Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

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Q: I live in West Tennessee, a long way from the hills of West Virginia, where I grew up an avid Pirates fan. I read the Post Gazette online -- only the Pirates section -- every morning. When I opened up the site this morning, I honestly couldn't believe my eyes. I've been waiting for this for months, and I am thrilled.

I know you locals have to be frustrated, but imagine the looks I get from people down here when I tell them I'm a Pirates fan. I can't wait for the season to start.

Maybe people won't laugh at me this year when I tell them I'm a Pirates fan

Matt Cook of Selmer, Tenn.

KOVACEVIC: Welcome to "Alien Life Forms Take Over Pirates Fans, Part II."

Q: Dejan, obviously the Adam LaRoche trade should be welcomed by Pirates fans, for reasons you have already stated.

At the risk of being greedy, would you agree that the Pirates should not give up pursuit of outfield depth in the form of perhaps a Trot Nixon, and/or another starting pitcher. In other words, can LaRoche by himself make that big a difference, and shouldn't his acquisition be just the beginning, not the end of our offseason moves?

Daniel Deitrick of Franklin Park

KOVACEVIC: The Pirates won 67 games last year, so Ryan Howard would not turn them into winners, in my view. It is going to take the rotation significantly improving, it is going to take sustained excellence from Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay (which will not be easy), it is going to take Salomon Torres being a closer successfully the entire year, it is going to take other bullpen people consuming Torres' massive workload in late innings, it is going to take Jose Bautista or Jose Castillo seriously stepping up and -- above all, I think -- it is going to take a full year of the Chris Duffy we saw in the second half last season. That latter element, I believe, cannot be overstated.

Are the Pirates done?

If so, that would be well out of line with the concept of improving to win.

They still need a right-handed starter on whom they can depend solidly, they still would benefit from bench help, and there is no law that says they cannot do something to bolster the long-term future, as well.

I never have heard, to answer your question, that the acquisition of the left-handed bat would end Dave Littlefield's offseason.

Q: I know I am crazy, but I am actually going to ask a lineup question in January.

In your article Thursday, you wrote of Adam LaRoche hitting cleanup between Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay. I can't help but think the Buccos would be better served to put Freddy Sanchez in the two-hole and Jason Bay in the three-hole. Move Jack Wilson to the bottom of the lineup, where he's seen his most success, and have Xavier Nady or Jose Bautista hitting fifth.

What do you think?

Pearl Milchovich of Stockdale

KOVACEVIC: If you are crazy, Pearl, you have plenty of company in the asylum. The Q&A never has had a day like this one in terms of volume of mail, and I would guess that about a quarter of it had to do with possible lineups.

Many readers felt as you do, that Sanchez would do better in the No. 2 spot than Wilson. And, given what Sanchez just accomplished, it would be preposterous to say otherwise. I am quite confident, actually, that Wilson would agree with you, as well.

But I see this lineup debate as being less about No. 2 than it is about No. 5.

If Wilson is at No. 2, then Bay is at No. 5. (Though he and Adam LaRoche likely would flip depending on the opposing pitcher, thus putting Bay at cleanup and LaRoche at No. 5.) And I really like Bay at No. 5. Since getting on this beat, I have heard from many baseball people that, someday, when the Pirates have a real lineup, Bay has the perfect profile to hit fifth. Very good power, decent average, excellent eye, all comprising the ability to help turn big innings into huge innings. I think, too, that he could find a real comfort zone mentally in such a slot and, maybe, not struggle with runners in scoring position as you saw last year.

If Bay is not at No. 5, things are different. Who goes there? Nady? As I have written about him many times, I think much more needs to be seen. And I remain skeptical that the power he showed in New York is going to translate at PNC Park. Ronny Paulino? He did show some unquestionable clutch last season, and his average obviously was good, but I can tell you management has no intention of starting him out with the burden of batting No. 5. Jose Bautista? Too much too soon. He still has to crack the lineup, much less bat in the middle of the order.

Wilson batted .273 last season, put down nine sacrifice hits and did a decent job of moving the leadoff runner (at least after the first two months, when there was no leadoff runner to move). And the Pirates can only benefit if he were to find a way to climb back to something close to his 2004 form.

If I were holding the pencil April 2 in Houston, this is what Roy Oswalt would face:

Duffy, CF

Wilson, SS

Sanchez, 2B

LaRoche, 1B

Bay, LF

Paulino, C

Nady, RF

Bautista, 3B

Snell, P

Q: Hey, Dejan, if you had to choose between Brian Bixler or the recently departed Brent Lillibridge, which one has more upside? I am glad that we dealt from a position of relative depth. Did Atlanta get the better of the two?

P.S. Love the deal regardless

Dan Green of Boca Raton, Fla.

KOVACEVIC: I never have seen either shortstop play, Dan, so my measurement would be based solely on the numbers and the word of scouts. And Lillibridge would win in every category with the exception of major-league readiness, if only because Bixler was playing one level up.

At worst, Lillibridge was considered the fourth-best prospect in the system, right behind Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Brad Lincoln. And at age 23, he is coming off a terrific season with Hickory and Lynchburg: .305 average, 13 home runs, 71 RBIs and 53 steals, not to mention very good defense.

Bixler is one year older, and he did nearly as well with Lynchburg and Altoona: .302 average, eight home runs, 52 RBIs, 24 steals and a very nice .386 on-base percentage. His defense also was rated as very good.

Expect to see Bixler starting at shortstop for Indianapolis.

As for Jamie Romak ...

He is 21, right-handed, stands 6 feet 2, and he is considered to have above-average power, maybe better than that. But he has been dragged down by sporadic injuries, and he still is not making contact often enough for his power to matter. Last season at low Class A Rome, he hit 16 home runs with 26 doubles and 68 RBIs in 348 at-bats, which is nice. But he also had a .247 average and 102 strikeouts, which is not. One bright sign: He walked 59 times, which might be the kind of thing that differentiates him from, say, Brad Eldred.

Expect to see him in Lynchburg.

Until Monday, aliens ...


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