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Biertempfel: More good than bad happened for Pirates in first month

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review - The Pirates' Neal Walker celebrates with Pedro Alvarez after Alvarez's two-run home run off Braves starting pitcher Tim Hudson in the second inning on Friday, April 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review</em></div>The Pirates' Neal Walker celebrates with Pedro Alvarez after Alvarez's two-run home run off Braves starting pitcher Tim Hudson in the second inning on Friday, April 19, 2013, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review - Pirates reliever Tony Watson pitches against the Nationals during the ninth inning Saturday, May 4, 2013, at PNC Park.
<div style='float:right;width:100%;' align='right'><em>Christopher Horner  |  Tribune-Review</em></div>Pirates reliever Tony Watson pitches against the Nationals during the ninth inning Saturday, May 4, 2013, at PNC Park.

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Saturday, May 4, 2013, 9:55 p.m.
 

We're past the one-month mark of the Pirates' season. Maybe you missed the calendar flip because Root Sports flipped over to a Penguins game. Or perhaps you had your eyes closed during that torturous series loss against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Anyway, April is gone faster than a fat, belt-high fastball to Pedro Alvarez. What have we learned about these Pirates? Glad you asked.

• They don't quit. The Pirates lost the first game in each of their past five series, yet rebounded to win four of those sets. Even in the satanic pinball machine that is Miller Park, the Pirates banged a few balls off the wall to hang with the Brewers for a while.

• This is Pittsburgh's best on-field product in 20 years. That's what folks in the industry are saying. A scout told me that during spring training, then reiterated it a few days ago. The roster looks like a big league roster and isn't populated by guys who are learning on the job and washed-up vets. There is legit power and speed, improved baserunning and defense, and bona fide arms.

Andrew McCutchen won't have to do it alone. Last year, it seemed he was the only one hitting the ball in April, May and June. This year ... well, he's not really hitting yet. In mid-April, he went through an 0-for-17 drought that was the longest of his career.

You know a guy's struggling when he gets four hits and boosts his average by 30 points. That's what happened Tuesday, when McCutchen had three singles and a solo homer. Yet, McCutchen's batting woes didn't stop the offense from hitting its stride. Starling Marte is showing that a free swinger can be a good leadoff batter. Russell Martin got it going. The Gaby Sanchez-Garrett Jones platoon looks like it'll work.

• Neal Huntington knows how to build a bullpen. Give the GM his due. One of his hallmarks is a strong bullpen, and he's done it again this year. The Phillies look like idiots for letting Jason Grilli walk away. Any team would love to have Tony Watson. Justin Wilson is starting to blossom.

And, hey, Mark Melancon! Huntington certainly picked the right time to deal Joel Hanrahan, who already has spent two weeks on the disabled list and no longer has a lock on the closer's job in Boston.

• The starting pitchers had better pick it up — soon. Pitch some darn innings, fellas. On the final day of April, manager Clint Hurdle already was trying to ration the outings by Grilli, Melancon and Watson so their arms don't fall off by the All-Star break. “We've red-lined our bullpen,” Hurdle said.

Once they join the team, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton don't necessarily have to pitch like Cy Young every night. But they must consistently work into the sixth inning and beyond.

The stream of talent from the minors isn't a geyser. Maybe someday. But not now.

The rotation is made up mostly of the products of other clubs' farm systems. Liriano and Morton, same deal. Jeff Locke, acquired in a trade and mostly developed by the Pirates, is still trying to establish himself.

Five years of over-slot bonuses and high draft picks gave us ... Phil Irwin, a 21st-rounder who became the first pitcher of the Huntington era to start a game for the Pirates. A spot start. And a brief one. Meh.

When Neil Walker tore up his hand in St. Louis, neither Ivan De Jesus, Jordy Mercer nor Josh Harrison proved to be a must-have callup. Instead, the Pirates kept their bench short-handed for a week while Brandon Inge and John McDonald filled in at second base.

Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are coming. Luis Heredia is coming. Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson are coming, too. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Until they get here — and stay, and produce — I'll remain skeptical.

They have a chance ... Nobody has stepped up yet to run away with the NL Central. The Reds still seem like the team most likely to do it, but they've had a bumpy opening month. The Pirates were good and lucky in April, and rode it toward the top of the standings. That's not enough to start planning the parade, but it's a seed for hope.

... but if not, heads will roll. A sub-.500 record was disappointing the past two years. This season, it would be inexcusable and would warrant a purge from president Frank Coonelly on down to the scouts and minor league coaches. Not everyone would have to go — Hurdle would survive, I think — but most of them would be out.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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