After the Pittsburgh Pirates hired Clint Hurdle as manager in November, the team’s players picked up their cell phones and went to work.
They called other players who had worked with Hurdle during his recent stints as manager of the Colorado Rockies and hitting coach for the Texas Rangers. Both teams went to the World Series during Hurdle’s tenure.
The Pirates, shell-shocked after losing 105 games last season, wanted to know if Hurdle really could make that kind of a difference with their club. The overwhelming consensus was, yes, he can.
“Everybody had nothing but great things to say about Hurdle, so I’m excited to work with him,” catcher Ryan Doumit said.
After finishing below .500 the past 18 seasons, the longest losing streak in North American pro sports, the Pirates can use any sign of hope.
“I asked (Rangers slugger) Josh Hamilton and he said Clint’s the loudest individual you’ll ever be around,” pitcher Paul Maholm said, grinning. “Clint is energetic, he expects a lot out of us and he’s going to kick us in the rear when we need it. I think it’s going to be a positive thing for everyone in the clubhouse.”
Hurdle’s arrival seemingly has sparked some enthusiasm — all 62 players had reported to camp by Friday, a day before the deadline. Saturday morning, the team assembled for a talk with president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington before beginning its first official full-squad workout.
“We were getting rumblings that a bunch of them were going to show up (early) and they did,” Hurdle said. “It’s another sign of them taking accountability and responsibility for what’s in front of us.”
The Pirates were minor players in the free-agent market over the winter, but did try to shore up one of the league’s worst starting rotations by signing right-hander Kevin Correia to a two-year, $8 million contract.
In other deals, outfielder Matt Diaz, who’ll give some much-needed offense against left-handed pitchers, got a two-year, $4.25 million deal to be a platoon player in right field, and first baseman Lyle Overbay, who hit 20 homers last season with Toronto, got a one-year, $5 million contract.
All three said the presence of Hurdle, an outgoing and player-friendly skipper, helped sway them toward signing with the Pirates.
“Signing here just felt right from the very beginning,” Diaz said. “Especially after they laid out their plan for the future, it was really easy to get excited about it.”
Four players at the center of that rebuilding plan are outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
The 24-year-old McCutchen is going into his third season. The MLB Network recently rated him the best active center fielder in the game.
He hit .286 with 16 homers, 56 RBIs and 33 stolen bases last season.
Both Tabata, who hit .308 last season, and Walker, who hit .296, got a vote for rookie of the year. Walker was a first-round draft pick in 2004 as a catcher, but last season blossomed at second after Aki Iwamura was sent to the minors.
“It’s amazing what Neil did,” Huntington said. “He played 21 games in his life at (second), then not only competed, but did well at the major league level. And he got better as the season went on.”
The starting rotation went 34-84 with a 5.28 ERA last season, a big reason the Pirates finished last in the NL Central for the fourth straight year.
The likely opening day starter is left-hander Paul Maholm, who went 9-15 with a 5.10 ERA. Correia, a right-hander, replaces lefty Zach Duke, who was traded to Arizona.
“It’s going to be fun to be on a team that is transitioning from a young team that’s just trying to figure it out to a good, competitive baseball team,” Correia said. “I think I can make a difference here.”