Kovacevic: This has to be Year of the Bat

| Sunday, March 16, 2014, 10:12 p.m.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — Gerrit Cole was calling the Pirates' rotation “absolutely still a strength of this ballclub,” and being that the kid was clutching a baseball as he spoke and is capable of casually throwing that baseball 100 mph, it was a hard point to contest.

Besides, he was right.

In addition to Cole, Francisco Liriano is a legit ace, and Charlie Morton and Wandy Rodriguez could make a solid 3-4 assuming Rodriguez's health. Struggling Edinson Volquez will open the season in the rotation, Neal Huntington reiterated Sunday, but even if that $5 million signing turns out to be as stupid as it currently appears, the GM always has shown a willingness to swallow mistakes. Jeff Locke will be ready to take over.

The starters were fifth-best in baseball last summer. The relievers, for that matter, were third-best. And the defense, depending on your metric of choice, might have been the most efficient anywhere.

Which should lead, if you ask me, to two telling conclusions about the coming season:

1. The Pirates can't realistically get much better at any of the above.

2. I'll let Neil Walker take this one: “We need to hit better. That's the biggest single difference we can make as a team, and we know that. It's on us. Put it on us.”

Well, OK.

For all the Pirates' superlative performances in 2013, no one could claim that the offense played anything more than a supporting role. Not with a .245 team batting average (22nd in the majors), .313 on-base percentage (17th), 3.91 runs per game (20th), 161 home runs (13th) and 1,330 strikeouts (sixth most).

In fact, the only facet of hitting in which the Pirates stood out was being hit. That happened 88 times, a dozen more than any other team.

Barring more bruises and welts, then, the best way – maybe the only way – for these Pirates to achieve their goal of exceeding last season's performance is for this to be the Year of the Bat.

I'm not sure that's possible, but I am sure of this: Each individual still has room between his head and his personal ceiling.

As Clint Barmes put it, “And I don't think there's a guy in here, even Cutch, who can't improve.”

Go right through the order: Marte's .343 OBP would move into a more acceptable leadoff range with a better eye than he showed in walking only 25 times in 510 at-bats. Russell Martin had a terrific eye but not enough solid contact with a .226 average. Andrew McCutchen was MVP, of course, but even he “didn't have his career year just yet,” Clint Hurdle correctly observed. Pedro Alvarez's 36 home runs drowned out his 186 strikeouts, but a drop in the latter would be welcome. Walker had a down year overall, in large part because he forgot how to hit right-handed. The right-field platoon of Jose Tabata/Travis Snider and first-base platoon of Gaby Sanchez/Andrew Lambo can do better. There's more to be had from Jordy Mercer way down at No. 8, too.

“Oh, for sure,” Mercer said. He batted .285 with eight home runs in 333 at-bats but walked only 22 times. “I'm definitely looking to get on base more.”

All but Lambo are the same names in pretty much the same places, so it'll take something extra to effect meaningful change.

To that end, no individual in this camp is drawing more raves than Jeff Branson, the new hitting coach. He was an assistant to Jay Bell, the previous hitting coach, but rose to the main role when Bell took the bench coach job in Cincinnati. The latter, tellingly, was a move the Pirates didn't resist in the slightest. Many of the current players were taught by Branson over his decade-plus as a hitting instructor and manager in the Pirates' system, and they've long loved the guy.

They're responding, too.

“I love what I'm seeing in the cage,” Hurdle said. “To me, that's been the biggest difference since last season, the attitude, the approach we're taking. It's intense.”

Branson wanted no part of taking credit for that.

“What we're seeing is the players taking ownership, and that's it,” he said. “We're not doing anything differently. Every morning, they have a plan, a purpose for what they want to work on, and they're getting it done. That's 100 percent to the players' credit.”

Taking that further, he added, “There's not a guy here who can't do better than he did last season, and they all know it. It starts there. Beyond that, it's about staying consistent to our approach. Every time we get in the box, it's important not to waver from our thoughts, from what our plan is. We can't let one pitch take us out of our plan or dictate the rest of the at-bat. We're not on the pitcher's plan. We're committed to our plan.”

A hitting coach can't swing the bat, but he can make a difference. And employing three in the past three years is a precarious path for an organization that preaches consistency in its teachings.

It's past time for the pupils to step up.

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