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Kovacevic: Pirates have arms, why not bats?

| Sunday, May 27, 2012, 11:24 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates starting pitcher James McDonald delivers during the second inning against Colorado Wednesday April 25, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner
Pirates starting pitcher James McDonald delivers during the first inning against Colorado Wednesday, April 25, 2012 at PNC Park. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review

When James McDonald takes the mound on this Memorial Day at PNC Park, he'll do so as an All-Star in the making. He's been that good, with a 2.51 ERA and the National League's 10th-most strikeouts.

Hats off to him.

And hats off to Neal Huntington and the Pirates for how they analyzed, acquired and adjusted McDonald the past two years. It's been a model of how a big league organization should — and how low-spending teams must — build a championship-caliber roster.

Yeah, I can guess what you're thinking now.

Just wait. I'll get there.

Let's first revisit three key points in McDonald's ascent:

1. McDonald was an underachieving, wiry-framed reliever with the Dodgers, but the Pirates' scouts still had his name high on a list of targets — as a starter — at the 2010 trading deadline.

2. The Pirates zeroed in on a then-dysfunctional Los Angeles front office — ownership was in flux — and pounced by stealing McDonald for a 36-year-old Octavio Dotel.

3. When McDonald sputtered as a starter, the Pirates stuck by him. When he struggled to get past five innings, Ray Searage, the superb pitching coach, sold him on efficiency over strikeouts. When he became too reliant on the fastball and curve, Searage added a slider this spring.

It's all been outstanding work by the Pirates, every step handled impeccably.

And the fact is, McDonald is one of many examples of Huntington and the Pirates producing quality pitching, whether through trades, free agency or the draft.

OK, now let's get to that earlier thought you might have had: WHAT ABOUT HITTING?

Actually, let's amend that to reflect the unicorn sighting of a 10-4 rout of Chicago on Sunday: WHAT ABOUT HITTING AGAINST TEAMS NOT NEARLY AS PATHETIC AS THE CUBS?

Well, take all those positives about McDonald's process, flip them 180 degrees, then picture a roomful of men concluding it would be a swell idea to invest $6 million in an overweight, hobbled, chain-smoking, disinterested Aki Iwamura.

Next, multiply by 100.

Or is that .100?

There's no simple way to explain the chasm between the Pirates' pitching and hitting processes. But most of it, beyond a doubt, is poor major league scouting.

Huntington won't discuss specifics of this area, and he'll never point fingers. Few GMs would. But it's worth noting that his five special assistants — the men charged with studying other major league teams — changed two names over the winter: Gone were pitching experts Pete Vuckovich and Larry Corrigan. In were Jim Benedict, who had been the minor league pitching coordinator, and Dave Jauss, who had been the Mets' bench coach.

Change is good, for sure, but why not hire an ace hitting evaluator unlike anyone in the current group?

Why not open up all five spots, for that matter?

Who's responsible for recommending Iwamura?

It wasn't the two pitching guys who just left, so why are the rest still employed?

The amateur scouts responsible for the draft have fared no better. The system's top hitting prospect is outfielder Starling Marte, and the top performers to date are second baseman Alen Hanson and outfielder Gregory Polanco. None were drafted. All were signed by Latin American director Rene Gayo.

Why are the scouts who wasted much of $51 million in draft bonuses on failed hitting still employed?

Why was former scouting director Greg Smith promoted to assistant GM over the winter?

The only bat to Smith's name is Pedro Alvarez, an easy pick at the time.

The instruction has sunk just as low, certainly in Pittsburgh.

Did you know Huntington hired both of his hitting coaches, Don Long and Gregg Ritchie, without a job search?

For real: Long joined John Russell's staff with no one else being interviewed. Ritchie was similarly promoted from within.

That's mind-boggling.

Long became a good hitting coach, and his firing remains puzzling. But Ritchie's tenure, as the numbers painfully illustrate, has been a disaster. The only player to improve under Ritchie's watch has been Andrew McCutchen, and McCutchen has said that the main change he's made — a more open stance — was his own idea.

How is Ritchie still employed?

If Huntington doesn't feel compelled to make a change — any change — on any of these fronts to support the fine pitching he's built, then where are Bob Nutting and Frank Coonelly?

Check out this quote from Huntington to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal yesterday regarding adding offense through a trade: “We are open to an impact trade if it is the right deal, not because we need offense.”

Wow.

Has total oblivion set in at 115 Federal Street?

It's all stuff to think about when you watch McDonald and the pitchers shine, today and beyond, while the hitters continue to mostly flail and fail.

Neither happens by accident

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