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12/05/07 8:09 PM ET

Bucs' Russell stresses accountability

Manager believes club must maximize talent to compete

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- When Pirates manager John Russell took his seat in one of the large ballrooms of the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center to address the media on Wednesday, he could look straight ahead and see Cubs manager Lou Piniella.

Well, more likely, Russell could see the swarm of cameras, microphones and recorders situated around Piniella as he spoke, with Piniella to be found somewhere in the background. And then there was Russell, inconspicuously flanked by just a half-dozen reporters.

But as contrasting as the setting may have been, and as different as the two managers' entourages may have looked, the two men had the same message: they both believe they can and will compete in the National League Central next season.

No, Russell isn't unreasonable, and he isn't about to start making a Jon Kitna-like guarantee before the season starts guaranteeing that results are going to immediately change. But that's not to say that Russell doesn't expect that they will.

"It's a wide open division," said Russell, a first-time Major League manager. "You've got some changes that have been occurring the last couple of years in our division. The team that plays the best baseball is going to win. I don't think there is one clear cut favorite."

Even if there were a few favorites, the Pirates, who haven't finished higher than fourth in the National League Central since 1999, wouldn't be on the short list. It seems, however, that Russell would view that more as a result of the Pirates underutilizing their talent more so than just not having enough.

Yes, he is cognizant of the team's perennial struggles and the streak of 15-straight losing seasons hanging over the franchise's head. But he is also a believer in many of the pieces the Pirates already have -- that is, if those pieces are pushed to their potential.

"The biggest thing the Pirates need to improve on are fundamentals," said Russell, who is in the process of purchasing a home in the North Hills of Pittsburgh. "We need to improve on daily work habits. We need to improve on preparation."

Members of the Pirates front office staff have lived by the phrase "change of the clubhouse culture" this offseason amid all the personnel changes that have been made. While staying away from denouncing the way things have been run in the clubhouse in the past, Russell does have a strong opinion as to how the clubhouse needs to be -- and will be -- run in the future.

The Players can expect Russell and his staff to have a stronger clubhouse presence. They should expect the coaches to address players' specific needs in a narrowly tailored fashion. And there is going to be an insistence by this new regime to rely on a high level of accountability to translate into an improved discipline.

"The success that I've had with players and teams is that the culture is you play the game the right way. It may sound like a boring statement, but that's how you get to players," Russell said.

"If you work hard and do the right things, it can be very rewarding. How we do that is get the passion and the accountability back into the clubhouse. It's not cracking the whip. It's getting them to understand why we [what we do]."

Winter Meetings

Russell does have the luxury of having already known a number of players on the Pirates roster after having served as the team's third-base coach from 2003-05. He has already reached out to a few of them, though he expects to get in touch with each one of them now that he officially has his coaching staff in place.

Also on Russell's immediate agenda are meetings with his new coaching staff, something that will begin next week. The group will start to develop both individual player goals and team plans for Spring Training. There will also be final plans made for a mini-camp that is going to be held in Bradenton, Fla., in early January.

Russell, who just finished finalizing his coaching staff on Friday, spoke highly of the group of coaches that have been brought in, highlighting their varying and vast experiences and their teaching mentalities.

"I think the biggest thing is they are looking for the right people," Russell said. "I think they wanted to hire the right people. We weren't going to hire the popular names as coaches. We wanted to hire the coaches that we felt were the best fit for us."

Russell specifically praised the ability of both pitching coach Jeff Andrews and hitting coach Don Long to adapt their blueprint for each player's improvement to the player himself. No longer will certain players be forced to adapt to a cookie-cutter form, but instead they will be worked with on an individual level in a way that will target their personal strengths.

That philosophy is one that hasn't always been preached in Pittsburgh with regularity in the past. However, it's a fitting philosophy for a team fresh off a widespread front office and staff turnover, and for a team looking to turn an underachieving club into a legitimate threat.

"We do have some guys who have done some good things," Russell said. "The difference is that we have to be able to carry that out for 162 games. [Hall of Famer] Mike Schmidt used to [say], 'You're going to win a third of your games. You're going to lose a third of your games. It's what you do in the other third that is going to make you or break you.' Those are some of the things we really need to concentrate on."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.