PiratesÂ’ relative newcomers relish fresh start

jlembo@bradenton.comFebruary 21, 2009 

BRADENTON — Andy LaRoche’s first few months in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform were punctured by pressure.

He came to his new team via a trade last July, looking to make a good first impression.

Perhaps he tried a little too hard.

“The worse I did, the more I tried to do,” he said. “It was just a bad downward spiral the whole last couple months of the season.”

Midseason trades can be jarring. Just ask LaRoche, one of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ most promising young prospects who hit .152 in 49 games after the Pirates acquired him July 31.

This spring, however, he gets a fresh start with his new team. As does Brandon Moss. And Jeff Karstens. And Ross Ohlendorf. And everyone else Pittsburgh picked up last summer while unloading Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte prior to the trade deadline.

“In each one of them,” said general manager Neal Huntington, “we saw they could be a quality major league player.”

Bay wound up going to the Boston Red Sox in a three-way deal that brought LaRoche — whose older brother, Adam, is Pittsburgh’s first baseman — and Bryan Morris over from the Dodgers, and Moss and pitcher Craig Hansen from the Red Sox, who in turn sent Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers.

The New York Yankees shipped pitchers Karstens, Ohlendorf and Daniel McCutchen, along with promising outfielder Jose Tabata, to the Pirates in exchange for Nady and Marte.

Moss has a shot to be an everyday outfielder. Andy LaRoche is the favorite to be the team’s starting third baseman. Karstens and Ohlendorf are in the mix to make the rotation, and Huntington said Hansen has the potential to get outs working from the back end of the bullpen.

Most importantly, however, each player begins the season in a Pirates uniform.

“Any time you come over to a new place, you’ve got to get to know people, know their personalities and feel everybody out,” said Moss, who batted .222 in 45 games with Pittsburgh after hitting .295 in 34 games with the Red Sox. “I feel like I’ve had enough time to do that, and I’m pretty comfortable with these guys now.”

A new uniform results in new opportunities for guys such as Karstens and Ohlendorf — unlike the pitchers’ previous employer, Pittsburgh is unlikely to throw truckloads of money to free-agent pitchers such as CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.

“It’s two different organizations — one’s going in a route to buy it, one’s going in a route to develop from within,” Karstens said. “I’m happy to be here.”

Karstens’ career in Pittsburgh got off to a flying start. He pitched 15 straight scoreless innings over his first two starts and took a perfect game into the eighth inning at Arizona on Aug. 6. But he lost his next six decisions, finishing 2-6 with a 4.03 ERA.

“You want to come over and throw well, and when I didn’t, you start to put a little more pressure on yourself,” he said. “You’re in a new organization, wanting them to know they made a good trade. And you want the fans to think they did, too.”

Last season is behind Karstens, as it is the rest of the players who came to Pittsburgh late last summer.

In front of them is a wide open 2009.

“Any transition is always difficult for a player,” Huntington said. “They knew they had an opportunity to win a job here — not short term, but long term. They probably put a little too much pressure on themselves. Everybody seems a lot more relaxed and a lot more comfortable as we move forward this year. We expect we’re going to see more true indications of their abilities this year.”

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