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Biertempfel: Grading the Pirates' 1st half of season

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 11:24 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates second baseman Jordy Mercer takes a cream pie in the face from pitcher A.J. Burnett after Mercer's walk-off single defeated the Mets on Friday, July 12, 2013, at PNC Park.

On the surface, filling out a first-half report card for the Pirates doesn't seem too tedious a task. Just run through the checklist and come up with a grade.

Great record? Best in the majors for a week or two, and they're still near the top.

Standout pitching staff? Sure, arguably the best in the NL Central.

Solid defense? Yes.

Improved baserunning? Yep.

Fearsome offense? Well ... you can't have everything, right?

Grade: A.

Ah, were it only that simple. The win-loss mark alone begs a superior score, but there is more to it than that. Perhaps a grade of “incomplete” would be most fitting. After all, we've only reached the All-Star break — and, as Pirates fans witnessed the past two years, a lot can change in the second half of a season.

“Anytime you're knocking on the door of the best record in baseball, which we did have for a while, I'd say that's definitely a success,” shortstop Jordy Mercer said. “But I also feel like we're just scratching the surface. There's no telling how good this team could be in the long run.”

Professor Mercer makes a valid point. In terms of depth and talent level, this year's club is the best to take the field on the North Side since 1992. Gone are the days when players who couldn't have made most other clubs' rosters got on-the-job training in the Pirates' starting lineup. And while Andrew McCutchen might not reach the career arc of a future Hall of Famer — for now, I'll leave that debate to the sabermatricians — he's the most electric Pirate since Barry Bonds.

The clubhouse atmosphere — the collective sense of confidence — is better, too. Not even the mini-slump the Pirates have endured the first two weeks of July has shaken it. “We're in a great spot,” pitcher A.J. Burnett said. “Until this locker room loses faith, I won't worry. There's no need to panic. There's a lot of baseball left.”

OK, so give the Pirates a B-plus for potential (reach the playoffs and the final grade goes up) and an A for pluck.

The next two areas — pitching and offense — are self-evident.

So many starters (including a few at Triple-A) are injured, there's a whole rotation's worth of guys on the disabled list. Doesn't matter. Pirates starters went into this weekend with the second-best ERA in the majors. Early in the season, when the starters struggled to work deep into games, the bullpen picked them up. Mark ‘n' Cheese (setup man Mark Melancon and closer Jason Grilli) might be the game's best one-two punch. Sock it to 'em. Pitching: A-plus.

Two things I know for sure about the offense: Pedro Alvarez will hit a lot of homers and he will rack up a lot of strikeouts. After that, it's all conjecture. Can McCutchen regain the heights he reached last season? Will Starling Marte continue to curb his free swinging and evolve into a dangerous leadoff guy? Will any right fielder ever contribute anything? What will it take to get more hits with runners in scoring position?Offense: C — good enough to get by, but there are too many white-knuckle games.

“I've learned that I'm going to be second-guessed when I get it wrong and second-guessed when I get it right,” manager Clint Hurdle said after a recent game. He wasn't joking.

There always seems to be room for discussion and what-ifs, even when things go according to plan. Some of that is beyond Hurdle's control. Injuries and an imperfect roster force him to constantly keep a close eye on pitcher usage and jumble his lineups. Management's expanded use of statistical data leads to extreme defensive shifts and modified batting orders. It's a different, much more complicated game than it was when Hurdle was a rookie skipper in 2002. Coaching:B.

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

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