Ten possible positives for Pirates' second half

Duke vs. Astros tonight restarts season that, so far, has been awful


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The Pirates will carry a six-game losing streak into their return from the All-Star break tonight against the visiting Houston Astros, an opponent that has beaten them all six times this season. They will do so with the lowest team batting average, the highest ERA of any rotation, a mindboggling stretch of 1,004 at-bats since the most recent home run with a man on base, the ...

Well, been there, done that.

Here, in the spirit of Major League Baseball's refreshing annual pause, are 10 good things that could happen to the team in the second half of 2010 ...

10. Keep losing?


Today

Game: Pirates vs. Houston Astros, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.

TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).

Pitching: LHP Zach Duke (3-8, 5.49) vs. RHP Brett Myers (6-6, 3.41).

Season series: Astros, 6-0.

Key matchup: Duke will be pitching for the first time since June 16, after a strained elbow put him on the disabled list. He made two rehabilitation starts but threw only 29 and 54 pitches, so he will be limited.

Of note: The Pirates have given up 18 home runs in the past eight games, and half of the 46 total runs allowed in that span have come by home run.

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For all the losing the Pirates have done all these past 18 years, they have secured the No. 1 overall draft pick only twice, and those produced Kris Benson and Bryan Bullington.

Baltimore currently has Major League Baseball's worst record, but only by one game. The Pirates are 30-58, the Orioles 29-59, and the Orioles are fresh off a four-game sweep of first-place Texas.

Nothing could be more reprehensible in sports than losing willfully, but hey, if it happens to play out that way, consider that the Washington franchise has been thoroughly energized by landing No. 1 two years in a row, with pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg and power-hitting catcher Bryce Harper.

Early candidate for No. 1 next year is Rice University third baseman Anthony Rendon. Jim Callis, Baseball America's respected draft analyst wrote last month, "I'd take him over Harper."

9. Someone is caught stealing.

Perhaps no facet of the Pirates' first-half failure has reflected more poorly on management and the coaching staff than the all-encompassing inability to control opponents' baserunning: Of 75 steal attempts, 65 have succeeded.

The obvious culprit is catcher Ryan Doumit, whose 9 percent success rate in throwing out runners is the sport's worst, but he is far from alone: Pitching coach Joe Kerrigan has not made it a priority, the pitchers have done little to keep runners close, and the infielders have failed to catch throws.

General manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell have not made this area a priority, either, in part because of their belief that a pitcher focusing too much on a runner fails to make "a quality pitch," as Huntington reiterated last week.

A team like the Pirates must have elite instruction to be successful. Demonstrating that they can keep teams from taking extra bases at will would be a stride in that direction.

8. Better trades are made.

Doumit, starter Zach Duke, closer Octavio Dotel and reliever Brendan Donnelly are the most likely trade targets for other teams in advance of the July 31 deadline, though none would be expected to fetch much. But should any moves be made?

When owner Bob Nutting hired team president Frank Coonelly, one of his mandates was that Coonelly function as a "check and balance" for baseball operations, citing the cataclysmic example of the Matt Morris trade under Dave Littlefield. There has been no error of that scope under Huntington and his staff, but there have been many misevaluations at the major-league level.

Coonelly and Huntington both have reiterated recently that the Pirates always are examining past moves, to better learn from their successes and failures. But those examinations have yet to result in a single personnel change in baseball operations, despite the costly trade for Aki Iwamura. Nor is it known that there has been any procedural change.

7. Spots get solidified.

Half the diamond is now filled with young everyday players in Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker and Jose Tabata, and Doumit remains behind the plate.

That leaves Lastings Milledge, Ronny Cedeno and Garrett Jones facing a key second half in which they can either establish themselves as fixtures, or give the Pirates reason to look elsewhere.

All three have shown encouraging signs: Milledge is on a .345 tear over his past 18 games, including a couple of no-doubt home runs last weekend in Milwaukee. Cedeno is 5 for 12 in the past week and has looked like a different player offensively and defensively, especially in driving the ball for four doubles. Jones has hovered at a steady .298 over the past 55 games, but he went nearly a month between home runs before the one Saturday.

6. The four Ms move up.

The drag of the Pirates' many recent promotions is that the upper levels of the minors were left mostly empty, especially regarding position players.

Thus, perhaps the biggest hope for a second-half appearance would appear to be a second coming of Brandon Moss. He still is batting only .249, but with 11 home runs and a modest surge of late.

The pitching looks better, with Charlie Morton always a possibility to find himself and reliever Daniel Moskos now up to Class AAA Indianapolis. But the other top starters, Bryan Morris and Rudy Owens, remain two levels away with Class AA Altoona.

5. The starters will pitch better.

They almost have to, don't they?

Paul Maholm and Jeff Karstens should do as they are, Ross Ohlendorf is looking much better of late and finally has a W, Zach Duke rebounded two years ago almost immediately from elbow pain, and Brad Lincoln was a slow starter at each new level through the system.

4. A payroll hike is promised.

It already is plenty clear that the Pirates' major-league payroll will go up in 2011, partly because it really cannot go much lower than the current $36 million, partly because they already have assured the MLB Players Association that it will, but mostly because Nutting has said it would in years to come.

There has been no indication from Nutting or Coonelly that they would announce their payroll for next year, but maybe this is the summer that will change and, perhaps, restore some trust with the fan base.

Management's longtime reasoning against announcing payroll in advance has been that it gives agents leverage in the offseason. But agents have direct links with the union, and agents tend to find these things out, anyway.

3. The young players improve.

This might be as close to a lock as any as Alvarez, Tabata and Lincoln have shown encouraging glimpses, and Walker has shown consistently since his arrival.

To date, none has visibly let all the losing have a draining effect, but it might be time -- before long, anyway -- for all four to take direct control of that.

2. Sign the elite pitchers.

Imagine the impact it would have on all civic grumbling about payroll if the Pirates were to sign their top two draft picks, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, as well as top Mexican prospect Luis Heredia, at a total cost in the range of $10 million.

Far more important, imagine the impact it would have on the Pirates' system to add three elite right-handed arms.

1. Losing turns to winning.

Forget the draft pick.

After all the losing, the laughingstock elements, the lost generation of local fans, nothing could mean more for the Pirates for the rest of 2010 and beyond than simply winning.

Listen to Donnelly, the old man of the bullpen who spent most of his career on contenders, including the 2002 World Series champion Anaheim Angels ...

"We haven't had the season anyone was expecting us to have," he said. "We show up one day and play good baseball, then don't show up the next time around. Why? Why are we having so many more downs than ups? It's frustrating for guys who have been ..."

Winners?

"I guess winners. And I'm not saying we're losers. It's frustrating for everybody. It's frustrating for guys who haven't won. Losing stinks. Winning is way cooler than losing."

He laughed.

"It's a constant battle. You have to show up every day, be prepared to put the work in. And at the end of the day, look at that scoreboard. Doesn't matter what you did that day, if you went 4 for 4 or struck out the side ... if you lose the game, you should be ticked off. That's the attitude that needs to be spread throughout this organization. And, until that happens, we're going to struggle."


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


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