Spring training means nothing. We know that better this year than ever after watching Tom Gorzelanny struggle the whole time and Ronny Paulino crush the ball at a .500 pace.
But I am reminded, too, of a sunny afternoon in Dunedin when Bryan Bullington took the mound for a late inning against Toronto. His stuff was electric, his poise was a match for it, and he zipped right through it. When I spoke to him about it afterward in the clubhouse, his demeanor suggested it was really no big deal. He was healthy, so he was pitching fine. Nothing else to it.
It occurred to me, maybe for the first time since covering Bullington, that this was a No. 1 overall pick in the draft. No matter what anyone thought or thinks of the pick, chances are excellent he would have been at least a top-10 guy under the craziest of circumstances. He was that talented. He was that successful.
So, no, this was nothing new to him. Only the clean feeling in the arm was.
I got the same impression again Monday when I called him as he was driving from Louisville to St. Louis. He was not shocked. He had not broken down into tears, as Nyjer Morgan had when phoning his agent the other night. He simply spoke of the health and strength in his arm.
That is pretty neat, and it probably should not be overlooked as we watch however much pitching Bullington is allowed to do for the Pirates the rest of the way. His 2007 numbers indicate he is going to run up some pitch counts, give up a few hits and be less than dominant. That might or might not have something to do with his arm and the much-discussed travails that follow arm surgery. But I am going to guess here it will have little or nothing to do with a lack of confidence.
I'm a Pirates fan who loves our middle infield. Freddy Sanchez has been amazing lately. I love watching him. Who wouldn't want 10-plus home runs, 40-plus doubles and a .310-plus average?
I originally would have preferred that Jack Wilson was traded, but I've changed my mind. He's hitting great and seems to be fielding better, too. Am I not alone thinking that keeping Cesar Izturis over Jack would be a huge downgrade for a minimal difference in cost?
Mike Mirth of Whitehall
KOVACEVIC: Judging from the next entry, you are not alone, Mike ...
Q: Until the past week or so, I thought Jack Wilson and Cesar Izturis were almost interchangable at shortstop. Since Jack's been hurt, though, I see balls hit in the hole that I know Jack would get to, I see runners reaching that I know Jack could throw out at first, and I see occurences at the plate when Izturis comes up in a critical situation and I wish Ty Wigginton would've stayed away from Wilson's shin in the first place.
This having been said, and in light of Wilson's comments last week regarding his own future in the 'Burgh, what are the chances that the best man will be playing shortstop for the Bucs in 2008? Or will September be a long farewell for Pirates fans and Jumpin' Jack Flash?
Eric Little of Belmont, W.Va.
KOVACEVIC: I am not sure I see the great disparity in their defense that you do, but I certainly share your view that Wilson is the superior all-around player and that, if he is gone, the Pirates will have downgraded at the position.
As for whether or not this month will be a farewell, Wilson certainly seems to think so, as you saw in that piece. But does that mean it is so?
Suppose that the reason Wilson embraced the idea of going to Detroit was that he did not believe in management. And suppose that management is ... well, someone else by this offseason. And suppose that ownership makes a commitment to the new CEO -- and whoever management is -- and decides to keep both Wilson and Izturis. And suppose that the manager makes plenty clear that Wilson is the starter and Izturis the backup at two or three positions. And suppose ...
Ah, enough of that.
Suffice it to say I am not as convinced as Wilson is that he is gone this offseason. Much is unknown.
Q: Since 2005, Freddy Sanchez has become a bona fide star player with the Pirates, and he seems to be playing better each passing week on both offense and defense. If such improvement contiunes, how good do you believe Sanchez can become?
Michael Decker of Oklahoma City, Okla.
KOVACEVIC: We love Jack! We love Freddy!
Who are the aliens that took over the readership this week? And where can one find the happy guava so many seem to be gulping down? The one down side to winning a batting title so early in one's major-league career is that expectations can become unreasonable as far as an upward curve goes. Jason Bay put that really well in a talk we had last year when I asked him what in the world he can do to improve upon his first three seasons. His response was that the greatest improvement he could make, in essence, was to put up consistently good numbers over the longest possible period of time. It was a good way, I thought, of looking at it, even if this season clearly did not meet that criteria for him.
Where Sanchez goes, it probably is no different. He might not bat .344 or go 50-plus doubles every year -- though he is getting closer with each passing day to such numbers this year -- but his level of achievement surely rises with each year that he approaches that level. Same thing with his defense: There were many skeptics -- myself included -- about Jim Tracy's decision to move Sanchez to second, and it looks plenty good right now for the simple reason that Sanchez has made it look good. He worked hard, overcame a lousy start due to that knee injury and got better to the point that National League managers rated him the third-best second basemen in the league according to a Baseball America poll.
No sport rewards extended excellence like baseball, and Sanchez has a chance to move higher and higher in the ranks by simply continuing to do what he has.
Q: Hi, Dejan. You mentioned in a recent Q&A that it's not just the games-back column that dampens hopes of the Pirates making a late push, but also the number of teams that they must leapfrog. Is there ever any discussion of how blatantly unfair it is for the Pirates' division to have six teams, while the American League West has only four and all others have five?
Call me cynical, but I bet one reason the A's have been successful has to do with only having to beat out three teams for a guaranteed playoff berth.
Ryan Metosky of Fox Chapel
KOVACEVIC: Yes, we had quite the long discussion about that in this forum a couple years ago, as memory serves.
Quite simply, there are three things to consider:
1. The leagues cannot have a 15/15 split because one team would have to be off every night.
2. Realignment of the kind you describe -- having an NL division with four teams -- would involve a team switching leagues. Given baseball's sentimental attachments to leagues, that could be a great challenge.
3. The easiest move would be to simply take the Pirates and move them back to the East, as some undoubtedly would prefer from the rivalry and travel standpoint. But baseball's grossly imbalanced economics would be even more highlighted there, competing annually against huge-spending New York and big-spending Philadelphia.
There is this, too: If the Marlins never get that stadium built -- and doubt remains -- their most logical destination is San Antonio. If that happens, San Antonio surely would be placed in the Central to be in there with Houston, and the Pirates just as surely would go to the East.
Thing No. 54 that makes Pittsburgh great: Our Downtown is protected by all kinds of really mean-looking creatures.
Architecture going back for centuries has included gargoyles and animals aimed at fending off evil spirits, bad luck, or simply just to add to the design, and our older buildings almost go overboard with the stuff.
The most famous, for sure, are the lions guarding the Dollar Bank branch -- still doing banking -- on Fourth Avenue. The building is 137 years old, built of brownstone for bragging purposes because it was very expensive at the time, and it has the two lion sculptures that everyone must pass on their way to the front doors. The clear message: We are rich and tough enough to take care of your money. But that is the easy one.
Take a look, too, at the tall, thin buildings that still line the rest of Fourth Avenue, which was our version of Wall Street back at the turn of the previous century when Pittsburgh was second only to New York among the world's wealthiest financial centers. The best intersection -- actually, maybe the best intersection in the city no matter what your criteria -- is at Wood and Fourth, where three of the four buildings are so remarkably ornate that one wonders if the people involved in their design a century ago might have been in some kind of rivalry.
One is the remarkable Arrott Building, one of Pittsburgh's many Frederick J. Osterling gems. In addition to a wild exterior (above the Subway marquee, anyway), one can find a set of laughing gargoyles holding up the roof. As one scholar once wrote, why would anyone bother putting something so fantastic so high that no one would see it? And how might the poor guys forced to suspend themselves and carve those gargoyles in 1901-02 have felt about it?
Right across Wood is the Bank Tower, a building I have mentioned here previously because of the coffee shop built into a bank vault on the main floor. This one looks kind of worn on the outside, but it has a great surprise on the inside. Walk through the lobby -- past the coffee shop to your left -- and look up at the spiraling marble staircase that runs up 10 stories and is exposed the whole way. It is one of the city's most dramatic sights, especially from one of the upper floors.
Across the corner is the old Union National Bank building, now being changed into 61 condominiums called the Carlyle. Those are selling fast enough that three other buildings in the immediate vicinity are being changed into residential use, too.
The gargoyles get to live there for free.
Until tomorrow ...