A quick acknowledgement, before we open, to those of you who approached me over all three days at PirateFest with handshakes, questions, compliments, criticisms and even the occasional curious glare.
All of it was much appreciated, and the invitation to email me anytime and expect a prompt response, I can promise, was genuine ...
Q: If Jason Bay played in New York and said the things he did, it might have led "SportsCenter" for a week. Luckily, he plays in Pittsburgh.
But I did find it refreshing that he spoke up, and interesting that he felt muzzled by previous management. Do you know if other players felt that way? Do you think being able to speak freely will have any impact on their play?
If Bay really is outspoken, as you wrote, do you think he'll take the whip to other players? If other players are checking their phone messages between innings this year, will Bay or anyone put them in line? Does any of this matter?
Andrew Zibuck of Rochester, N.Y.
KOVACEVIC: Lot of ground to cover there, Andrew, so maybe it is best if I just give a general response ...
Start by knowing this principle: Players do not care about the franchise's future. Not the current ones, anyway.
I can engage Neil Walker in a good conversation about 2010, but not the guys who are certain to take the field March 31 in Atlanta. These guys, for the most part, are interested in how they can beat John Smoltz that night and nothing beyond it. And that is doubly true of players such as Bay, Xavier Nady, Matt Morris, Jack Wilson and others who very much fit the profile of the type of player the Pirates could trade for prospects in the coming year.
That, I can assure you, was the context of what Bay said. In the event that he stays in Pittsburgh for any appreciable amount of time, he wants to win. He could not care less about a Dominican academy or about better instruction in A-ball, and he surely is joined by most of the 24 others on the team. That is immensely understandable, and it makes the Pirates' current players no different than any other professional athletes in that regard.
You know, I have been writing quite a bit about how a team cannot stay with its major-league roster and rebuild at the same time. This is Exhibit A for why that is. These players know -- they know -- that most of them will not be part of what new management hopes to build.
It could be a weird year.
Anyway, to your other Qs ...
• Yes, other players felt muzzled because, in some cases, management tried to muzzle more than one of them. From what I have seen so far, that most definitely will not be the case with the new group, which seems much more confident and secure in what it is doing and, as a result, far less nervous about public perception.
• Will speaking freely having an impact on their play? Not sure what you mean, but I would guess that any level of openness -- not necessarily talking to the media -- promotes a healthier atmosphere. Still, how the team does is going to dictate the atmosphere much more than vice versa.
• Bay is not the "whip" type, but he sure sounds as if he is ready to take on more of a leadership role than he did last year. No one would question that he took a step backward in that regard in 2007.
• Does it matter? No one would be reading any of this if it did not matter to some people, right?
Q: I keep hearing that the Pirates' starting pitchers and lineup, except center field, is set, and that all that remains for John Russell and Neal Huntington to figure out is who will be the middle relievers and the bench.
How can a team that lost 94 games not have more than a position or two set before spring training begins? Don't the Bucs need more talent competing for jobs? Isn't that what new management is striving for?
Ken Simon of Bethesda, Md.
KOVACEVIC: You might have unwittingly answered your own question there, Ken.
Think about it: Yes, the Pirates do need more talent, more competition. But where, outside of free agents, or one-for-one baseball trades, are they going to get that? And where is the depth to pull off the latter and make it meaningful? Even given the depth of the outfield, where the quantity should not be confused with All-Star quality, giving up a player or two to plug other holes on the 25-man roster by March 31 ...
Hey, look, let me be straight about this: I have been typing in this forum for three-plus years that there is only one way for the Pirates to do things right, and that is to build up enough legitimate depth that they can not only fill those holes but also make truly relevant trades that bring real, impact talent to Pittsburgh. I pounded the Latin American drum, documented the draft shortcomings and illustrated that very few trades resulted in a legitimate prospect entering the Pittsburgh system.
Now that the Pirates' new management has set a course to do all of the above, I am not about to change my thinking on this just because the bullpen and bench look ominous for 2008.
There is a right way to build a winning baseball team in the low-spending category, and there is a pandering way.
I have no idea if the Pirates will be able to pull this off. How can I? We have yet to see anything in action, and words carry little weight, especially when it comes to the cynicism that -- rightly -- accompanies everything your PBC does.
But the plan itself has ample precedent to support it can succeed. And it most certainly is an enormous improvement over no plan at all.
Until tomorrow ...