Cook: All-in, but for what? Hurdle as face of Pirates not a good situation

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Is anyone else concerned that the Pirates' big off-season acquisition after an 18th consecutive year of losing and a 57-105 record is a guy who won't pitch a ball, hit a ball or field a ball all season?

It can't just be me, right?

I think it's a crying shame that Clint Hurdle is the face of the Pirates. A manager! That's no knock at Hurdle. He was a great hire for the team, and management deserves a lot of credit for getting him against all odds. I still can't believe he took the job. But there's something terribly wrong when the best thing you can say about the 2011 Pirates is that the new skipper brings energy, enthusiasm and an all-in attitude. I mean, really?

I have to ask: All-in for what? Another 100-loss season?

I don't think the Pirates will get there again. I really don't. I know, I'm a positive guy who always predicts fewer losses than the team has. Last season, I predicted a 59-103 record. Just call me a silly optimist. But it is almost as hard to lose 100 games as it is to win 100. Not even these Pirates can do it two years in a row.

They just can't, right?

I have to admit, the starting rotation makes me wonder. It was the worst in baseball a year ago, one of the worst of all time, actually. It should be the worst again. The team will be blown out of many games by the fourth or fifth inning, especially with defensive concerns at third base and shortstop. That sort of thing makes the many questions about the front end of the bullpen seem trivial. And it makes the solid back end of Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan seem like a wasted luxury.

That doesn't mean the Pirates won't be entertaining to watch at least until Steelers training camp, if there is a Steelers training camp. The offense has a chance to be significantly improved.

It's going to be fun to watch the on-going development of center fielder Andrew McCutchen. I had to laugh at Hurdle's reaction the other day to criticism he has received for batting McCutchen third instead of leadoff. It was like, "You've got to be kidding me. You're on me for batting my best hitter third?" Hurdle correctly pointed out that the Pirates lost plenty of times last season when McCutchen hit first, 54 times in 82 games to be exact. "We've got nothing to lose," he said.

It's going to be fun to watch third baseman Pedro Alvarez try to become the left-handed-hitting slugger the Pirates haven't had since Brian Giles and maybe even Willie Stargell. It's going to be fun to watch second baseman/hometown kid Neil Walker try to grow as a hitter and a fielder. It's going to be fun to watch left fielder Jose Tabata try to be the team's most exciting player, other than McCutchen, of course.

But there are no guarantees even with bright young players. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington acknowledged the possibility of a "sophomore slump" and said Hurdle and his staff worked hard all spring with Alvarez, Walker and Tabata to avoid one. Still, the odds are that one will take a step back. There's also a pretty good chance that, of the Fab Four, including McCutchen, at least one will be injured.

Hey, bad things happen to all teams during the 162-game grind.

Huntington had better hope McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker and Tabata somehow stay healthy and productive and that the starting pitching will be merely awful instead of horrendous. His job is on the line. He's in the final year of his contract unless management gave him another secret extension during the winter. He might make the All-Star break. He might even finish the season. But it's hard to imagine he'll be back next season. Did I mention there's a new skipper in town? I'm thinking Hurdle will make all the important decisions going forward. It's his team now.

Well, there you go. We're back to the face of the Pirates. You just can't ignore Hurdle no matter how much you try. His personality is overwhelming. All of that energy and enthusiasm, you know?

Hurdle has said he wants to see how his Pirates handle the inevitable adversity. Me? I want to see how he handles it. I watched the losing here slowly destroy Jim Leyland, who is a better manager. I watched it destroy Jim Tracy. It wasn't pretty.

Like Leyland and Tracy, who had early success in their careers and then again after they left the Pirates, Hurdle knows what it feels like to win. He had only one winning season in the seven-plus years he managed the Colorado Rockies and lost 94 games in 2004 and 95 in '05. But what a season 2007 was. The Rockies went to the World Series.

It's a long way from there to managing the Pirates. What do you think Hurdle is really thinking now that he has met his players up close and personal? What do you think he's really thinking now that he has had a chance to get to know owner Bob Nutting?

"Karla honey, what did I do? What did I get us into?"

A 67-95 record and last place, that's what.

Mark me down as all-in for a 10-game improvement.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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