Kovacevic: Cloudy with a chance of baseball

| Wednesday, April 4, 2012

We're still a day away from the first pitch of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club's 126th season, an occasion that should overflow with optimism. Alas, to hear most folks, hope already is lost.

If I were to throw out, oh, 19 rays of sunshine in my 2012 forecast, I'll bet the echo around town — let's call this entity Bill from Blawnox — would gun 'em down a bullet at a time ...

Me: The Pirates led the Central Division 100 games into last season, ahead of the eventual World Series champs and the National League's wild card.

Bill: Yeah, what came next again?

Me: I know. But the Central regressed this winter. The Cardinals lost Albert Pujols, and the Brewers lost Prince Fielder. The Cubs are rebuilding, the Astros are self-destructing and ...

Bill: Wait. Don't say it. The Pirates got better?

Me: I see this will be a challenge. OK, look at the Reds. They should be the class of the division, and the Pirates took 10 of 15 last season, their best record against anyone.

Bill: Are the Pirates still required to travel to Milwaukee• Or can Bud Selig just declare those forfeits?

Me: What about Andrew McCutchen• He's becoming Pittsburgh's most exciting player since Skinny Barry.

Bill: Cooperstown can wait, bud. How exciting was that .216 average after the All-Star break?

Me: Bob Nutting authorized $52 million in draft spending in 2007-11, most in the majors. He just signed McCutchen to a six-year extension for $51.5 million. That's silenced a lot of ...

Bill and all his family, friends and neighbors, in unison: SELL THE TEAM!

Me: Neil Walker told me this in Bradenton a couple weeks ago: "We saw what it was like last year to be up there in July, the way our city reacted. Now we need to finish. We need to get it done. Can you imagine what it'll be like back home when that happens?"

Bill: Nice. Now if only players not born in Pittsburgh actually wanted to play for this team.

Me: Jeff Karstens is for real. Once the Pirates finally got around to giving him a full season as a starter, he had a team-leading 3.38 ERA. Who else will step up?

Bill: The guy was 9-9. My great-granddad taught me that a pitcher's record is all that matters.

Me: Ten of the Pirates' 13 position players batted .300 or better in Grapefruit ball, at least a tiny sign that the offense might be OK.

Bill: Spring stats• We're going there• Wasn't Pedro Alvarez whipping up enough wind in Bradenton to set off hurricane alerts?

Me: Alex Presley, Jose Tabata and McCutchen could make for a fast, contact-rich top three in the batting order.

Bill: Why stop at three• Walker's at cleanup with 12 home runs each of the past two years. Jose Bautista hits that in a doubleheader!

Me: Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas are upgrades at shortstop and catcher.

Bill: Bring Tike Redman back to bat cleanup, and we'll talk. I've got software spreadsheets that show ...

Me: Stop it. Matt Hague was the surprise of the spring with seven home runs. They call him "The Hit Collector."

Bill: I'll file him in my "hit collection" right alongside the odes to Mark Johnson and Freddy Garcia.

Me: The Rays win year after year without a huge payroll. Others do, too. You just have to build from within, stay the course.

Bill: Just in from the Bronx: It's Yankees 27, Stay The Course 0, on the only scoreboard that counts.

Me: Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia show promise ...

Bill: Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens and Bryan Morris. Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and ... can't remember the third guy back then.

Me: Never mind. Joel Hanrahan is trying a gyro pitch that will keep batters off his already unfair heat.

Bill: Sounds like Mariano Rivera's successor.

Me: Uh ... Evan Meek's healthy?

Bill: Erik Bedard's on the team.

Me: Higher payroll?

Bill: Higher prices.

Me: PNC Park is ...

Bill: Higher prices!

Me: Starling Marte!

Bill: Chad Hermansen!

Me: Clint Hurdle!

Bill: Jerry Meals!

OK, I guess that's as good a place to end as any.

Look, it's easy to dismiss a franchise that could extend its professional sports record with a 20th consecutive losing season. I do it, too. All the time.

Not for the next 24 hours.

I'll see you at the ballpark. Be sure to bring your bottled water. Half-full.

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