BRADENTON, Fla. -- After Russell Martin finished his work in the batting cage, taking swings against Wandy Rodriguez and Jonathan Sanchez in live batting practice, he did what he's always liked to do as part of his regimen and jogged out to field ground balls at shortstop. By late this summer, he'll be beat up physically, as all catchers are, but for now, in February, he is moving crisply, bouncing around one of the practice fields at the Pittsburgh Pirates' spring training facility.
The Yankees' coaching staff had a deep appreciation for Martin's daily care and effort and would've loved to have had him back, and already the Pirates' staff is seeing the same thing. One of them remarked that having Martin on the team means that at least 12 players -- all members of the pitching staff -- will be a little better in their work.
This will be needed, because in talking with players and staff here, it feels like the training wheels have come off. There is greater expectation, greater pressure, and yes, greater regret, over what was squandered at the end of last season. On Aug. 29, the Pirates were 70-60 and hanging on in the National League wild-card race, and then they utterly collapsed, losing 23 of their final 32 games and missing a chance for the team's first winning season since 1992.
The players' explanations for why that happened are varied, but there is one consistent element: There is a sense they got down on themselves and let themselves be taken down by the momentum of the losing.
So now they have to try to push the rock back up the hill, with more talent than they've had here in a long time. Andrew McCutchen is a full-fledged star, established as one of the best players in the game. They'll be playing veterans at catcher, all around the infield, and in the outfield. As second baseman Neil Walker noted, it's not like they're coming into camp with a bunch of young unproven players battling for jobs. A.J. Burnett is a leader in the rotation, and they'll have Rodriguez for a full season, as well as James McDonald.
Rival evaluators testify to the big-time help that could arrive sometime in the next year in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon -- ranked No. 8 and No. 20 by Keith Law in his ranking of the game's Top 100 prospects earlier this month. Martin has caught both in bullpen sessions, and between rounds of batting practice Wednesday, he talked about their electric stuff, how hard they push themselves.
"They're perfectionists," Martin said with a laugh, and he chuckled as he imitated Cole's reaction to missing the placement on his fastball, kicking at the dirt and cussing under his breath. With some players, Martin noted, you need to get them fully engaged, but this is not the case with Cole and Taillon. With them, it'll be more about getting them to reduce the pressure they put on themselves.
The Pirates' big-picture hopes -- and in conversation Wednesday, Pirates chairman Bob Nutting emphasized his sense that the organization has been moving in the right direction and building something that will last -- are rooted in Cole and Taillon, and the interesting conversation that the team will have this year is: When is the best time to promote them?
Cole, 22, has one start above Double-A as a professional, and Taillon, 21, has three starts above Class A. In theory, the Pirates could promote them sometime this summer -- in Cole's case, maybe sometime earlier, in June, when his arbitration clock would be backed up by a year. But would they just be taking their lumps and still learning in their first months in the big leagues, or helping the Pirates win?
The Tampa Bay Rays have been something of a model for small- and mid-market teams in how they've developed their players, rigidly staying disciplined to maximize their return on talent. For example: Matt Moore had established himself as an elite prospect by 2009, but the Rays developed him deliberately, steadily, keeping him in the minors so that he would be as ready as possible to contributing in the big leagues when he was promoted.
This is an important financial strategy, of course, and not just about baseball. As they ensured he was fully developed, his service-time clock -- for arbitration, for free agency -- remained frozen, and when Moore was promoted, he had the best chance to be as effective as possible. Simply put: More bang for the buck. It might have felt good for the Rays if they had promoted Moore earlier, but as a baseball and business strategy, it made sense to allow him to do his on-the-job training in the minors.
This is where the Pirates are with Cole and Taillon, which means there are competing forces -- what's best in the short term, and what's best in the long term. This is a team that desperately needs to get past the two decades of losing, for the sake of the fans, the players, the franchise -- which explains the urgency in the Pirates' camp this spring. But they also must adhere to the long-term vision.
The same players who fell apart at the end of the 2012 season may need to finish the job themselves in 2013, with Martin and a couple of other newcomers, but without the highly touted reinforcements. That's the way it may have to happen, and maybe the way it should happen. They believe they are closer to being what they were in their first 130 games, rather than what they were in that brutal final month.
Nutting will talk to the players today and tell them: Win a title.
The A's move
Major League Baseball has given the Athletics guidelines for a potential move to San Jose. Commissioner Bud Selig, as written here before, has been slowly building consensus within the sport for this to happen, essentially building a wall of agreement around the Giants -- and this way, the Giants will be told, in so many words: Look, this is going to happen, so make your best deal.
There was a related issue that played out Wednesday, and Oakland owner Lew Wolff got an apology.
Moves, deals and decisions
Dings and dents
7. Phil Hughes has a back injury, and now the Yankees are being cautious with him. Some rival evaluators have said they thought David Phelps would play a crucial role on this pitching staff this season, and this could be a portal for that to happen.
8. Giancarlo Stanton says he's OK after taking a fastball to the head. We'll be talking about Stanton's future on the podcast today. Within the same Manny Navarro piece, there is word that Logan Morrison has gotten the go-ahead to run on a treadmill.
Here's Joe Capozzi's video of Stanton getting hit.
The fight for jobs
1. There are five guys who are battling for the No. 5 spot in the Texas rotation, writes Jeff Wilson.
• Washington has a really deep bench, as Adam Kilgore writes.
• Freddie Freeman is healthy and leaner as he prepares for his third season.
• A Braves prospect is drawing praise.
• The Cubs' youngsters should get some long looks this spring, writes Paul Sullivan.
• Ned Yost had surgery to remove his gall bladder.
• The Diamondbacks held a paintball war.
• The Giants' bullpen has a lot of pitchers, not throwers, writes Henry Schulman.
• Felix threw free and easy in the bullpen, writes Todd Dybas.
• Joe Garagiola created a lot of laughter.
• One of the players named in the recent PED report is a Mets minor leaguer.
• Michael Phelps is set to visit the Orioles' camp today.
• It didn't go well at Kentucky.
And today will be better than yesterday.