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Kovacevic: Pirates invest in a new day

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012
 

BRADENTON, Fla. — Every day is Tuesday. That's what folks in the Pirates' fold long have been fond of saying through spring training, no matter the actual day. The weeks have no real beginnings or ends, the breaks are rare, and the monotony level is as high as the searing sun.

This Tuesday, though, had a different feel at Pirate City's minor-league camp.

This Tuesday had Gerrit Cole firing fastballs at 96-98 mph, drawing almost as many gasps as hollow swings. And the kid wasn't even bringing it. This was a mere flicker on the way to his standard triple-digit heat. He was tagged a couple times in the first of three innings in this scrimmage, then began striking out people seemingly at will.

Or, as Cole put it unapologetically, "I did what I should have been doing."

Hope takes many forms in sports. In baseball, it's as simple as picking up a ball and throwing it.

Really hard.

The St. Louis Cardinals were World Series champs in October not so much because of Albert Pujols but because of a lights-out bullpen.

The San Francisco Giants won the previous year because of the homegrown dominating duo of Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain.

Go back a century-plus, and it's always about the pitching.

And if the Pirates are ever going to engage in more than a four-month flirtation with first place, never mind full-blown contention, be very sure it will start with the three golden right arms they're growing -- really growing -- in the low minors: Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia.

When people talk about reasons why the Pirates have failed for 19 years now, the abject lack of any front-line starter since Doug Drabek rarely comes up. But it should stand above all others.

Think about it: Which pitcher was going to lead this team to mediocrity, much less glory?

Francisco Cordova?

Kris Benson?

Oliver Perez?

Zach Duke?

For far too long, the spring mounds here have seen an endless string of smaller-bodied, soft-tossing fringe prospects with -- I've heard this one 1,000 times -- "no fear of the strike zone."

As if to acknowledge the very cause for such fear.

The dry spell isn't over yet. It's a long, often cruel path to the majors, especially for pitchers. But man, those prospect profiles sure are changing.

Cole, the 21-year-old, $8 million No. 1 overall pick last June, hasn't thrown his first pro pitch, but he's flooring people here with the rich arsenal, sharp knowledge and all-filled-out 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame he'd established at UCLA.

One glance at the kid, and you think it can't be long.

"I'm getting comfortable, enjoying myself, learning what I can," Cole said.

Taillon, 20, was the $6.5 million No. 2 overall pick the previous summer, and he's 6-6, throws 96 mph and has a curve and changeup to match.

He had a 3.98 ERA over 23 starts in his pro debut with Class A West Virginia, a good figure in light of the Pirates limiting his innings and urging him to focus on simple fastball command.

"I understand what they were doing," Taillon said. "Instead of having five good pitches, I worked on trying to have three great pitches."

Expect him to be unleashed soon.

Heredia is the wild card. He's still a baby at 17, but a growth spurt this offseason has him up to 6-7, 220 pounds -- suddenly taller than the rest -- before he's gotten out of rookie ball.

"I'm stronger, too," Heredia beamed. "It's 98 now, I think."

The fastball, he meant.

The Pirates made the biggest international splurge in franchise history by signing Heredia for $2.6 million out of Mexico two years ago, and it remains tantalizing -- though difficult -- to imagine what he could become.

This path, really, is the only one the Pirates could have taken. Elite starting pitching acquired through other means is hugely expensive. On the current rotation, for instance, $5 million will go to A.J. Burnett, $4.5 million to Erik Bedard and $4 million to Kevin Correia. Multiply those amounts by four or five to land a true ace in free agency.

Now, match that $13.75 million cost for a single season of three veterans against the $17.1 million the Pirates put into securing 18 total years of rights for Cole, Taillon and Heredia after they arrive in Pittsburgh.

This management team has made many mistakes, to be kind. But establishing and following through on this priority ranks all alone atop my list of positives. It's amazing, actually, how many teams don't consider it paramount.

"Starting pitching is a huge commodity and, obviously, the Pirates believe that," Cole said. "It's showing in the pitchers they've added in Pittsburgh and how they're building their system. They realize it's important to have those horses."

Happy Wednesday, everyone.

Photo Galleries

2012 Pirates Spring Training

2012 Pirates Spring Training

Photos from Pirates spring training in Bradenton, Florida.

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