Before we get to more substantive material, I offer today Exhibit A for why questions about potential package deals gets people banned for life ...
Here's a suggestion for Dave Littlefield: The White Sox want to trade Jermaine Dye and Mark Buehrle, so we, in return, give them Jack Wilson, Xavier Nady and Tony Armas. We also ask for $4 million-$5 million, hoping just to get some cash. This move gives us a true cleanup hitter and a very good veteran pitcher. We move Freddy Sanchez to short, Jose Castillo can quit crying and play second again. We can also send down Zach Duke to regain his form and call up Brian Bixler.
Curtis MacDonald of San Antonio
KOVACEVIC: Wait. Here is another ...
Why don't the Pirates package Paul Maholm, Shawn Chacon and a reliever or Xavier Nady and Brad Eldred and go get a hitter, like Prince Fielder from Milwaukee? Giving up three or four guys for one future everyday player doesn't sound too bad.
Jack Goddard of Fairfax, Va.
KOVACEVIC: Wow ... please, no one ever doubt the merits of this policy again.
Apologies to the faint of heart for this, but it is good to share every once in a while some of the stuff that comes in here that does not see light of day.
At what point will the Pirates call up Brian Bixler? It seems that Jack Wilson has been given the "Veterans Exemption" from being benched. How long can the Pirates live with a shortstop hitting .250? If the Pirates have been losing with him in the lineup, it can't get any worse with him out of the lineup.
Kyle Adema of Omaha, Neb.
KOVACEVIC: First, to address Wilson ...
His .252 batting average ranks 11th out of the National League's 16 regular shortstops, and his .305 on-base percentage ranks 12th. That is not very good on either count, obviously, and it is a significant drop from the fine opening month he had. On the other hand, his .983 fielding percentage ranks fifth, which is impressive, and his range factor of 4.95 ranks fourth. That is very good on each count. On a less tangible level, simply from watching him, his propensity for making the very good to great play appears to have made a comeback after taking 2006 off.
So, he is below average offensively, above average defensively.
Which is worth more to the team?
As a general rule, the numbers point to offense being more important in just about every case. But where the Pirates are concerned, I wonder about that. Largely because of the Pirates having three left-handers in the rotation, but mostly because just about everyone other than Ian Snell pitches to contact, so many balls get put in play to the left side of the infield. Here are numbers: Wilson's 241 chances are fifth-most in the league. And Jose Bautista, the other guy on that side, leads the league with his chances.
Can anyone imagine the calamity of a shaky left side of the infield?
Which is where we come to Bixler ...
He has gone above and beyond for someone in his first season at the Class AAA level, batting .314 with a .409 on-base percentage, 10 doubles, five triples, two home runs, 25 RBIs and a 10-for-10 steal count. Maybe most impressive, he has done all of the above on a smoothly consistent basis, no real streaks or slumps so far.
That has to be very encouraging for the Pirates, especially after they traded away Brent Lillibridge, the player most saw -- and some surely still see -- as the superior shortstop prospect.
But the consensus among management is that Bixler has work to do defensively. Not so much in terms of flash, because he is not terribly flashy even at his best. But in terms of simple consistency.
I saw some of this myself in spring training. I am no scout, but I saw him range well to his backhand, throw against his body and get to pretty much everything one might have thought he should reach. But I also common errors, the type that no one holds against a young player, but the type that also require seasoning to work out. Even a superb young shortstop such as Florida's Hanley Ramirez boots the ball now much more than he will in a few years.
Bixler has committed 10 errors at Indianapolis, which is not an egregious number given what I just said, but neither is it an indicator that he is proving anyone wrong about needing more time there.
I know I'm beating a dead horse, but wouldn't it have been nice to have Freddy Sanchez at the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth Sunday instead of Nate McLouth or Jose Castillo, who pinch-hit for him? Why does Jim Tracy insist on putting weak hitting in the two-hole?
Brian Marterer of Shanghai, China
KOVACEVIC: I wondered much the same -- out loud, to a colleague -- throughout that game, Brian. Fact is, the downside effect of putting a .230 hitter such as McLouth second in the order had much more of an effect than the example you cite.
In the first inning, Jose Bautista and McLouth made two quick outs before Sanchez doubled. Now, they had only one crack to bring Sanchez home. Jason Bay flied out.
In the third, again, Bautista and McLouth opened the inning with outs. The next three -- Sanchez, Bay and Adam LaRoche -- singled. Ryan Doumit struck out for the third out, and what might have been a bigger inning with the Pirates' best hitters atop the order.
In the fourth, McLouth and Sanchez made the final two outs and stranded two runners. LaRoche led off the next inning with a home run. Again now, what if that out at No. 2 had not been made?
Finally, there was the one you cite: Chris Duffy singled as a pinch-hitter with one out. Bautista flied out for the second out. Castillo was sent in to pinch-hit, during which Duffy took second on a wild pitch.
Now, the National League batting champion is in the on-deck circle with the tying run in scoring position.
Castillo hit a comebacker. Game over.
You are right, Brian, that the issue is pounded to death in this forum. But the answer always remains the same: Tracy has a vision of how prototypes should fit into a lineup, from having fast guys at the top to strong guys in the middle to bunters in the two-hole to whatever. That is how the pieces fall into place.
There are exceptions, obviously: Bautista hardly fits his mold for leadoff -- as Tracy has acknowledged -- but he has been there for two weeks now and done quite well.
Perhaps someone else will get a chance at No. 2 and have the same effect.
Q: Not really a question but, in light of Friday's move to make Matt Capps the new closer, I wanted to take a minute to make a comment about a recent interaction with him.
As intense and focused as he is on the mound, when I saw him walking down the third-base line in Cincinnati the previous Friday, he was the nicest guy in the world in taking the time to stop to chat up my little girl, whom we took to the game to celebrate her third birthday. He gave her several high-fives, asked her to cheer loud enough for him to hear her, signed her little Pirates hat, all despite the game nearing the start time. With all of the negative air about professional athletes these days, it is important to mention the good guys. He seems like a terrific guy, and I wish him all the best in his new role.
Joe Rozsa of Westerville, Ohio
KOVACEVIC: Capps is a quality human in a room full of them, Joe. I have been covering professional sports for more than a decade now and never have experience a clubhouse quite like this one.
I feel compelled to add here, too, that Salomon Torres is one of those. I never advise nor criticize in this space any public reaction to any aspect of the Pirates. Fans are free to cheer and boo who they want. But I also know that the No. 1 thing an athlete can do to turn off Pittsburghers is to give a lousy effort, and Torres is guilty of no such thing. He has a bread-and-butter pitch, his sinker, that is playing tricks with him right now. Nothing more, nothing less.
I received some ... well, awful mail about him in the past 48 hours, and that is not even counting whatever might have come in without a full name and place of residence. (One-name or nickname entries always are discarded without being read.) There are some truly lousy people in this world who deserve any derision they get. Salomon Torres is not one of them.
Until tomorrow ...