As has been the case the past couple weeks, we will reserve the Q&A tomorrow for the latest layer of the Building Blocks series, this one about player development ...
Q: Dejan, the following is a list of pitchers the Pirates have signed since the end of last season and their respective ERAs at various levels in 2007: Jimmy Barthmaier (6.20 in Class AA), Phil Dumatrait (15.00 in six major-league starts), Ty Taubenheim (6.37 in Class AAA), Evan Meek (4.30 in Class AA), Mike Thompson (6.24 in Class AAA, 6.89 in the majors), Masumi Kuwata (9.43 with the Pirates), Elmer Dessens (7.15 in the majors), Adam Bernero (DNP), T.J. Beam (3.59 in Class AAA), Casey Fossum (7.70 in the majors), Hector Carrasco (6.57 in the majors) and Jaret Wright (6.97 in the majors).
That's 12 pitchers, nine of whom had ERA's of 6-plus. Is this what we are relegated to, signing a bunch of reclamation projects in the hopes that one or two work out? I can't say I am a fan of the approach.
Bob Fittipaldo of South Fayette
KOVACEVIC: Take it from the guy who typed each of those ERAs -- and other bloated numbers -- with each of those signings: I am well aware of the 2007 performance level of the many relievers the Pirates have signed this offseason. That, of course, is why I have been stressing again and again that the team has four gaping holes in its bullpen.
There might be only three holes, actually, if Franquelis Osoria lives up to the team's expectations this spring, but three is still an awful lot. It is a risk not only for the Pirates' ability to be competitive in 2008 but also, and more important, to damaging the psyches of its many young starters. What will happen if Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Zach Duke repeatedly watching seventh-inning leads vanish?
It also bears repeating, though, that the gambles taken on almost all of the pitchers you list are virtually zero. The first five you mention are the only ones on the 40-man roster. The rest are coming on minor-league invitations, meaning they can be cut at the end of spring training with zero loss.
Also, and this is something I probably have not pointed out enough: From what I hear, the Pirates' assembly of these pitchers -- lousy numbers, injury histories and all -- has been based largely on getting different types of pitchers, from power to offspeed to arm slots to lefties and righties and presenting John Russell with a variety of options. They are adamant that it has not been an arbitrary process.
We will see. Certainly, this will be the most pressing issue of spring training.
Q: Dejan, what do you think about the management giving Zach Duke that spot in the rotation? Seems to me like the same old un-motivating statement PBC management has made in the past.
As an athlete, I understand he's not going to just sit around and eat donuts, but what about the Bryan Bullingtons and Sean Burnett's? Wouldn't you at least want to see them come in and compete? Or even give them the rush of trying to win the spot?
Rich Papp of Bethel Park
KOVACEVIC: My general view, Rich, is that a team has to be very selective when making such decisions, largely because of the motivation issue you cite. Telling a young player he has something locked up tends to backfire more often than not, it seems.
In this case, though, motivation is not exactly one of Duke's shortcomings. This is a fiercely determined individual and, if the Pirates' new management had any doubts about that, all they needed to do was check out his workout regimen this offseason. Because he lives in Pittsburgh now, he trained almost daily at PNC Park under the Pirates' conditioning supervision and had Jeff Andrews watching much of his throwing and pitching.
No, living in the neighborhood and working hard should not lock up a rotation spot, so please spare me the mail on that front. My only point is that it would have been clear to the Pirates that motivation would not be an issue.
So, why, otherwise, should the Pirates have given Duke a spot outright?
One obvious reason is that none of the pitchers below him on the depth chart, including the two you cite, did much in 2007 to suggest they should push him, even as poorly as Duke's season went.
Two, and much more important, is this: Duke is 24. It is time, the Pirates think, to find out if that rookie form was a fluke, if the past two years were the norm or, if Andrews has expressed with mild hope, it is somewhere in between. This has much less to do with 2008 than it does the future. The Pirates have a chance to develop a great asset at a young age.
Q: Who do you feel is the best choice for the Pirates' center field job? I know Nate McLouth is a smart baserunner and has more pop than Nyjer Morgan, but Morgan is the better contact hitter and better fielder.
Zachary Weiss of Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh
KOVACEVIC: Management is deadlocked enough on this matter that the decision was made to simply let these two guys duke it out in spring training, and the best performer will lead off March 31 at Turner Field.
Hard to argue that approach, as there is no obvious choice. Although I recently underscored some promising elements to McLouth's second-half surge in 2007, I can also see where Morgan's .299 average in September -- in his very first taste of the bigs, it bears repeating -- should raise eyebrows, too. And, as you point out, Morgan's defense often ranged from sensational to spectacular.
This much is certain: The duel could be the most interesting element of spring training.
Until tomorrow ...