Kovacevic: Panic over Pirates? In April?
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The formula for the 2014 Pirates' success, on its surface, probably looked so simple all winter long: Build from the same 94-win base, bring back A.J. Burnett, sign a bopping first baseman, and step on the gas with a prospect who plays right field like a babyfaced Dave Parker.
It would be like 2013, only with so much more.
Except for one thing.
“It isn't easy,” reliever Tony Watson was saying Thursday with the Pirates' highly welcome return from a 3-6 road trip and even more welcome 11-2 beating of the still-annoying Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park. “We had a tough time in Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati … three tough teams in our division. It's a long year. A long process. But we also know it's the second week in the first month of the season. We just need to get back on the right foot here.”
Yeah, what he said.
Because fact is, that trip and all other precedents weren't about to stop much-maligned $5 million signee Edinson Volquez from throwing seven strikingly efficient innings, or .171-hitting Jordy Mercer from sparking the winning rally or Josh Harrison from finally recording his first hit of the year with, of all things, a two-run home run that followed two failed bunt tries.
That's baseball, kids. Never another explanation needed.
“I've seen it happen in other games as a manager. You try to get the bunt down, it doesn't happen ... all right, you move on,” Clint Hurdle said. “I'm really happy for him.”
“I went up there without thinking about anything that came before,” Harrison said. “Pinch-hitting is hard. You let go of the past and just do your best that day.”
So no, an 8-8 record doesn't look or feel right after how the bar's been rightly raised around here. Even if, as Watson reminded by way of asking, “Didn't we have pretty much the same record last year?” They did, indeed. The 2013 Pirates were 7-8, then 8-8.
Of course, it was also at that very point that they took off and never sniffed .500 again.
I think this edition will, too. But again, it isn't easy.
Revisiting that formula up there, the most unfair thought is the one that 94 wins could be some default mode. The 2013 Pirates had the fifth-best starting pitching in the majors, the third-best bullpen. That's special even under optimal circumstances. Ask the Yankees and Dodgers, who pay enough for pitching to feed entire third-world countries and still struggle to get it right.
Moreover, the Central is shaping up as tougher than last season, if only because these Brewers are whole again. Hurdle concurred when I brought that up Thursday: “The division could definitely play tougher.”
Beyond that, all those other instant solutions wouldn't have made much of a dent.
Burnett, of course, was just diagnosed with a hernia after weeks of wildness for Philadelphia. He plans to pitch through the pain, then have surgery after the season. That doesn't figure to go well, and it's the sort of thing that happens to 37-year-old pitchers.
The Pirates offered Burnett $12 million, and he chose the Phillies' $16 million. Let's see how that plays out.
Looking for answers to keep the rotation stable?
Then get the most from your two actual best pitchers: Francisco Liriano (3.96 ERA) and Gerrit Cole (4.74).
The offense was supposed to be solved entirely by upgrades at first base and right field and, if I'm reading the Twitter leaves correctly, those remain public complaint No. 1.
First base remains a worry. Gaby Sanchez's timely eighth-inning home run Thursday aside, the position has produced a meager .259 on-base percentage that ranks 29th in the majors. But don't forget Andrew Lambo, who's overcome his horrific spring with a brilliant .465 OBP for Triple-A Indianapolis. He was the plan all along, if you'll recall, and he soon could be that again.
Right field will shortly belong to Gregory Polanco, who's been just ridiculous for Indy so far with a .475 OBP, two home runs, 12 RBIs in 51 at-bats. But I've got no issue with his staying there until the June Super 2 arbitration line passes. Those 51 at-bats are his first at the level. Let him fight through at least one slump. I also have no issue with the economics. Polanco might cost the Pirates an extra $15 million or so if he's up before June. That would be the height of irresponsibility.
Besides, the current offense from right fielders Travis Snider and Jose Tabata — .275 OBP, two home runs, four RBIs — is more than they're getting from Pedro Alvarez, his own eighth-inning bomb aside. Get Alvarez and Mercer above the Mendoza line, and none of the above is an issue.
“I know I can do better, and we all know as a team we can do better,” Mercer said. “And we will. Nobody's panicking in here. Nobody at all.”
Why would they?
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic
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