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Kovacevic: Insider trading tips for Pirates

| Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 11:51 p.m.
The Pirates' Neil Walker doubles against the Nationals during the ninth inning Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
The Pirates' Neil Walker doubles against the Nationals during the ninth inning Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker (left) tags out the Nationals' Bryce Harper as Harper tried to steal second base during the first inning Tuesday, July 23, 2013, in Washington.
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker (left) tags out the Nationals' Bryce Harper as Harper tried to steal second base during the first inning Tuesday, July 23, 2013, in Washington.

WASHINGTON — You want trades that convert the Pirates into a certified contender?

OK, then, in the context of fighting for first place and knocking down the Nationals yet again, 4-2, Wednesday night, I've got three trades for you right here …

1. Trade this Neil Walker for the real Neil Walker.

You know, the one who can hit .280 in his sleep, who never saw a two-strike count he didn't relish, who can put it over the fence once in a while.

Not this one dragging around a .240 average, six home runs and all the injuries that have cost him chunks of the past two seasons. He returned this week from the latest, a strained oblique.

“I've battled some stuff,” Walker was saying beforehand in the visiting clubhouse at Nationals Park. “Battled a few injuries. Battled myself at the plate, pretty much grinding all year. I haven't gotten hot much. But this is the time of year I start to feel good, and those injuries are behind me.”

He stressed he wasn't citing injuries as an excuse.

“I've just got to do better. I know how much it can mean for this team.”

He would demonstrate exactly that, drilling a ninth-inning RBI double — first-pitch sinker crushed to left-center — for the welcome second run.

Should have seen him light up afterward. And no, not just because of his phantom tag for the closing double play.

“Honestly, it felt great for us as a team,” Walker said of his hit. “Look, numbers are numbers. I'm not going to feel bad over where I am. It's kind of the theme here: Doesn't matter who gets credit or how you get it done. Just get it done.”

Which he did.

Take care of my first trade proposal, and you're jumping 40-50 points in average at one position, more than you'll get with the finest first baseman/right fielder Neal Huntington could find on the outside.

2. Trade this Garrett Jones for the 2012 edition.

Think the Pirates would be combing through options like a broken Justin Morneau if Jones were pacing toward, oh, a .274 average with 27 home runs and 86 RBI?

Well, that was his line last season, not far off his current .255, 10 home runs and 37 RBI and yet far enough that first baseman/right fielder now tops the Pirates' target list.

Yeah, I know, Jones doesn't hit lefties. He also doesn't face lefties — just 16 at-bats — so it's irrelevant. Gaby Sanchez tends to face the lefties and, flat as he's been for a while, he's still .295 against lefties.

Put another way, if Jones goes on one of his tears — hasn't happened yet — those Jones/Sanchez platoon splits look better than any first baseman from the outside.

“Well, unless we get Miguel Cabrera,” Jones conceded with a laugh. “That'd be cool.”

Alas …

“I just need to be consistent. I've been feeling good at the plate since just before the All-Star break, and I feel like it's coming. Going and getting a guy … there's no guarantee. I know what I can do.”

What Jones has done of late: He's 7 for his past 24, and five of those hits have gone for extra bases, though he did lay an egg — as did most guys — against Stephen Strasburg on Wednesday night.

Right field?

That's a separate issue. It was smart of the Pirates to give Jose Tabata a shot, but he's dug himself a 2-for-24 rut at a lousy time, and it's now of genuine urgency to find a right fielder elsewhere.

3. Trade K-machine A.J. Burnett for an efficient model.

Here's a question: If the Pirates wind up in a one-game wild card match this fall, which pitcher would go?

Francisco Liriano, right?

You did watch him utterly annihilate the Nationals, yes?

And which would it have been last fall?

Burnett, without a doubt.

Make no mistake: For all the fuss over adding a bat and replacing Jason Grilli, the No. 1 issue the Pirates face down the stretch is sustaining their excellent starting pitching. Or even improving it.

The best way — better than giving up a mint in prospects for the blah likes of Bud Norris — is for Burnett to get back to going deep in games.

His 3.07 ERA and 118 strikeouts are fine, obviously, but those Ks run up his pitch counts quickly. He's topped six innings only seven times in 17 starts, once in his past six.

“I'm aware of it. I am,” Burnett, the starter in the series finale here Thursday, was saying. “But you know, like a few of us were joking about in here the other day, it's a simple game: That hitter's trying to hit the ball out of the park, and you're trying to strike him out. I won't lie. I like strikeouts. I do. I consider myself to be a power pitcher.”

He grinned.

“But, hey, if they roll over on the first pitch and ground out, I'm OK with that, too.”

Find a right fielder, repair or replace the Fort, do all of the above, and go ahead and print playoff tickets.

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