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12/11/08 12:09 AM EST

Russell lauds rotation depth, speed

Bucs manager optimistic despite lack of early moves

LAS VEGAS -- As the Winter Meetings come to a close, the Pirates' roster still looks much like it did at the end of the 2008 season. That would appear to be reason for serious concern, considering the '08 club finished the year 67-95 and at the bottom of the National League Central.

However, during his scheduled Winter Meetings media session on Wednesday, Pirates manager John Russell maintained that a lack of changes isn't necessarily a precursor for another lost season.

"Everybody says, 'Well, the Pirates are this and that,'" Russell said. "You know what, we are going to have a very competitive team. Yeah, there's optimism, and we could theoretically look at the team now and be more excited than last year because we have more depth at starting pitching and we have a little bit more speed. I think looking at it that way, if we were sitting here today last year with this team, we would have been pretty excited about it.

"We could surprise some people," he continued. "I don't like to say that and I don't say it very often, but we'll see what plays out. But I don't mind being the underdog."

Certainly much can happen in the next two months leading up to Spring Training, and the need for upgrades in certain areas still remains, but Russell said he believes that the foundation is already there.

He suggested that the Pirates will start the season with Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss manning the outfield, which would give the Pirates a speedier trio than the team had in the outfield a year ago.

Competition among eight to 10 pitchers for the five rotation spots, Russell said, is evidence of greater pitching depth. Couple that depth with the addition of a new, experienced pitching coach in Joe Kerrigan, and Russell sees improvement in the one area that needs it most.

Remember, the Pirates finished the season with a league-worst 5.08 ERA and a league-high 657 walks. Not one pitcher on the staff finished the season with 10 wins.

"[We had an] inconsistent game plan, inconsistent approach, and gave up way too many runs in the first inning, so [that] leads me to believe we were not quite prepared to go out to the mound," Russell said. "We didn't do things that we are capable of doing."

This year, Russell plans to conduct Spring Training with his pitchers knowing that, aside from Paul Maholm, no one is being handed a rotation spot without competition.

It's no secret that Russell's optimism is not shared universally. The Pirates are one season away from establishing a new Major League record for most losing seasons, and most would currently set the odds of the team doing so pretty high. With no substantial additions at this point, that would seem to be a fair assessment.

Just don't share that opinion with Russell, who continues to buy stock in his emphasis on preparation and in the players he watched progress last year.

"We'll strive every day, the staff and I and the players, to continue to excel and not be complacent and not be happy with where we are at," Russell said. "Until we get that exactly headed in the right direction, that's not going to happen, and that's why we are stressing the hard work. We saw a lot of progress with it last year."

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