Kovacevic: Pirates still playing small ball

| Friday, Dec. 16, 2011

The Pirates are fresh off a Winter Meetings that was at once remarkably busy and remarkably uneventful, making a half-dozen moves while barely making any waves. They're good like that. No one outworks Neal Huntington and his staff, but the end result of weeks of sweat can be Pedro Ciriaco sneaking through waivers.

It all has a hurry-up-and-wait feel to it.

For years now, actually.

And anyone dreaming that the franchise isn't still waiting on that perpetually far-flung future, try penciling in this Opening Day lineup for 2012:

1. Alex Presley, RF

2. Jose Tabata, LF

3. Andrew McCutchen, CF

4. Neil Walker, 2B

5. Casey McGehee, 1B

6. Pedro Alvarez, 3B

7. Clint Barmes, SS

8. Rod Barajas, C

9. Jeff Karstens, P

Yeah, that's why I suggested pencil.

The Pirates might actually creep back into the local consciousness this weekend because of PirateFest, which begins Friday night at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. But it's probably been a blessing that they've been drowned out by the Steelers giving out concussions, the Penguins getting concussions and all manner of collegiate controversy.

Who really noticed that Huntington's offseason has been so blah?

Of that everyday eight up there, only McCutchen and Walker profile as contender-type players based on achievement to date. Newcomers McGehee, Barmes and Barajas are slight upgrades over their predecessors, if that. The rest have issues with inexperience (Presley), injury (Tabata) and an inexplicable inability to strike a ball with a bat combined with an indefensible refusal to play winter ball (Alvarez).

In 2011, Presley (.298) and Walker (.273) were the only ones to top a batting average of .270. Half the lineup batted .240 or lower. And most alarming, all eight combined for a paltry 88 home runs. Even with Clint Hurdle's emphasis on speed, a modest amount of pop is a must.

The main bench move was the return of Nate McLouth, but it remains to be seen whether he can leave his Atlanta ailment behind.

Bottom line: Unless a major upgrade is made at first base — McGehee (.223) and Garrett Jones (.243) should share time there — this roster will fall well short of Huntington's stated primary goal this offseason to "find more offense." Derrek Lee isn't coming back, and there isn't much else at first base in the Pirates' price range, so don't get those hopes up.

The starting pitching, which carried the Pirates to that mirage-like flirtation with first place, hasn't improved, either.

Assuming Karstens can replicate his breakout season — count me in the firm-believer category — he'll be accompanied by up-and-down Kevin Correia, James McDonald and Charlie Morton, plus newly signed Erik Bedard. The latter replaces Paul Maholm and, all things being equal, Bedard is the better pitcher. But Bedard's career has been besieged by injury, while Maholm was the National League's most durable left-hander in the past five years.

It sounds like any further additions will come from within the system, which means Brad Lincoln or Jeff Locke.

The bullpen is the one area where the Pirates held serve.

Jose Veras was traded to Milwaukee for McGehee, but Chris Resop and Jason Grilli were tendered arbitration offers. The latter was refreshing given how Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly have nickel-and-dimed relievers in the past. Resop and Grilli will provide valuable support for Joel Hanrahan and a healthy Evan Meek at the back end. Chris Leroux looked highly promising late in the summer. Daniel McCutchen, Tony Watson and Daniel Moskos also showed signs.

I can't see that mattering much, though, if all else is status quo.

And I really can't see where Huntington was coming from when he made these remarks to reporters last week in Dallas: "We'll still look to find moves to make us better, but we feel like we've taken a big step forward, whether it's bigger or smaller moves. We've put this organization in position to take another big step forward next year."

Big, clearly, is a relative concept.

Shortly after Huntington returned from Dallas, he acquired McGehee, which presumably falls under the "bigger moves" umbrella. But a little perspective is instructive: The Brewers, based in a market two-thirds the size of Pittsburgh and thriving off a vibrant, trusting fan base, had McGehee become expendable because they just invested a three-year, $36 million contract in third baseman Aramis Ramirez.

Imagine the impact this weekend and beyond had the Pirates thought that big.

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