Bucs camp begins with focus on pitching

GM Huntington: 'Championship teams typically are based around starting pitching'

February 14th, 2019

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Before the Pirates' pitchers and catchers warmed up for their first workout on Wednesday, they gathered to meet with Clint Hurdle. Pittsburgh's manager delivered a quick message, he said, one meant to "reinforce the belief that the game leans heavily upon pitching."

The Pirates will certainly lean heavily upon pitching this season, counting on their talented rotation and bullpen to help them contend in the loaded National League Central. Hurdle said this year's team reminds him of Pittsburgh's 2013 club, a group that found success through stellar run prevention. General manager Neal Huntington agreed.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"We like this young core. We like this group of players. This feels a lot like '13," Huntington said after Wednesday's workout. "We had a group of young players. We added a couple veterans that balanced us out. We had some young players that were ready to take the next steps forward in their careers. The external noise was, 'We weren't good enough.' We didn't get as far as we needed in the postseason, but we put together some good runs. This club has that feel."

The Pirates are beginning Spring Training with four sure things in the rotation: , , and . will compete with and for the fifth spot. They have plenty of options to round out a bullpen that will be led by , , and .

"Championship teams typically are based around starting pitching, and you win the games that you're supposed to win because of your back end," Huntington said. "Then, you score."

But can these Pirates score enough to support their pitching staff? They finished last season with 692 runs, 10th-most in the National League, but didn't bring in any big bats this offseason to bolster the lineup. Instead, they are looking to get more out of their returning players with the help of hitting coach Rick Eckstein and assistant hitting coach Jacob Cruz, both of whom were hired this winter.

"I don't want to put the weight of the world on Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz, but they're here for a reason," Huntington said. "We believe that the new voice, the new thoughts, the new approach, the new emphasis can help our entire offense take a step forward."

That new approach will apparently be taught throughout the organization. With former hitting coordinator Larry Sutton now coaching in the Royals' system, Huntington noted that Kevin Young and Drew Saylor will take on leadership roles at the Minor League level. Young, a former player and current special assistant in the front office, had "offensive coordinator" added to his job description this year. Saylor, hired as the Class A Short-Season West Virginia manager, will also serve as the Pirates' assistant hitting coordinator.

Huntington didn't get into any specifics about that new approach, but Hurdle has mentioned a focus on driving -- not just lifting -- the ball more. Eckstein and Cruz are still relatively new to the organization, focused first and foremost on building relationships with Pittsburgh's hitters.

"The idea is, how do we get better? How do we adapt to and adopt the modern philosophy?" Huntington said. "How do we move forward in this space? This hitting space is evolving quickly. Most importantly, how do we put our hitters in position to do damage and help them do the most damage that they can do, whether it's home runs or balls in the gap, hard contact, taking the walks that they're supposed to take, helping them understand how to be the best hitters that they can be. We felt like the best way to do that was to make an overall change."