The Steeler hangover is about gone, and won't resurface until the April draft. The winds are howling, and we may see some flakes tonight. But hey, the pitchers and catchers are reporting, and finally 'tis the season when a young man's fancy turns to thoughts of...baseball.
28 pitchers will start working out under the Florida sun, and all that's absolutely certain is that only 12 of them will break camp as Pittsburgh Pirates.
The questions to be answered in the next few weeks from the staff:
* Will talent or options have more effect on shaping the final roster?
It won't cause a problem with the rotation. Phil Dumatrait is the only guy out of options. Jeff Karstens, Tom Gorzelanny and Jimmy Barthmaier all have one option year left, while Ross Ohlendorf has two, and Zach Duke has three.
Daniel McCutchen's clock hasn't started yet, and Paul Maholm and Ian Snell are under contract. Virgil Vasquez is only in camp for a cup of coffee before he heads to the hinterlands.
Ah, but the bullpen. Matt Capps is signed this year, as is John Grabow, but Sean Burnett and Craig Hansen are out of options and either make the club or are probably lost. Ditto with Rule 5 pickup Donnie Veal. Tyler Yates is out of options, too. Denny Bautista has an opt-out clause if he doesn't make the 25-man by June 1st.
That leaves Chris Bootcheck, Jesse Chavez, Dave Davidson, Jason Davis, Daniel Haigwood, Juan Mateo, Evan Meek, Romulo Sanchez, Brian Slocum, Jeff Sues, and Ron Uviedo in the less than envious position of holding minor-league contracts, so they can go straight to the bushes, risk-free.
Now some of them, of course, are in Bradenton for a look-see only, and are ticketed for the minors no matter what they do. But for a handful, it's not a very level playing field. It'll be interesting to see how the Pirates play it.
They've shown some cases where they're quick to the gun for underachievers (see Matty Mo & Tom Gorzelanny) and other cases where they just fall in love with potential (see Andy LaRoche). It should keep everyone on their toes right up to cutdown day.
* Will Joe Kerrigan's veteran counsel break the Bucco urge to nibble, nibble, nibble? Can he somehow convince these guys that going after batters and getting that first pitch over sounds like a plan?
Jeff Andrews was a pretty laissez faire kind of coach. We'll see what difference a more aggressive guy like Kerrigan, with an eye to detail and pre-game prep, will have on the staff.
Remember, some of these pitchers have had four coaches (Spin Williams, Jim Colbert, Jeff Andrews, and now Kerrigan) in five years. Who knows how many conflicting bits of pitching minutiae are floating around between their ears?
* This is a staff that pitches to contact; will the team bail them out or add gas to the fire? Only two teams struck out fewer batters, and only two teams had a worse defensive efficiency rating - 1/3 of all the balls put in play against the Bucs resulted in a safe baserunner. Throw in 657 walks, and the result is a bunch of guys circling the bases when the Pirates are in the field.
So the two keys to improving the pitching are pretty basic stuff - throw strikes and catch the dang ball. Both could be a challenge. If they're up to the task, the pitching could be OK. If not, same ol', same ol'.
* The final piece of the puzzle is the Gunner's famous "hidden vigorish." What are the odds of two pitchers - Maholm and Grabow - having career years while everyone else implodes, ends up on the DL, gets sent down, or in some cases, all three? Maybe those odds will reverse themselves this season.
After all, they say that the sun shines on every dog's butt once in awhile. Maybe 2009 will be the year our mutts catch a couple of rays.