Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

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This Cleveland stuff needs to fade into the sunset.

It is one thing for the Pirates' new front office to emulate the Indians. It is admirable, actually, given the excellent model that has been built there in the past two decades. But the references probably should end right at this point, at least if management is serious about its many declarations of restoring a "culture of success" to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The facts: The Pirates have a 5-2 edge on the Indians in World Series titles, a 9-5 edge in pennants and a 14-9 edge in playoff appearances. They also have a 28-year edge in franchise history, as well as a pronounced edge in Hall of Fame talent.

More important, they also have people -- yes, still alive, still in the business -- who contributed to actual winning Pirates teams, some of whom, unfortunately, were permitted to get employed elsewhere by the previous administration even though they wished to continue being Pittsburgh Pirates. I described once in this Q&A the truly bizarre and uncomfortable feeling that day last year when I walked into the Tigers' coaching room at PNC Park and was surrounded by Andy Van Slyke, Lloyd McClendon, Jim Leyland and so many others, thinking to myself that they were wearing the wrong uniform.

No, I am not suggesting that the new management should go out of its way to hire people with ties to the city or the franchise to the detriment of hiring qualified people. Far from it.

Rather, I am pointing out that it would be folly to turn and run from the franchise's history.

Look at it another way: When the St. Louis Cardinals teach their youngest prospects, the process is called learning the Cardinal Way. In addition to learning a certain way of doing things, they are taught a measure of pride in the franchise, its history and made to feel as part of a process that is much bigger than they are as individuals. Other teams have that, too.

There needs to be a Pirate Way.

Not an Indian way.

Whatever that Pirate Way is, obviously, will be up to the new management. But the focus needs to be on Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and, for that matter, some of the few current players who might stand out as fine examples. And input from alumni -- the people who care most about the franchise -- needs to be embraced, not ignored and certainly not associated with the past decade and a half of failure.

When Rene Gayo, the Latin American scouting director, visits the families of prospects he is intending to sign, he does not cite his background with the Indians or Jhonny Peralta or whatever. He tells them he works for the Pirates, the franchise of Roberto Clemente. Or, when in Panama, he tells them of Omar Moreno, Rennie Stennett and Manny Sanguillen.

When Steve Blass walks into the current clubhouse, he does so as the man who pitched a complete game to win Game 7 of the 1971 World Series.

When Bill Mazeroski or Bill Virdon address a youngster at spring training, they do so as champions.

A last point here: Can anybody imagine that, if Bill Cowher were to become coach of the Browns, he would go to Cleveland and talk about doing things the Steeler Way?

Thought not.

OK, getting off the soap box now. Your turn ...

Q: Dejan, I'm at a bit of a loss over why so many think Nyjer Morgan is our next great center fielder. In one-third of the at-bats, his offensive statistics are nearly identical to Chris Duffy's with the exception of his three triples and a 15-point upgrade on the average. I recall three excellent catches he has made, but he took less than ideal lines to the ball on two of them, and Duffy's home run saving catch early this year matched or exceeded Morgan's diving catch in right-center.

Andrew McCutchen is our center fielder of the future, but I'd enjoy a prototypical leadoff batter who plays great defense in center fielder as much as anyone. I just don't see Morgan as a great upgrade from Duffy, only a new face.

Am I missing something here?

Andrew Dawson of Wexford

KOVACEVIC: Actually, Andrew, the part you might be missing is this notion that "so many think" Morgan is great. The mail I get, for the most part, is quite to the contrary, as if people are eager to bury the guy because one, his on-base percentage not yet being at .400, or, two, he is a 27-year-old prospect or, three, he reminds people of recent center fielders from the past who went on to fail.

To be blunt here, I do not accept any of these counts.

Here are Morgan's minor-league totals in great detail. You will note a career .374 on-base percentage through the minors, as well as a .293 batting average. You will see decent if unspectacular walk numbers, and you also will see an astounding 75 times being hit by a pitch, something Morgan has assured me will happen at the major-league level, too, given his refusal to move from balls headed his way. And, of course, there also are the extraordinary steal numbers.

His home run the other night notwithstanding, there is virtually zero power, even with doubles. That is a concern, possibly a great one. But we already have seen in his short time with the Pirates that his doubles actually are triples, and that even some of his dink shots can turn to doubles.

And this is to say nothing of his defense. I share your view of Chris Duffy's catch in St. Louis as being excellent, but I rank it third behind the two Morgan made. Yes, two of Morgan's balls were made more difficult by the routes, but the Willie Mays grab in Houston was one that most center fielders do not even attempt to make, so the unconventional nature of the route can be thrown out.

As for the age thing, this is a young man who grew up playing an extremely difficult sport to learn -- hockey -- and playing it at an elite level in the Western League alongside players who went on to the NHL. He took up baseball very late in life and, as those minor-league stats show, picked up on it incredibly quickly and efficiently. Ruling out something with this athlete because of his age and because of precedents set by baseball lifers, given his history, makes zero sense. He is the exception, not the norm.

Finally, to the point about the other center fielders: Comparing Morgan, as an athlete and as a person, to people who had nothing to do with him, is the epitome of flawed reasoning. And remarkably unfair. Morgan is, by all accounts, a superior athlete to any of them. And his dedication and drive never have been questioned at any level, an issue that all by itself should isolate him from Duffy.

Q: Dejan, will Steve Pearce be eligible to compete for National League rookie of the year in 2008?

Mike Crnovic of York

KOVACEVIC: Yes, and so will Morgan.

Any position player who tops 130 at-bats, or pitcher who tops 50 innings, loses his rookie eligibility. Also, a player can lose eligibility if he spends 45 or more days on the active roster, exempting any days in September.

Q: Hi, Dejan. Last week, Mike Tomlin took responsiblity for missing that replay call against the Bills. He stood up and said that he was at fault. Plain and Simple.

It made me think about the fact that I've never once seen or heard of Jim Tracy taking one for his team. Obviously, you see more than any of us do, so my question is: Has Tracy ever taken responsibility for a loss or bad decision?

I specifically remember him calling a few people out, but didn't know if I've ever missed the other side of the coin.

Erik Nist of Gulf Shores, Ala.

KOVACEVIC: It has yet to happen, Erik.

That is not criticism. It is fact.

Everyone manages or coaches differently, and Tracy's approach, it seems to me, is that admitting wrongdoing on his part is a sign of weakness. Not even after the Marty McLeary mess a few months back, a decision so glaringly incorrect that even the most casual fan could see it, no admission came.

Q: Dejan, this Tracy situation is very interesting. From my vantage point, it almost seems like this team has quit on their manager. It's almost like they're trying to get him fired. The recent pushback from two team leaders, Salomon Torres and Jack Wilson, only amplifies that perception.

You are around the team on a daily basis. What's your observation?

Curt Shaffer of Tucson, Ariz.

KOVACEVIC: If a team has quit, by very definition, it has quit on its manager or coach. No exceptions. No need to over-analyze.

Q: I hate to continue speculating about Jim Tracy's job status but, if the Pirates were to fire Tracy and his staff, that would leave the new management a year to two years to win with the current roster, as the end of 2009 seems to be the deadline of sorts.

Obviously, that could change with a new GM but, if the Pirates were to bring in a new coaching staff, is it possible that 2008 could be a year used for adjusting to a new system, thus leaving the first half of 2009 for the new staff to prove itself?

If that's the case, it hardly seems like a good idea to get rid of Tracy, regardless of the team's poor record.

Rob Perkey of Crafton

KOVACEVIC: The new management wants nothing to do with a window of any sorts, plain and simple, Rob.

As for the manager and the staff, regardless of how much the Pirates might contend in 2008 -- it always feels absurd even typing phrases like that -- the front office should want the best possible people at the major-league level to do the teaching they want, particularly with so many young players on the roster. It is paramount, actually.

It remains to be seen if Neal Huntington or whoever actually makes the decision will go with Tracy or another way.

Q: Dejan, Neal Huntington was an advance scout? Does this mean some other team may hire Teke, our advance scout, to be their GM?

Lou Varga of Downey, Calif.

KOVACEVIC: One would hope not, if only because the Pittsburgh Pirates, now more than ever, could benefit from having some genuinely and justifiably proud Pittsburgh Pirates in the fold.

Until tomorrow ...


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