Kovacevic: 10 steps to keep Bucs' success
The Pirates emerge from the All-Star break Friday in Houston four games over .500, one game out of first place and 34 victories shy of ending an 18-year losing streak, with 10 sellouts at PNC Park, two starting pitchers owning ERAs below 3.00, another owning 11 wins, a closer who is 26 for 26 in saves and, yes, somehow, with 10 guys on the disabled list making a combined $15 million.
Amazing numbers all.
But it's only halfway to history, and I humbly submit that the following 10 things must happen in the second half for 2011 to stay a success:
Acquire a power bat
Starting with the most obvious, it's well past time for Lyle Overbay, his .240 average and his lethargic defense to hit the bench. It's also time for the front office to step up.
The best matches for a take-on-salary trade — Carlos Pena and Derrek Lee — might not be great fits. So maybe a prospect goes in a trade. Maybe even an elite prospect goes for someone the caliber of Houston outfielder Hunter Pence. I'm fine with either scenario.
An opportunity like this is rare. Embrace it.
More sinkers for Charlie Morton
Seriously, have Morton's catcher put down nothing but sinker signs. When Morton was blowing through batters in April and May, it was with 75 percent sinkers. Since then, it's at 68 percent. He has leaned on his curve instead, and only the Bert Blyleven types get away with that for long.
Morton can be the Pirates' best pitcher again but not without his best pitch.
Beat the Brewers
Don't trade Paul Maholm
No one imagined that Maholm's $9.75 million club option for 2012 could look reasonable, but it's a fine price for a durable lefty with a 2.96 ERA. If not the option, try a three-year extension. Trust me, he'll listen.
Look at it this way: Management entertained this type of contract for free-agent lefty Jorge De La Rosa over the winter. Maholm is a safer investment.
Commit to Alex Presley
It's not just because the kid is batting a Tony Gwynn-like .365 since his overdue arrival. It's because he brings legitimate fire atop the order. Not symbolically, either. The kid gets on base at a .424 clip and does damage after he's aboard.
When Jose Tabata returns, move Presley from left field to right and leave him alone. It's going to have to be a speed-based offense to be productive.
Get more from the sophomores
Neil Walker has had many memorable hits this summer, as evidenced by a team-high 59 RBI. But his average is at .264, Tabata's at .265, both more than 30 points off their rookie levels. That's one of the underlying, seldom-discussed reasons this offense has disappointed.
These two are among the Pirates' better contact men, and more is needed.
Heal Evan Meek
Joel Hanrahan has been brilliant as closer, but he has made 40 appearances and won't stay perfect all year. (Or will he?) Jose Veras and Chris Resop have pitched almost as much and have been inconsistent.
One more hammer at the back end -- and that's an apt description for the All-Star version of Meek -- would buoy the entire bullpen.
Give Ronny Cedeno a hug
Management's biggest offseason gamble was sticking with Cedeno at shortstop, but Clint Hurdle and his staff have raised Cedeno's game with an attaboy approach. Some athletes need reamed out, and some need a pat on the rump.
Cedeno has mostly rewarded the Pirates with good defense and a .252 average. But Cedeno's skill set, like Morton's, is high-ceiling. If he comes closer to it, that's quite the wild card.
Lift up Pedro Alvarez
I went into spring training feeling that nothing mattered more to the Pirates, in 2011 and beyond, than Alvarez's progress this summer. I stand by that, even though the progress obviously has been a regress. No other player for the foreseeable future fits the description of a franchise power bat.
This team needs Alvarez.
I liked management's move to leave him in Indianapolis to get right, but it would be a mistake to block his path back to Pittsburgh, even for a short spell.
Finish over .500
Sure, expectations are higher now, and the Pirates already have achieved a long-held goal of getting people to stop talking about it. That's terrific, and it's to the credit of general manager Neal Huntington, Hurdle and, above all, the players.
But they're only four games over .500. Just imagine how deflating it would be to see the team to take strides this large only to extend the 18-year losing streak.
That's one number that deserves to die.