Pittsburgh Pirates' midterm grades are in
MILWAUKEE — Even Meek and Andrew McCutchen can go to the head of the class. The rest of the Pirates, however, had better study harder.
With one game left before the All-Star break, the Pirates have a 30-87 record and are on pace for 103 losses. An 18th consecutive losing season is guaranteed.
From the start, though, this season wasn't really about wins and losses. It's about personnel. Management played practically all of the its major trade cards over the past two years. What's important is determining how the pieces fit together, especially after the arrivals of top prospects Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Brad Lincoln.
On-field production is an important gauge of how well the plan is working. So far, as this midseason report card indicates, the results haven't been sparkling.
Ryan Doumit has been OK at the plate (he ranks among the top five NL catchers in RBI) but continues to struggle defensively. Doumit's six passed balls are the most in the majors. He's throwing out just 10 percent of base-stealers, the lowest success rate in the majors. Backup Jason Jaramillo, surprisingly, has regressed in both areas, prompting management to mull sending him to the minors to get regular playing time. Opponents steal bases seemingly at will -- a situation that likely won't change until Tony Sanchez works his way up.
Valedictorian: Doumit, simply for staying healthy.
None of the four Opening Day starters — Jeff Clement, Aki Iwamura, Ronny Cedeno and Andy LaRoche — hung on to his job. Neither Clement nor Iwamura could hit and so were banished to the minors. Cedeno and LaRoche now are bench guys.
Things began to change for the better May 25, when Neil Walker was called up from Triple-A. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez gets an "incomplete" grade because he's only been in the majors 3[1/2] weeks. Bobby Crosby has been adequate at shortstop, though his ascension to an everyday role is partly due to Cedeno's maddening inconsistency. Although first baseman Garrett Jones' home run production is down, he's on track to finish with around 100 RBI.
LaRoche could still be valuable in a utility role, as he showed by stepping up at second base when Walker and Crosby went down with concussions. Cedeno still has a chance to regain his starting role but must do better than a .220 average and must be more reliable defensively.
Grade: A big, fat, stinking F for the Opening Day unit. The current group gets a C, pending Alvarez's second-half performance.
Valedictorian: Walker. Despite having practically no experience at second base, he took to the position quickly and played well enough to bump Iwamura out of the picture.
The new-look alignment of Jose Tabata in left, Andrew McCutchen in center and Lastings Milledge in right is just average defensively, but has the potential to improve. They have very good speed — a good thing, considering there's not much power. Still, McCutchen will hit his share, and management believes Tabata's pop eventually will emerge. Milledge can be a good clutch hitter, though the runs will have to come via singles and doubles instead of homers.
Backup Ryan Church has battled injuries and illness and can't seem to keep his batting average above .200. After rocky outings at second and third, Delwyn Young, a superb pinch-hitter, seems best used as a spot starter in right.
Valedictorian: McCutchen is by far the team's most exciting player, and can be a run-generator anywhere in the batting order.
It wasn't until the 76th game of the season, two weeks ago in Chicago, that a Pirates starter finally recorded an out in the eighth inning. Paul Maholm again is unsteady. Zach Duke, who's on the DL with a tender elbow, has been lackluster after a 2-0 start. It took Ross Ohlendorf three months to notch a victory. Charlie Morton was ... um, yuck.
Valedictorian: No matter how hard management tried to come up with alternatives, Jeff Karstens kept showing he deserved another look and one more start ... and then another, and then another ...
The most reliable part of the team. Early in the season, when the starters weren't able to consistently go deep in games, the Pirates rode the bullpen hard, but it came through fine. Octavio Dotel has embraced the closer role again after spending the past couple of seasons as a setup man. The 30-something Gang -- D.J. Carrasco, 33; Brendan Donnelly, 39; and Javier Lopez, who today turned 33 -- has done the job on the mound and in the clubhouse. Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek have been steady and, especially in Meek's case, often spectacular.
Valedictorian: Meek quickly made a name for himself around the league and was rewarded with an All-Star bid.
Manager John Russell and his staff underperformed last year when the team's morale and performance collapsed after the last round of roster-wrenching trades. This year, they face a different challenge: keeping the Bucs on course while simultaneously helping the rookies develop. In that sense, this really is the start of Russell's tenure as manager; the past two seasons were a sort of prelude. Russell's critics moan that he's not fiery — as if that counts for anything — but his players have his back.
Still, the Pirates continue to make glaring blunders — for instance, the two-runners-on-third-base double play — and often struggle with fundamentals. They run themselves out of innings. They miss cutoffs. In short, they have a lot of work to do.
General Manager Neal Huntington has drawn praise from around the industry for assembling an experienced, effective, budget-priced bullpen. Yet, there were some gasps when the Pirates simply let closer Matt Capps walk away as a non-tendered free agent in December, getting nothing in return.
Church and Crosby were good values and filled holes, though neither has made much of an impact. Some of Huntington's other acquisitions -- namely, Hayden Penn and Dana Eveland -- were head-scratchers. Iwamura, a costly blunder, might be good next year when he's finally fully healthy, but he'll be with another club by then.
Other curious decisions by management include the eight months of silence after Huntington and Russell got contract extensions and the late-night, hush-hush callups of highly touted prospects Tabata and Alvarez.