On the Pirates: First-half bests, worsts

Misevaluations, poor pitching, offense, defense make for epic failure

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MILWAUKEE -- A second baseman collides with a right fielder and gets a concussion. Later in the week, the replacement second baseman collides with another right fielder and gets a concussion.

Just days after, a Class A Bradenton catching prospect has the left side of his face fractured by a pitch. Later in the week, Bradenton's replacement catching prospect has the left side of his face fractured by a pitch.

Does anyone really want to see how the second half of the Pirates' 2010 season plays out?

Here are 18 All-Star break highs and lows of yet another low, low summer ...

Most valuable player: Jeff Karstens. The key term here is valuable, as in worth to the team. Andrew McCutchen and Evan Meek were far better players, but Karstens -- ignominiously removed from the 40-man roster over the winter, then ignored in the spring -- repeatedly picked up the Pirates when they were most down, beginning with ending that epic seven-game losing streak in April.

Least valuable player: Again stressing value, Aki Iwamura provided next to nothing for a team-high $4.85 million salary. He currently is being paid that amount to ride buses in the International League.

Best player: McCutchen. However much respectability the Pirates had in the first half, he provided most of it on a daily basis.

Worst player: The Pirates had a winning record through the first 37 games -- 19-18 -- they played in which Charlie Morton did not pitch. That is as pronounced a negative impact as one starting pitcher can have.

High point: The 4-3, 10-inning edging of the Dodgers in the season's second game stunningly drew 31,061 to PNC Park. Yes, many seats were discounted to $1, but it still displayed how little it would take -- in this case, just the 12-5 rout of the Dodgers in the opener -- to get Pittsburghers to come out on a Wednesday night in April.

Low point: 20-0.

Top front-office move: Neal Huntington's deft, methodical offseason building of a dynamic, inexpensive bullpen.

Bottom front-office move: A multiple-way tie between thrusting upon manager John Russell the since-aborted pitcher batting eighth, the since-diminished radical defensive shifts, the since-departed Iwamura batting leadoff with a .169 average, and the since-demoted Morton taking the ball every fifth day with a 9-plus ERA.

Penthouse: No player grew more in management's eyes than Meek, entrusted by Russell with the team's most challenging bullpen situations. Meek makes for an unconventional All-Star, but his numbers back him firmly.

Doghouse: Ronny Cedeno.

Accurate evaluation: Russell and his staff immediately recognized that Dana Eveland, a highly dubious trade acquisition, had nothing to offer and correctly sought that Karstens keep his spot in the rotation.

Botched evaluation: Finding out that Neil Walker could be an everyday player in the middle of the diamond only after his arrival in the majors May 26 -- and this after some in the front office had preferred a callup of Argenis Diaz that day -- qualifies as a colossal gaffe. Even after his callup, Walker was labeled a corner utility player. Nothing about Walker, in the Pirates' system since 2004, should have been a surprise to any of the team's evaluators.

Sharpest managerial move: Russell's handling of Huntington's bullpen has been beyond reproach.

Dullest managerial move: Russell had no excuse for the Pirates' failure -- specifically Zach Duke's failure -- to retaliate when Ramon Ortiz twice threw at McCutchen's head May 1 in Los Angeles. Russell's passion would become more visible later in the summer, but it was needed that night.

Best play: With apologies to Paul Maholm's body-bending flip to first in San Francisco, it is hard to top Lastings Milledge's dramatic diving catch June 5 at the track for the final out with bases loaded in front of a big home crowd.

Worst play: With further apologies to McCutchen and Andy LaRoche sharing third base ... as if to illustrate Milledge's inconsistency, it is just as hard to top his getting tagged out on the basepaths May 6 because he began a home-run trot upon hearing fireworks over the Allegheny. His drive actually had caromed off the fence.

Favorite opponent: Who else? Cubs.

Dreaded opponent: Anyone outside Pittsburgh city limits, where the Pirates now are 11-37.

Unsung hero: Joel Hanrahan. Octavio Dotel has the 19 saves and Meek the All-Star bid, but Hanrahan has performed at just as high a level.

Unsung goat: For all the scorn cast upon Morton, so much more was expected of Ross Ohlendorf than one win at the break.

Correct internal forecast: That Garrett Jones would remain a solid performer. Few humans could maintain his 40-home run pace as a rookie, but the Pirates will happily take his team-high 11 this year, as well as his team-high 52 RBIs.

Wrong internal forecast: Jeff Clement as everyday first baseman.

Promising minor matter: The system's star suddenly became Bryan Morris, the highest-ceiling acquisition in the Jason Bay trade finally beginning to fulfill his potential. Expect him in Indianapolis by summer's end.

Deflating minor matter: Long-term injuries to Starling Marte, Tony Sanchez, Victor Black, Quinton Miller, Colton Cain and Brock Holt have pushed back timelines for some of the system's top talent.

Best statistic: The Pirates' 19-20 record at PNC Park. So that's all they need, a little love?

Worst statistic: A projection of 105 losses not strong enough? OK, try this: The starting pitching and offense have been the franchise's worst since the Rickey Dinks of the 1950s, resulting in the Pirates' run differential -- a powerful indicator of a team's overall play -- projecting to a staggering minus-362 for the year. If it should sink as low as minus-373, it would be the worst in baseball since 1899.

Best P.R.: Only winning will work at this stage.

Worst P.R.: No franchise is likely to top the week in June where the Pirates clumsily handled Pedro Alvarez's callup, team president Frank Coonelly disclosed that he had given extensions to Huntington and Russell eight months earlier, and a racing pierogi was fired for a Facebook posting. The latter was not upper management's doing, but it still drew local scorn and national laughter.

Uplifting quote: Walker, after living a Pittsburgh kid's dream with his first home run June 1 at PNC Park: "I was 6 years old the last time the Pirates had a winning season, you know? But I'm from here, and I know the energy that our people have for the Steelers and Penguins, and I think the fan base for our team is just dying to give us that same kind of support. We are, too. It doesn't happen overnight. But there's talent here, and we're working toward that. And if I can be a part of that, of the Pirates winning again, that would be one of the most incredible things in my life."

Dejected quote: Jose Tabata, whispering just before a group of reporters was about to surround him to ask about his first career home run, this during the 12-game losing streak in June: "What should I say? They're going to ask about my home run, and my team only loses. I'm not happy."

Sizzling sight: McCutchen, sprinting like a gazelle from first to third.

Discouraging sight: A ball headed toward Ryan Doumit. No one works harder on his defense, but Doumit's receiving and throwing have taken a sizable step backward.

Prime investment: The Pirates are poised -- though far from certain -- to spend into eight figures on elite pitching in top two draft picks Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie -- after another strong class under Huntington and scouting director Greg Smith -- as well as Mexican international amateur Luis Heredia.

Busted investment: Iwamura's $4.85 million + Ramon Vazquez's $2 million + $3.3 million sent to Seattle for Cedeno, Clement and three modestly promising Class A prospects = Matt Morris' salary.

Reason to believe: The potential for improvement among Alvarez, Tabata, Walker and Brad Lincoln offers the Pirates a rare chance to be better in the second half, and even beyond.

Reason to doubt: Until this ownership and front office establishes a commitment to funding payroll, and until the baseball operations staff establishes an ability to execute personnel moves at the major-league level, the promise of those youngsters might mean little.

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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