through everything that we went through last year, we've been at our ultimate highs and we've been at our ultimate lows," Gorzelanny said. "We've all learned from last year and we're all stronger from that. "I really believe that we can all come in and be very good. We don't see ourselves as a mediocre staff. We see ourselves as a great staff."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.