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Kovacevic: These Pirates can ... but will they?

| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 10:59 p.m.
Pirates Opening Day starting pitcher A.J. Burnett works out Sunday, March 31, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates Opening Day starting pitcher A.J. Burnett works out Sunday, March 31, 2013, at PNC Park.

As the Pirates' players and coaches took to PNC Park's moist outfield grass for their annual pre-Opening Day workout Sunday afternoon, the charcoal-pastel skies above — symbolically or not — gave off a terribly apocalyptic feel.

Not to be weird or anything, but it was like gloom, doom ... and plenty of room.

The stadium was opened to fans — free parking and all — but only 250 or so showed. No more than 50 stuck it out to the end. Maybe it's that it was Easter Sunday, sprinkling and all that.

Clint Hurdle would hold a news conference before a Pitt football-sized media pack, about a dozen reporters and a couple of cameras. Maybe everyone's lenses were focused on Sidney Crosby's jaw.

Hurdle made a rather bold declaration that, in the past, would have raised eyebrows: “At the end of the year, only one team can be out there jumping around like 6-year-olds. Our objective is to be that team.”

Oh, World Series champs?

Barely a pen budged. Maybe everyone's heard it all before.

I'll grant you, none of this means much in isolation. It's all just shrapnel off the greater 20-year grenade. Same goes for losing to your own Double-A affiliate or signing a pitcher with a broken arm off the Island of Misfit Toys.

And yet, in the bigger picture, to me, here's where your Pittsburgh Baseball Club stands on the occasion of its 127th opener: They don't just have to overcome Chicago and Cincinnati and St. Louis and Milwaukee, they have to overcome being the Pirates.

Yeah, all over again.

Those giddy highs of the past two Julys, the Michael McKenry blast, the A.J. Burnett salute, the ESPN anchors in disco attire shaking to “We Are Family” … it's all on reset. The emotion meter is right back on zero.

And it'll only restart, I think, by regaining the trust of a fan base that's had its hopes raised then ruined the past two years.

Neil Walker sees it somewhat differently.

On one hand, he acknowledged the obvious: “Of course everyone would love to see the team do better. Especially in this town with the Pens and Steelers. If you're not winning championships here, you're on the bottom of the totem pole.”

On the other hand …

“But trust? Well, the fans haven't invested more than we have in this clubhouse, I can tell you that. Nobody will understand how much all that hurt unless they're in here. To your run-of-the-mill fan, maybe there'll be some of that. But to people who know baseball and see what's going on, see how talented this group really is … I think they'll be with us.”

Detect a little defensiveness?

A little us-against-the-world?

Get used to it. Doesn't take much time around this group this spring to grasp that the Pirates' players know they're the only ones who can change the script. They won't agonize over outside criticisms or jeers or even palpable apathy.

Burnett went so far as to say this of the players he unquestionably leads: “We're not going to answer any more last-year questions. We have to get over the fact that it happened. This year is about to start.”

They can get it done, too.

That's can.

It would be preposterous to count out the Pirates. They've got their most solid Nos. 1-2 starters in years in Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez, a strike-thrower in new closer Jason Grilli, and a lineup that includes a potential MVP in Andrew McCutchen, the consistency of Walker, the potential pop of Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and Garrett Jones.

It's a good core. If Alvarez and Marte elevate, it's more.

But the rest?

This is where the Pirates' shallow drafting and botching of assets exposes an embarrassing lack of depth. The rest of the rotation — James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, Jeff Locke — is a downgrade. The bullpen is riddled with questions. Russell Martin, Clint Barmes and Gaby Sanchez all hovered over the Mendoza Line last summer. The bench has no appreciable trait.

On top of that, the Central Division will be a challenge, and the first six weeks of the Pirates' schedule will be the toughest in the majors per an ESPN computer analysis.

Burnett was asked how the Pirates rate themselves.

“We'll see,” came the cool reply. “We had high hopes last year, and that didn't work out. We just need to go get it done.”

I'll say it again: They can. And along the way, they'd stick it to an awful lot of people who right now are either doubting or tuning them out altogether.

But I don't think they will: 76-86.

Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.

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