Kovacevic: Hits, misses of Pirates' spring

| Friday, March 23, 2012

BRADENTON, Fla. — As I leave behind the sunny, sizzling west coast of Florida for the sunny, sizzling North Shore of Pittsburgh late Friday night, I'll be packing a ton of impressions — large and small, fair and foul — from 10 days at the Pirates' spring training.

Some of the hits and misses ...

Hit: The spring's biggest impact was felt with Andrew McCutchen's $51.5 million extension, but his bat hasn't been far behind: He's 12 for 29 with two home runs and 10 RBI, visibly comfortable at No. 3 in the order. A whole new dimension isn't out of the question.

Miss: No one's missing 'em like Pedro Alvarez, with 13 strikeouts against just four hits in 30 at-bats, with an 0 for 3 yesterday and two more ugly whiffs. And that's to say nothing of three distinctively different batting stances this spring. You would certainly think the results need to change soon.

Hit: Jeff Karstens. Even with a handful of walks of late, he has a 2.38 spring ERA and remains cool even in 90-degree heat.

Miss: Clint Hurdle's choice of Erik Bedard to pitch opening day was uninspired, to say the least. I respect that Hurdle and his staff eyed month-long matchups, but the opener remains special to the players and to the city. Karstens was the pivotal player for the 2011 Pirates. He'd earned it.

Hit: Joel Hanrahan's slider is back in a big way. He saved 40 games without it last year, and now he'll have a dynamic secondary pitch.

Miss: Evan Meek's fastball has taken a while to bounce back from shoulder trouble, though it hit 94 mph Wednesday. He needs power to be effective, and the Pirates need him back in the setup role.

Hit: Starling Marte's progress.

Miss: Tony Sanchez's regress.

Hit: The little stuff is always fun. Josh Harrison had a 2-0 count Wednesday against Boston lefty Jon Lester and, in his words, "Last year, I would have swung at anything close." Not this time. Harrison stayed off an inside fastball for a called strike. It wasn't his pitch. The next one was, and he drilled it to left field for a double. "Man, that felt good," Harrison said with a broad smile.

Miss: The team as a whole still shows terrible patience at the plate. The 36 total walks are fewest in the majors this spring.

Hit: A.J. Burnett's attitude. As he told me the other day, "I don't care what anybody thinks about my being with the Yankees before, I am just really happy to be here. What a group, man." That feeling's mutual. The clubhouse loves the guy.

Miss: Bedard's brevity. He's eminently friendly, but I'll predict now that his three-word answers to all baseball-related questions are going to rub a lot of folks the wrong way.

Hit: Bill Virdon, still wearing his No. 18 at the inverse age of 81 and tirelessly teaching the major-leaguers all six weeks of this camp, puts most of us to shame with his vibrancy. "He's amazing, an inspiration to us all," Steve Blass said. "Bill Virdon and Bill Mazeroski are the greatest professionals I've ever been around in the game of baseball."

Miss: Will we ever see more championship Pirates like Virdon, Maz, Sangy and Teke, all of whom donned the uniform again this spring?

Hit: Hurdle the manager. Right voice, right tone, right time.

Miss: Hurdle the hitting coach. Either he or official hitting coach Gregg Ritchie should feel the burden of helping at least one batter show significant improvement in 2012. There were no such examples in 2011, and no one's jumping out this spring, save, perhaps, Nate McLouth.

Hit: Clint Barmes' steady, heady defense at shortstop is in sharp contrast to whatever adjectives fit predecessor Ronny Cedeno.

Miss: The outfield defense should be better, but this still looks like a team that will play inelegant fundamental baseball. Yesterday was worst of all, with three errors and men picked off second and third base.

Hit: Neil Walker has befriended Alvarez, trying to pull Alvarez through the first real struggle of his baseball life.

Miss: Hey, where's Walker's extension?

Hit: Jose Tabata's smile.

Miss: How he'll react if/when he's traded someday to make room for Marte. Don't bet against it. He's shaping up as the odd man out. The multiyear, mega-cheap extension he signed in 2011 only adds value.

Hit: When the big frames and bigger fastballs of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia arrive in Pittsburgh someday, as Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo gushed, "We'll have a fear factor. Just wait."

Miss: Almost as if to advise caution about pitching prospects, pretty much the whole Class AAA group — Brad Lincoln, Justin Wilson, Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke — has shown little here.

Hit: McKechnie Field, one of the best and certainly the most quaint stadiums in all of Grapefruit ball. If you ever get the chance ...

Miss: Still 13 days until Bedard's first pitch to the Phillies.

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