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Kovacevic: Who's on first? Don't fret about it

| Wednesday, March 12, 2014, 10:48 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates first baseman Andrew Lambo bats against the Twins on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
The Pirates' Andrew Lambo rounds the bases after hitting a solo homer against the Reds on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.

FORT MYERS, Fla. — It's 81 degrees, the sun's searing, the ball's booming off Pedro Alvarez's bat beyond the right-center canopy, Gerrit Cole's carving up opponents with his curve, Josh Harrison is pretty much dancing about the dugout, and it's all as clear as the bright blue skies: The Pirates' suddenly wonderful world remains completely wonderful.

Which is positively mind-blowing.

Still.

“It's a great group,” Clint Hurdle beams like a proud papa after the Pirates' 8-4 spring victory over the Minnesota Twins on Wednesday at Hammond Stadium. “These gentlemen enjoy what they do.”

It's easy to see, on and off the diamond.

So, um, what were we talking about again?

Oh, yeah, almost forgot: The Pirates are pathetically cheap, they prioritize profit over winning, they didn't lift a pinky all winter to improve, and this season will represent a step back if not an outright return to the old reality.

I get it all there?

Sorry, wait … BOB NUTTING.

If that still doesn't cut it, let me condense it all into a single conceptual complaint: No one trusts Andrew Lambo.

Really, I think that's it. Because if they did, all other complaints and concerns, legit and otherwise, would be washed out. No one would worry about opening-day payroll being about $20 million too low or A.J Burnett's exit or Edinson Volquez spraying fastballs or Gregory Polanco being ticketed to start in the minors.

If only the Pirates had found themselves a bona fide bopper at first base.

Well …

“I can hit at this level. I belong here. I know that,” Lambo was telling me in the visitors' dugout before the first pitch. “That doesn't mean I think I deserve it. I believe you have to earn what you get. But I also believe in myself.”

I won't lie: I haven't believed in Lambo. I've heard for years about an inconsistent approach at the plate, a dubious glove, a cocky swagger and of course the 50-game drug suspension in 2010 while in the Los Angeles Dodgers' system after testing positive for a “drug of abuse.” It was suspected to be for smoking pot, an offense he had committed in high school, as well. To be blunt, he came across as a fool, throwing away talent that once had him rated Los Angeles' No. 1 prospect, not to mention the millions that can come with a big-league career.

Not anymore. He's 25 now, yet he sounds like he has aged a decade since our initial conversations a couple of years ago.

“Ya think?” he came back with a booming laugh. “Yeah, I've grown up. No question. Unfortunately, people mature in different stages, and mine wasn't fast enough. But I do feel like I've matured a lot, and that translates onto the field. It's made me a better person and player, too.”

His bat has backed that up: He homered 33 times last season, which he split among Double-A Altoona, Triple-A Indianapolis and down the stretch with the Pirates. That, as general manager Neal Huntington points out, is “a big power number no matter where you're playing.” Lambo batted a cumulative .278 with a .341 on-base percentage, 26 doubles and 101 RBIs. In the bigs, he was 7 for 30 with a home run.

That resume might not be getting taken seriously outside the Pirates, but it sure is on the inside.

Let me put it another way: Based on everything I heard Wednesday, anyone waiting for the first base cavalry will be waiting a while.

“As an organization, we need to look at Andrew's power,” Hurdle said. “You can go spend $10 million, $15 million on a free agent with power, but you're obviously better served to find your own internally.”

You can call that cheap. I'll call it smart. Power hitters can cost as much on the open market as starting pitchers. If anyone wants the Pirates to have more than a couple at a time, clenched teeth or not, this is how it has to be.

Patience, of course, will be needed with Lambo. He hasn't spent a month in the majors, he strikes out — as power hitters will do — and there will be struggles. Even here, Lambo has begun beating himself up a bit for a 2-for-23 start, including a walk and two more hitless at-bats Wednesday.

“He's a young player, and he's going to have anxieties,” Hurdle continued. “But we've got to see what we have.”

Exactly.

John Schuerholz, legendary former GM of the Atlanta Braves, once wrote that the most important talent for any organization to scout is its own. It's brilliant, if you think about it. All of a team's scouting, whether amateur or that of other teams, is wasted if the players acquired aren't identified and valued properly.

In the positive sense, think Tony Watson. He was a bit starter in the minors under Dave Littlefield but was correctly pegged by the current management as having reliever potential. It's found money.

In the negative sense, well, how about Jose Bautista?

I'm not suggesting Lambo will blossom into Bautista. That was a ridiculous rarity and, as Huntington once told me, “Do you really think we'd have gotten rid of Jose if we thought he'd become Babe Ruth?”

Of course not. But Lambo's got power. And the Pirates would be absolutely nuts not to find out if a young lefty slugger can carve out a career for himself at PNC Park, a place tailored for exactly that.

“I know it, too,” Lambo said with a smile. “I've looked at that wall like you wouldn't believe.”

Yeah, it would have been comforting had the Pirates acquired James Loney or another veteran. And it stands to reason they still might go outside if Lambo bombs by, say, the trading deadline. But it's not as if the existing short term is unlivable. Gaby Sanchez mashes lefties, and he'll take the bulk of those matchups again. In the meantime, the Pirates can invest at least a solid half-season learning more about Lambo.

Here's guessing no one will take offense at his $510,000 salary if that turns out as intended.

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