Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

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We open this week with an excellent e-mail from Dan Yakicic, a Pittsburgh native and currently an English teacher at a junior high school in Japan, concerning Masumi Kuwata:

I wandered into the business office of my school the other day to find some older teachers talking about Japanese players in Major League Baseball. The topic turned to Kuwata, and one of the teachers frowned: "Minor-league contract," he said in dismissive Japanese. The others in the room defended Kuwata: "He will try hard! He will fight! Ten years ago, he was fantastic!" The doubting teacher sniffed, "Yeah, 10 years ago."

I teach 12-15 year-olds who don't speak English. If they know MLB teams, they know the Yankees, Dodgers, Mariners and Red Sox. Yet recently, my junior high students have started coming up to me and saying: "Dan-sensei, you're from Pittsburgh. Kuwata plays for the Pirates. Do you like Kuwata?" Now they're telling me about the Pirates, a team that hasn't been decent since I was that age. (I'm 30.) Apparently, Kuwata still has big fans among my students' parents.

A year and a half ago, when I moved to Japan, no Japanese I knew could find Pennsylvania, much less Pittsburgh, on a map if they tried. Then, the Bucs sign a 38-year-old pitcher to a minor-league deal and, suddenly, everyone knows the city and the team.

While there is a lot of interest in the man, there still are a lot of doubters here. They are proud that he's gone to the majors. But many of my Japanese friends and co-workers wonder why he's there now. Because "he's not young." I get the sense that the Japanese want to see him pitch in the majors and just get one, good, tough win. You don't know how much it would mean to this whole country.

Q: Do you think Nick Green or Don Kelly has a realistic chance of beating out Jose Hernandez for the utility infielder job, or are they both ticketed for Class AAA?

For that matter, why couldn't the team get by with the loser of Jose Castillo vs. Jose Bautista? Between those two and Freddy Sanchez, they have plenty of flexibility. They managed without another infielder the last couple of months last year. (I think Joe Randa played first during that time).

It seems a shame to fill one roster spot with a bad hitter, especially when another may be filled with a bad-hitting backup catcher.

Wilbur Miller of Silver Spring, Md.

KOVACEVIC: No, I do not see Green or Kelly having a realistic chance, though neither can be ruled out. No matter how you break down five bench openings, working one of those two into the equation is really tough

The bigger issue out of what you asked, Wilbur, might be Hernandez.

Just about every note sent this way concerning the bench seems to place Hernandez into the inevitable pile. Maybe this is because of Jim Tracy's past with the guy, maybe it is more of the familiar woe-is-us sentiment, I cannot say. But I do not see him being a mortal lock by any means, and that is largely because of Jose Bautista clearly being groomed as something of a Jose Hernandez Jr.

Remember, last spring, when Hernandez and Bautista each was taking his turn playing every position on the diamond, and Tracy spoke of Bautista in terms so glowing that they reminded you of ... well, how he speaks of Hernandez? Well, that was a little different. Bautista was not going to be a utility guy at that stage of his career because the Pirates' priority was to have him get at-bats after so much inactivity. That is why they sent him to the minors and kept Hernandez.

Well, that no longer applies.

If Bautista does not win a starting job -- far from ruled out, obviously -- he surely can be a better Jose Hernandez than Jose Hernandez can at this stage of his career. He has played every position but first and catcher for the team, though he tells me he could handle both of those, too. And, maybe more important, he probably is at the point where he would have much more to gain at the major-league level even as a part-time guy than to go back to the minors.

I like your thinking, too, about making a priority of hitting on the bench. Fact is, the Pirates have enough players who can move around the field defensively, and they still cannot be considered an above-average offensive team even if Adam LaRoche turns into Ryan Howard. More bats are needed. The toughest spots on the diamond to fill off the bench are shortstop and center field, and Bautista can handle both. Let that suffice.

No one involved in the final decision will ask, but this would be my bench: Bautista as Mr. Everything, Nate McLouth and Luis Matos as reserve outfielders, Ryan Doumit as a backup catcher who plays more than once a week, and, yes, Brad Eldred.

Look at it this way: If Eldred is going to be traded -- and he surely will -- the best way to enhance his value is to give him major-league at-bats. If he hits 55 moon shots in Indianapolis, the reaction among other executives will be been-there-seen-that. But if he hits, say, 10 of them in a limited role by July (not easy, I know, but this is someone who can hits home runs by accident), his value would rise. And, this coming off the bench, it might get added attention from American League teams eyeing a potential DH.

Or, look at it another way: How often does the situation arise during a game when the team needs a pinch-hit home run to get back into the game? And how often in the past few years did you see the likes of Tike Redman come to the on-deck circle in those situations?

It is a nice weapon to have.

Q: Dejan, I happen to work with a proud Manatee alum and former Pirates batboy, and he informed me that Rich Sauveur was drafted by the Pirates in 1983 out of Manatee Community College.

Dan Gelorme of Bradenton, Fla.

KOVACEVIC: Thanks for the tip, Dan. Here is a link to the Baseball Cube's page (http://www.sports-wired.com/teams/team.asp?Name=CACAF&N=AL) on all things related to hated Manatees being drafted.

Which brings us, naturally, to more on this curiously sustainable subject ...

Q: Dejan, only recently have I become a truly dedicated Pirates fan. (You know, the type who actually goes to PNC Park to see a baseball game, even when there's no giveaway!) And I'm compelled to ask about the Manatees. What happened?

I don't know why, but I know I hate them simply because I'm a Pirates fan. How did this whole rivalry get started?

Ryan Kok of McDonald

KOVACEVIC: Clearly, this has gone too far.

Thing No. 13 that I miss about Pittsburgh: The dinosaurs. But then, everyone in town is missing them until they return to the new hall sometime next year.

For those who do not know, our city has the second-largest set of dinosaur fossils -- and some of the most complete of individual species -- of anywhere in the world. Which is yet another of those curiousities that comes with having had such enormous individual and corporate wealth at the turn of the previous century. Andrew Carnegie financed many expeditions and came away with a collection that was unrivaled at the time.

And when you are done with the dinosaurs, one of the city's coolest collections of coffeeshops, restaurants -- and, as an added bonus for us total geeks -- a comics shop is right across Forbes Avenue with the Craig Street corridor.

Just watch out for the meter maids. They make the Manatees look like good people.

Until tomorrow ...


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