On the Pirates: Mid-season grades

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Exactly one year ago today, the Pirates lost, 12-4, to the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park. Paul Maholm's record fell to 5-7, and the Pirates, fresh off a 6-20 June and in last place for almost a month, fell to 29-52.

This season, the Pirates earned their 29th win June 7 and entered the weekend 41-39 and tied for second in the division.

Their starting pitching surpassed expectations and their bullpen stayed solid despite injuries. The offense struggled to score at times and lost players because of injuries as well, but survived. Add it up, and the Pirates were two games out of first place in the NL Central entering the weekend.

The following midseason grades take into account the Pirates' ranking in Major League Baseball. They also consider the improvement over the 2010 season and injuries.

Offense: C-

The Pirates rank 24th in the majors in runs scored, and their 3.77 runs per game rank 13th in the National League. Both numbers fall below the league average. The Pirates' .240 batting average is 25th in the majors.

Losing Chris Snyder, Ryan Doumit and Pedro Alvarez hurt. Thursday against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Pirates started five players who were not on the roster at the beginning of the season.

"Everybody's valuable on our team," Andrew McCutchen said after Thursday's game. "Everybody's contributing in each and every single way."

The offense has had its high points (10-run games against the Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs) and lows (a four-game losing streak in which it scored seven runs -- total).

"Obviously if you look at the numbers, we haven't scored the amount of runs that we've liked," Neil Walker said. "Given the amount of runs that we've scored and where we are right now, it's obviously very encouraging."

Defense: C+

The Pirates rank in the lower third of the major leagues in errors and fielding percentage but have drastically improved after a rough first month. They had 53 errors entering the weekend, compared to 65 on July 3 of last season. Conversely, their Ultimate Zone Rating -- a statistic that attempts to apply a run value to defense -- ranked them in the top 10 of the league.

"I think just the overall focus and attitude of knowing that we want to play good on the defensive end has been very important for us," Walker said. "It's easy to kind of lose focus, especially on the defensive end when you know you're trying to score runs."

Starting pitching: A

The starting pitchers rocketed past last season's performance early and haven't stopped. The starters' combined ERA of 3.67 ranked 11th in the majors entering the weekend, compared to a dead-last 5.28 last season.

Kevin Correia became the first Pirates pitcher to win 10 games before the All-Star Break since Bob Walk in 1993. Just as Charlie Morton started to cool after his blazing start, Paul Maholm and Jeff Karstens put together stellar performances in June. The Pirates did all this without Ross Ohlendorf, who has missed most of the season because of a shoulder injury.

"I feel like we're pitching great, but I feel like there's more to come," James McDonald said. "We're going to get better."

Relief pitching: A-

Joel Hanrahan must have hit the books in the offseason because his performance -- 23 saves in 23 chances, a 1.21 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 371/3 innings -- earns top marks. The rest of the bullpen endured a scrambling of both personnel and roles but continued to get him the ball.

The unit overcame injuries to Evan Meek, Joe Beimel and Mike Crotta to keep the Pirates in games. The bullpen ERA, which was third worst in baseball last season at 4.57, entered the weekend at 3.23, ninth in the league.

"The guys that have been here for the whole year and the guys that have come up have really stepped up and taken charge," Chris Resop said. "We've done a pretty good job up to this point, I believe."

Coaching: B+

Manager Clint Hurdle has played a large role in the turnaround. He has ably juggled the relievers to keep them from getting overworked and mixes and matches his lineup to work with the players he has. He also has employed the young additions to the team effectively and benched players to make a point when needed.

The team still makes mental mistakes but, for the most part, has dealt with the injuries well and remained competitive.

"These guys do believe that they're good enough to play at this level now," Hurdle said.

Front office: B

The real grade here will result from how the organization handles signing Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell, their top two draft picks, and what they do if the team remains in contention as the trade deadline nears.

Their best move was hiring Hurdle, whose presence helped drive the team's improvement.

The team found a replacement for their two injured catchers in trading for Michael McKenry.

Brandon Wood, a waiver pickup, struggled early but has hit better in June, as has free agent acquisition Matt Diaz, who signed a two-year, $4.25 million contract in the offseason.

Xavier Paul, another waiver claim, has been helpful in limited time.

Correia, a free agent who signed a two-year, $8 million deal in the offseason, was important in the starters' improvement.

They also called up Chase d'Arnaud and Alex Presley, two promising young players in their minor-league system, and gave them playing time.

"We never want to bring a player up because of our need," general manager Neal Huntington said recently. "We want to bring players up because we feel they have a chance to come up and compete."

Lyle Overbay, who signed a one-year, $5 million contract this offseason, is hitting .230 in the first half, below his .271 career average and .243 mark from 2010. Despite looking, the team has not added a hitter to improve the lineup.

Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com .


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