WHEELING - Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Ross Ohlendorf is known as one of the smartest guys in baseball. He's a Princeton graduate who wrote his senior thesis by using sabermetrics to demonstrate the return on investment from the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft.
On Tuesday, Ohlendorf was one of three Pirates players at a lunchtime Winter Caravan stop at Wheeling Island Casino-Hotel-Racetrack, and he told the fans the Pirates have their work cut out for them in 2011.
"We're going to have to improve more than any other team to get to where we want to go," he said. "But I think it's definitely possible for us to win the division.
PHOTO BY ANDY LLOYD
Pirates broadcaster Bob Walk, rear, talks as players, from left: Evan Meek, Andrew McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf listen.
"... I think the new coaching staff (including veteran manager Clint Hurdle) gives us a chance to ... have a fresh start, but we also have a significant group of guys, especially position players, that are young and staring to break through to where I expect us to be better."
Team President Frank Coonelly readily acknowledges the Pirates' challenges this year, but said he is "all-in'' to Hurdle's way of thinking.
"Clint has (a philosophy that) ... the (windshield) in your car is much bigger than the rearview mirror and we're looking forward, we're not looking at the past," Coonelly said.
The players also are ready for a turnaround, particularly reliever Evan Meek.
"To me, I'm starting to get upset," he said. "I want spring training to hurry up and come and be over with. We open in Chicago, I want to hurry up and get to Chicago and start the season. I want to start winning. I feel like everyone's kind of on the same page as me."
Meek, the Pirates lone All-Star last season, has been with the club for three years, and he's emerged as one of the league's top relievers. He's grown up with a lot of other guys on the young Pirates team.
"I think everyone in that clubhouse cares about how they play, cares about their numbers, but at the same time there's a bigger picture. ... You win and lose as a team," Meek said. "You don't want individuals; you don't want people who just care about themselves. I can tell you that the group of guys we have now, you want to play for the guy next to you."
That's why Coonelly believes the future is bright in Pittsburgh.
"You buy in probably because you love the Pirates," he said. "But more importantly you buy in because you see the talent that's added to the organization over the last two years in particular, and you're looking for a full year of (left fielder) Jose Tabata, a full year of (second baseman) Neil Walker, a full year of (third baseman) Pedro Alvarez, and seeing what these young players can do. And then you're looking for the next wave."
That next wave, he says, is pitching, such as hot-shot prospects Bryan Morris and Rudy Owens, key figures in Class AA Altoona's championship season in 2010.
"The next wave, you will see some, if not the majority of that at some point at PNC Park in the 2011 season, are the young arms that really dominated the Eastern League last year," Coonelly said.