If the Pirates are hopeful of avoiding the distinction of becoming the first team in American professional sports history to string together 17 consecutive losing seasons, their rotation is going to have to prove capable of shouldering a load that they collectively couldn't pick up last year.
"They have to learn from what they did last year," manager John Russell said. "We expect improvement out of them this year. It's up to them to take hold of the [role] and run with it."
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
At this time last season, there was a pervading belief that the Bucs would have to rely on their pitching in order to pick up the slack for the question marks in their offense. The core of the rotation -- Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Zach Duke -- was one year older, and the thought was that the pieces were there for the starters to be the strength of a relatively young team.
The end results, however, were disastrous, to the point that Russell and members of management have pointed to the starting pitching as the most disappointing aspect of a 67-win season.
Pirates starters accumulated just 33 wins, a Major League low, last year. Their 5.36 ERA represented the highest such mark in the National League. The pitching staff as a whole walked 657 hitters during the season, the second-highest mark in the Majors. And for the first time since 1890, no one in the staff reached 10 wins.
The struggles by the starting staff had a collectively negative effect on the rest of the club. Despite having one of the league's most prolific offenses for the first half of the season, Pittsburgh still found itself being outscored, 423-313, through the first four innings.
"The rotation that we had last year really hurt us and put us in a bad position early last year," reliever John Grabow said. "That can't happen again this year. They have to put that behind them, and I think that it will make them better players."
The Pirates called on a total of 13 pitchers to make at least one start in 2008, as the fourth and fifth rotation spots were in flux for much of the season. Now, nine of those pitchers are back and participating in Spring Training this year, and it's out of those nine that the Bucs will have to finish constructing their 2009 rotation.
So with essentially the same group of arms back, can a significant turnaround be expected? Ask anyone in that group, and there's no hesitation.
"There have been a lot of conversations between us about how we don't want last year to happen again," said Duke, who went 5-14 with a 4.82 ERA in '08. "You talk to the old-time players, and they say that if they didn't get the job done, they felt like they let their teammates down. I feel like that's building here. I feel like that's where we're going."
Added Russell: "There's a little difference [that] I've noticed about how they are going about things."
There seem to be a number of reasons for the budding optimism in the clubhouse, starting with the competition that this group of pitchers is currently entrenched in.
General manager Neal Huntington has admitted that it was a mistake last year for him to name all five starters before Spring Training began. As a result, lefty Paul Maholm arrived in Bradenton last month as the only starter to have earned a rotation spot going into the '09 season.
And it appears that having nine pitchers competing for four rotation spots has already made a difference.
"I think competition breeds some very positive things, and we're definitely seeing the impact of it," Huntington said. "I think we saw a benefit of the condition those guys came in. I think we saw that guys have really come in and gotten after it right away. The intensity has been good from the first pitch."
There was a noticeable rededication to offseason conditioning programs, as well, following an example set by Maholm before his breakout season in 2008. Gorzelanny arrived in camp 15 pounds lighter than he left in September. Duke worked with a physical therapist this offseason to improve his arm strength.
Management had made it clear that a lackadaisical conditioning regimen would not suffice. It could do so because this year, unlike last, the club has more options.
"With the depth we have," Huntington said, "we shouldn't have as many starts from guys who aren't ready."
The acquisition of that depth began last July, when Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen were all pried away from the Yankees. Each is in the competition for a rotation spot this spring. Phil Dumatrait, who missed half of the '08 season with a shoulder injury from which he is still recovering, will also be ready to jump into rotation consideration by mid-April.
As things stand now, it appears as if Duke and Snell have done enough with their offseason preparation and in their Spring Training appearances to earn two of those four rotation vacancies. And it's likely from the group of Gorzelanny, Ohlendorf and Karstens that the final two rotation plugs will be found.
"We're all making it hard on them as they try to make a decision this spring," Gorzelanny said. "We have to stick together and we have to all push each other to see how much further we can go. People are going to think that we are the worst staff, but we are ready to go out there and show everyone that we really can be a very good pitching staff in this division and this league."
And the key is that if injuries or ineffectiveness plague any of the starters, the Pirates feel comfortable having to dip into their Triple-A options. And they'll also do so sooner.
"This is a different atmosphere," Russell said, "and we expect more out of them."
Give the returning group of starting pitchers credit -- they don't dodge the questions about what happened last season. They are simply ready for it not to define them.
That's not to say, however, that this group doesn't want to be the story again this year. And after hearing a comment about how so many stories in recent months have had to focus on pitching because of what happened last year, Gorzelanny jumped in right on cue.
"You will have to keep writing starting pitching stories," Gorzelanny told a reporter, "because we're going to be doing some great things this year."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.