A happy new year to one and all ...
Q: I value your honesty and opinions, so I'll ask a difficult question: Please list TEN good things about the 2008 PBC.
Or maybe NINE things?
Or perhaps THREE things?
Truthfully, I'll settle for ONE encouraging fact.
I've followed the Pirates since the 1930s, through Ralph Kiner's days, predicted Bill Mazeroski's big hit, Cheered for Roberto, Willie and Barry, but I never have I felt so discouraged thinking about next season.
Bob Plumskey of Johnsonburg, Pa.
KOVACEVIC: You know, I often am charged with being too negative about the club, and this offseason certainly is no exception, so I will take you up on your original challenge, Bob, and try to come up with 10 things. And, rather than simply name 10 good players the Pirates, I will try instead to come up with 10 actual elements for what might -- and I stress might -- produce that winning season.
In no particular order ...
• The odds of Jason Bay, the Pirates' best player, batting so far below his career norm again in 2008 would seem to be slim.
• When examining range-factor statistics, the Pirates' left side of the infield with Jack Wilson and Jose Bautista is one of the best in baseball. Bautista made a few too many errors, but most were throwing and could have been the result of that bum ankle and not planting properly.
• Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell could be even better. So could Paul Maholm. And does anyone really think we have seen the last of Zach Duke? Look at the other rotations in the Central and compare.
• The bullpen ... well, let's skip ahead.
• OK, wait. Even there, Matt Capps could blossom if presented with more save opportunities. For sure, 2007 offered him a chance not only to ease into the role, but also to recover from some possible over-use in 2006.
• Adam LaRoche swears he will not have another horrible start. Take a man at his word. If he and Bay are effective run-producers, the whole appearance of the Pirates' lineup changes.
• There will be accountability at all levels. For real this time. Anyone who says that this does not matter has never participated in team sports in any walk of life.
• The division still is seriously mediocre.
• Choosing between Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth in center field offers the first real hope of stability at that position, in my view, since Andy Van Slyke. (No, I am not comparing either to Van Slyke but, rather, to what has followed Van Slyke.)
• Freddy Sanchez is still on the roster. He is very good, he is no fluke, and he is adamant that he can be even better in all phases.
There. How did I do?
While on the subject, here is a similarly-themed submission from across town with a -- gasp! -- 2008 lineup included ...
Q: Hi, Dejan. Hope you had a wonderful new year. Well, we are now into 2008 and 40 days or so from pitchers and catchers. As hope springs eternal, here is my take on how the Buccos can reach the elusive .500 mark and have meaningful September ball with the current lineup and pitchers:
1. Nate McClouth, CF: .280, .350 OBP, 20 HR, 35 steals. Easily his projected numbers based on final two months of 2007.
2. Jack Wilson, SS: .285, usual Gold Glove play.
3. Freddy Sanchez, 2B: .320, 50 doubles. With Wilson, one of league's top double-play combos.
4. Jason Bay, LF: .300, 30 HR, 100 RBIs, 90 walks, a return to 2005 stats.
5. Adam LaRoche, 1B: .280, 30 HR, 95 RBIs. Realistic goals without April swoon.
6. Xavier Nady, RF: .275, 25 HR, 85 RBIs. Less than one stint on 15-day DL.
7. Ronny Paulino, C: .270, 10 HR, 60 RBIs. Simply becoming adequate behind the plate.
8. Jose Bautista, 3B: .265 13 HR, 65 RBIs. Weak infield link, but Huntington loves him.
There also could be a bench featuring Nyjer Morgan, Steve Pearce, Craig Wilson (why he hasn't been signed is a mystery), and Ryan Doumit.
While the above would likely be the best-case scenario for each player I believe this would be good enough for meaningful baseball in September.
Am I living in a dream world?
Sean Epstein of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh
KOVACEVIC: I will leave that for others to decide, Sean, but I will say that your enthusiasm certainly is ... um, in harmony with the season.
A couple quibbles: Extrapolating anyone's numbers based on two months is dangerous, but I would feel OK with looking at some of McLouth's work over his pro career (walks, OBP, steals) and projecting that with a positive outlook. ... Amazingly, for all the misfortune that befell Nady in 2007, he never was on the DL. ... If Paulino hits .270, he will have more than 10 home runs. ... How is Bautista a weak link? And why, in an optimistic scenario, would he hit two fewer home runs than he did in 2007? ... The chance of Pearce being on the Pirates' bench is -- and should be -- zero. The kid needs to play, whether in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis.
Q: Dejan: How is it going? Like a lot of Pirates fans, I am just frustrated. And I am finding it difficult to believe that there have been discussions about trading Jason Bay after he had one subpar season.
Here's my question: How much money does this team really have left to spend, and where would it best invest that money to ensure that we make adequate progress (80 wins would be nice) in 2008?
Dr. Ena Hennegan of Chicago
KOVACEVIC: The Pirates are being vague about payroll for 2008, and that likely will not change. Their stance is that it will be in the $50 million range, but that there is no hard and fast figure because they are open to spending more or less as their baseball decisions dictate. But, given the massive public skepticism on this subject, it is safe to say others would view this stance differently.
What is known right now is that the payroll projects to be about $50 million if the roster remains pretty much intact and no major salary -- say, that of Matt Morris -- is cleared. What also is known is that there is cause to believe the Pirates are somewhat flexible, if only because they were the runner-up in bidding for reliever Luis Vizcaino, who wound up with a two-year, $7.5 million deal from Colorado.
As always when it comes to the Pirates and money, seeing is believing.
Anyway, to your point about where extra money should be spent, it would seem to me to be beyond dispute that a dependable right-handed reliever is paramount for the Pirates to be competitive in 2008.
Until tomorrow ...