John Mehno, Pirates Reporter, Altoona Mirror

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First, can you let readers know about your coverage and what they should expect in 2014?

I have daily Pirates notebooks in the Altoona Mirror, plus two columns per week there. My Sunday column is in the Beaver County Times.

What do you say to those that feel so much went right for the Pirates last season – banner seasons from Alvarez, McCutchen, Liraiano, etc. –  that duplicating the team’s success of last season seems unlikely?

I agree with the first part of the premise. A lot of things fell into place for the Pirates in 2013. I used the expression more than once that the season seemed to be sprinkled with magic dust. But there were also things that didn’t work out — Wandy Rodriguez was done on June 5, Neil Walker had a home run surge in the last month but otherwise disappointed offensively, Garrett Jones added very little, right field was never very productive, Jeff Locke wasn’t very effective in the second half. Some of what happened last year wasn’t a fluke. Alvarez is a legitimate home run hitter. McCutchen is capable of MVP-worthy numbers.

Winning can produce pressure. Now the Pirates are a “team to beat”. Do you get an early sense that this team can handle that pressure and who are the “locker room leaders” on this team?

I don’t think that’s an issue. They played important games last year and were fine. They finally shook the two consecutive late-season collapses. I’m not big on leadership. Sometimes guys who are cited as leaders don’t do much more than lead guys to a great bar on the road. AJ Burnett was perceived as a leader for the pitchers, but he set a bad example by complaining about defensive shifts and throwing a fit when he found out he wasn’t pitching Game Five in the playoffs.

The 2013 team was always prepared and almost always gave its best effort. Between Clint Hurdle and self-policing, I don’t think attitude was ever a problem.

First base is still a bit of a hole for this team, especially with Jones’ departure. How do you see that position shaking out, ultimately, and can Andrew Lambo become a big part of the solution?

I still think they’ll get a lefthanded hitter who can play first base. As other teams start to shape their rosters, some players who aren’t available now might become available. There’s definitely an opportunity for Lambo if he can take advantage of it. But it appears he’s just learning the basics of first base, so I don’t think they’re going to feel comfortable with him there.

People think first base is easy, but that’s not necessarily the case. The Pirates tried to put Dave Parker at first early in his career, but he couldn’t do it.

Who are some of the biggest characters on the team? Any examples of team hijinks/humor you’ve seen?

Gerrit Cole has an interesting way of looking at things. As he settles in and gets more comfortable, I believe more of that personality will show itself. Sports in general have fewer characters than they did in the past. There’s so much money involved now that I think players take things more seriously.

I guess Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon were behind getting that shark tank in the clubhouse last year. That was about as wacky as it got unless you consider the shaving cream pie wild and crazy.

Lots of opinions on the lack of substantial moves by the front office so far this offseason. Especially after the comments on the success of their tv rights deal. Any thoughts on why the front office has made few moves so far?

Let’s start with the idea that this is not the typical Pirates offseason. They’re not looking to get past 75 wins, as they have been forever. They won 94 games last season, which means they must have some pretty decent talent. That said, they needed to add to the starting staff even if Burnett came back. They’re taking a shot in the dark with Edinson Volquez. It’s doubtful they’ll hit the jackpot they way they did with Liriano.

A Jonathan Sanchez scenario is more likely when you take a chance on guys who have been failing elsewhere. They apparently made competitive offers to a couple of free agents (Josh Johnson, James Loney) who went elsewhere. They won’t ever say this, but I think they’re counting on the in-season additions of Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco to upgrade the roster.

Who were some of the unsung heroes on this team last season. And who do you see stepping up this season and contributing more?

Tony Watson got a lot of big outs and helped them get to the Melancon-Grilli final two innings. Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez were two pitchers who exceeded expectations. The biggest thing in 2014 is seeing younger players continue to develop. I’d put Marte and Cole at the top of that list.

The front office has placed a great deal of emphasis on defense – seemingly more so than most other teams do. Is that accurate, first of all, and is that due to the stadium dynamics or other issues?

They do emphasize defense, but I don’t know how the value they place on it compares to other teams. It’s important, and often overlooked. The Pirates showed last year you can win games with good pitching and so-so offense. Part of good pitching is good defense. One of the underrated aspects of the winning teams in the early 1990s was the defense. Jay Bell and Jose Lind were solid in the middle of the infield. Van Slyke and Bonds were better than most in the outfield. Mike LaValliere won a Gold Glove. Jeff King and Sid Bream were above-average defenders.

Last year Russell Martin was huge. His ability to throw out base stealers not only took runners off the bases, it made teams reconsider whether they wanted to attempt to run. Teams ran almost at will the year before. There are aspects to defense that aren’t always readily apparent but they have an impact — hits that could have been outs with a better defensive player, double plays that should have been made.

How much can we realistically expect from prospects like Tailllon and Polanco this season? And any other prospects you feel will be ready to contribute this season?

Jim Leyland used to say, “A prospect is someone who hasn’t done anything yet.” Barry Bonds was as good a player as the Pirates have had, but he hit .223 as a rookie. There are always hopes, but the reality is inexperienced players almost always need time to adjust to a better level of competition.

This front office has invested a good deal in international talent/players. Why has it done so and how successful has this approach been, to date?

You need to look everywhere for talent. The Pirates used to be successful in Latin America, but that was a different era. You don’t sign players for $500 and a plane ticket any more. They’ve gotten Marte and Polanco from the Dominican Republic, as well as Alen Hanson, who’s one of their better prospects. If you’re adding players of that caliber outside of the draft, it’s worth the effort.

What will surprise fans most about this upcoming season. do you think, and why?

They’re going to need some surprises, especially on the pitching staff. I’m always a Charlie Morton booster, so I’ll say that he steps up and settles in as a reliable starter.

Any last thoughts for readers?

Keep your shirt and shoes on at the ballpark, please. Stop spitting on the sidewalks. Remember that it’s a very long season, with plenty of changing plots along the way.

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