On the Pirates: Early highs, lower lows in first half

McLouth deal, Doumit injury, better pitching ... and still more losing

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PHILADELPHIA -- From a scintillating season-opening comeback to the sagging offense to the surprising rotation to two stunning trades, the first half of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club's 123rd season was anything but predictable.

Except in one regard: A record 17th consecutive losing season remains very much the course.

A top-to-bottom look back ...

Best victory: First game still ranks No. 1. Jack Wilson's bases-clearing double capped a four-run, ninth inning rally to upend the Cardinals in St. Louis, 6-4, one that fed into an 11-7 start.

Worst loss: How about last night?

Top position player: Nate McLouth. Sure, he is gone now, but he led the team in home runs and RBIs at the time of the trade, two commodities in short supply since.

Bottom position player: Perhaps no player in Major League Baseball has done less with a starting opportunity than Brandon Moss, who did not record his second RBI until May.

Top pitcher: Zach Duke began zipping strikes on the first day of minicamp and has yet to stop.

Bottom pitcher: Ian Snell's numbers aside, anyone player requesting a demotion to the minors stands alone.

Best front office move: Keeping ticket prices steady a seventh consecutive year, longest in sports. Imagine the outcry if they had gone up.

Worst front office move: There remains time to address this, but the Pirates might have missed their best chance to sign top Dominican prospect Miguel Angel Sano in waiting for the field to expand. That $5 million Latin academy will be a shell without elite talent.

Shrewdest personnel move: Delwyn for a dollar. That is the amount of cash general manager Neal Huntington sent to the Los Angeles Dodgers -- plus fringe minor league reliever Eric Krebs -- for promising outfielder Delwyn Young.

Shattered personnel move: The Jason Bay trade happened last summer, and these things take time to evaluate, but time is not being kind to this particular evaluation. Andy LaRoche has been productive but with little pop. Moss barely has stuck in the majors. Craig Hansen was wild, then injured. And minor league starter Bryan Morris, when healthy, is pitching poorly. Meanwhile, Bay has ascended to stardom in the American League.

Sharp managerial move: When most everyone was ready to bury Nyjer Morgan through an awful spring training, John Russell not only stuck by him but also placed him atop his order. The payoff -- mostly to Morgan's credit, of course -- was that the Pirates could trade Morgan at maximum value.

Managerial muff: Russell allowed Snell to throw 131 pitches April 29 in a 1-0 loss at Milwaukee, the highest such figure in the majors at the time. Snell had a 3.72 ERA that day, 5.36 when he was demoted.

Finest play: On May 13 at PNC Park, Freddy Sanchez ranged to the shortstop side of second, then threw violently across his body while falling backward to rob Albert Pujols of a single. Was it that, or was it Wilson's outrageous double play last night?

Foolhardy play: Takes quite a bit for one play to contribute to a player's release, but management was fed up with Craig Monroe after he trotted to first base June 16 in Minneapolis, benched him for four games, then cut him.

Headline quote: Adam LaRoche, responding to New York's Carlos Beltran saying the Mets were "embarrassed" to be swept by the Pirates: "You know, if we're as bad as he says we are and we swept them, then what's that make them?"

Too-late-to-retract quote: Team president Frank Coonelly, after the February signing of McLouth to an extension, following similar deals with Paul Maholm and Ryan Doumit: "The long-term commitments we have made to core players developed here, both this year and last year, reflect our commitment to build a strong core from within our system."

Biggest boost: Andrew McCutchen.

Biggest blow: The McLouth trade drew a bitterly angry reaction from the players and public, but nothing tangibly affected these Pirates like Doumit's wrist injury.

Encouraging sight: John Grabow, pitching with men on base.

Discouraging sight: A fly ball. The Pirates' 58 home runs rank next-to-last in the National League.

Minor league progress: Brad Lincoln started out with Class AA Altoona, now is with Class AAA Indianapolis and looks to be ready for Pittsburgh in September.

Minor league regress: Pick your infielder. Neil Walker, Brian Bixler and Shelby Ford were supposed to make for a prospect-filled infield trio for Indianapolis and all three, for various reasons, have stepped backward.

Hero: While pitching coach Joe Kerrigan has dramatically upgraded the staff, no instructor has had a one-on-one impact quite like infield guru Perry Hill on Andy LaRoche's defense at third base.

Zero: The point at which Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan, the two players arriving in the Nyjer Morgan/Sean Burnett trade, will be starting out with their new teammates. They have much to prove and to earn.

Peak investment: The early analysis of the 2008 draft class, buoyed by a franchise-record $9.8 million payout, looks to be the Pirates' most promising this decade.

Minimal return: For the second year in a row, management paid a free-agent middle infielder a seven-figure salary even though he could not play shortstop for a sustained period. It was Chris Gomez's $1 million last year, and it is Ramon Vazquez's two years and $4 million now.

Point of pride: The Pirates have beaten Johan Santana, Roy Oswalt, Jake Peavy, Cliff Lee, Mark Buehrle, Johnny Cueto, Wandy Rodriguez and Jair Jurrjens twice.

Point of shame: They have lost to Mike Hampton four times -- while he is 1-5 against everyone else -- as well as Mitchell Boggs twice, Brian Moehler, Jon Niese, David Huff, Craig Stammen and ... well, this could go on.

Too much attention has been paid to: The Indian pitchers, Russell's demeanor, Snell's psyche, Pedro Alvarez's strikeouts rather than his 17 home runs.

Not enough attention: Wilson's superlative defense, Gary Varsho's coaching of the outfielders, the fill-in work of Jason Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz for Doumit, Matt Capps' current run of 13 saves in a row despite the awful loss last night.

Uplifting statistic: The Pirates' narrow minus-8 run differential strongly indicates their record should be better.

Downcast statistic: Being 12-25 within the Central Division has hurt, but nothing flat-out stings the Pirates quite like getting beaten 17 times in a row by the Brewers, including 0-5 this year.

Reason to believe the Pirates finally can achieve 82 wins: Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf can pitch better, and Charlie Morton could make for a deep rotation. Nothing matters more.

Reason to believe they will not: Picture the infield once Wilson or Sanchez is traded, remember that it is a pitch-to-contact staff, then imagine the possible internal replacements taking all those ground balls.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog .


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