Analysis: Have Pirates finally bottomed out?

Youth, productive top of order give hope, but many issues remain

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Mingling between teams during batting practice is common in Major League Baseball. A handshake here or there. A hug for an old friend in a new uniform. Even a simple tip of the cap.

But too much can be too much.

One afternoon at PNC Park a couple of weeks ago, Jose Tabata, the Pirates' .306-hitting rookie left fielder, apparently felt an opponent had been spending too much time fraternizing. He politely approached the player and asked him to let the Pirates have "our turn to hit." The player left.

It is not exactly Joey Porter barking across the 50-yard line during the Steelers' warm-ups, or the Penguins' Brooks Orpik glaring daggers at Alexander Ovechkin near center red. But it is very much the sort of thing, in the baseball culture, that gets noticed.

Standing nearby that day, hitting coach Don Long laughed and recalled thinking, "Kid's all grown up."

Yeah, two days away from his 22nd birthday, and barely two months into his major-league career.

Are the Pirates grown up?

Of course not.

But have they begun to assert themselves in recent weeks?

Economists love to talk about finding bottoms, whether in the stock market or housing conditions, and they do so not by identifying cataclysmic events -- say, a 12-game losing streak, or a 20-0 loss to the Brewers -- but by finding positive indicators that signal legitimate upward potential.


Today

Game: Pirates vs. San Diego Padres, 10:05 p.m., Petco Park.

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

Pitching: RHP Jeff Karstens (2-7, 4.47) vs. LHP Wade LeBlanc (5-10, 3.61).

Season: Padres, 3-0.

Key matchup: LeBlanc gets hit harder than anyone on San Diego's fine pitching staff, with a .277 opponents' batting average and 16 home runs. The Pirates got three runs and eight hits off him in six innings July 25, a 6-3 loss.

Of note: Since that sweep at PNC Park, the first-place Padres have gone 6-7.

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Box score

Standings

Team statistics

Team leaders

Minor-league report


"I hope so," center fielder Andrew McCutchen was saying Sunday. "I hope this is it. I hope this is when we turn the corner, when this whole franchise does."

That sentiment, building for week, was widely expressed over the weekend, after Pedro Alvarez's three-run blast Saturday night brought perhaps one of the best finishes in PNC Park history, even after reality set right back in the next afternoon with an 8-4 loss.

Taking a closer look ...

Hitting

"You look at the top five in their order now and, all of a sudden, they can wreak some real havoc."

Those were the words of Jim Tracy, Colorado's manager who previously held the title in Pittsburgh, and they came before that top five -- in order, McCutchen, Tabata, Neil Walker, Garrett Jones and Alvarez -- mostly had their way with the Rockies' pitchers for seven games.

"It's a matter of time," Tracy said, "until people around baseball pay attention."

Perhaps that already would be happening if the Pirates were not light-years out of contention at 39-72, but the lineup upgrade is evident either way: Since manager John Russell first put those five together in that order July 7, they are batting a combined .287 with 19 home runs and 72 RBIs in the 28 games.

Individually in that time, McCutchen is batting .253 with 10 runs scored, Tabata .369 with 20 runs, Walker .313 with 20 RBIs, Jones .232 but with six home runs and 12 RBIs, and Alvarez .257 with eight home runs and 21 RBIs.

As Russell put it the other day, "We really like what we have there, and we think it's special, something the people of Pittsburgh can watch for years to come."

Tabata, Walker and Alvarez are rookies. McCutchen and Jones are in their first full seasons in the majors. None can become a free agent for at least five years.

There clearly is room for improvement in some areas, and some of the positives look unsustainable, notably Tabata's Ted Williams-like pace and Walker's trend of living on the edge: He has fallen to a two-strike count in nearly half his at-bats -- 107 of 234 -- and has batted a freakishly high .205 when doing so. On the other hand, Jones and Alvarez have histories of hitting for higher averages, so that area could get better.

Maybe just as important, the pieces seem to fit what a baseball lineup should look like from the speed-and-pop at the top in McCutchen, the bat control at No. 2 in Tabata, the hitting machine at No. 3 in Walker, and the left-handed power threats -- perfect for PNC Park -- in Jones and Alvarez.


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Projecting rookie performance is fraught with pitfalls, though -- Warren Morris, anyone? -- and it takes more than five for a legitimate lineup. Perhaps Ryan Doumit or Lastings Milledge can create a long-term No. 6. New catcher Chris Snyder has power, but he was acquired primarily for defense. And Ronny Cedeno alternately looks like the modern prototype shortstop and then something well below that.

Another issue: This had better be the group. The Pirates' top position-player prospects are in Class AA Altoona or lower, and none has the pedigree of Alvarez or Tabata.

Pitching

This tends to be the conversation killer, with good reason.

Paul Maholm and Zach Duke give up far too many hits, Jeff Karstens should be serviceable but not a staff savior, Ross Ohlendorf is waiting as long as Adam LaRoche to find his groove each season, and newcomer James McDonald pretty much walked in off the street last week to become the staff ace.

Of course, there is no ace on this staff, nor is one on the horizon: Questions remain about Brad Lincoln and Charlie Morton in Class AAA Indianapolis, top prospects Bryan Morris and Rudy Owens are still in Altoona, and most of the rest of the internal hopefuls are recovering from major surgery.

The Pirates apparently are prepared to offer an unprecedented amount of money to their top two draft picks, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, as well as Mexican amateur Luis Heredia. Such signings would give the system an unprecedented infusion of elite pitching talent.

But for Pittsburgh?

The timeline of seeing that lineup emerge does not exactly dovetail with a wait-and-see approach to addressing the starting pitching, so the team almost surely will have to spend money -- perhaps a similarly unprecedented amount of money -- to find it, whether through trades or free agency. Team president Frank Coonelly has indicated the Pirates will be "aggressive" in this area, but that must be backed with action.

Same goes for the bullpen, now reduced to Evan Meek, Joel Hanrahan and a handful of crossed fingers. In this area, general manager Neal Huntington has shown he can build good ones from scratch, with not much invested. Total cost of adding Octavio Dotel, Javier Lopez, D.J. Carrasco and Brendan Donnelly was less than $7 million.

Defense

Snyder's addition at catcher helps the all-important middle of the field. Cedeno and Walker often look good at short and second, although Cedeno is prone to lapses, Walker still is learning his position and double plays still can be ragged. McCutchen is a budding star in center.

The corners are not as certain, with Tabata being the big exception. He very much fits the long-sought PNC Park profile of two de facto center fielders, one for center and the other for the huge left.

Jones is an adequate first baseman, and it has helped that the Pirates have mostly stopped shuffling him to the outfield. Alvarez remains a project at third and might someday move to first. And right field remains iffiest of all, as the Pirates plan to give Ryan Doumit a good look there, as well as Milledge. Doumit's arm is outstanding, and Milledge's circuitous routes will get him in less trouble in front of the nearby Clemente Wall, but that position is not likely to become a sudden strength.

The same can be said for the entire defense, really, which is why the Pirates had better hit and pitch.

Intangibles

It will take much more than Tabata defending the team's territorial rights, or a big swing for Alvarez, or a feel-good summer for Walker, or even a possible Brink's truck of cash set aside for pitching, to turn the Pirates into winners after nearly 18 years of losing.

It will take a legitimately new mind-set, not just the annual talk of same.

It will take the batters licking their lips when seeing a vulnerable starter on the opponents' docket, as has begun to happen of late.

It will take sticking together, whether through Maholm's retaliation pitch against Cincinnati's Mike Leake or the even more meaningful bases-clearing double Walker belted off Leake.

It will take the younger players, McCutchen included, fully taking charge, odd as that might be in the veterans-rule world of baseball. Large strides have been made in this area in the past month, not so much vocally but through example.

It will take the players having as much faith in the commitment of ownership and the front office to winning as the players appear to have in each other.

It might even take creating an external atmosphere more conducive to winning, as it cannot be coincidence that the Pirates now are 24-9 over the past two years at PNC Park in front of crowds larger than 25,000.

Is it all there?

Some of this looks different than years past, but bettors go broke betting against streaks, and those aforementioned investors do the same when trying to find bottoms.

"I think it's coming. I really do," Walker said. "It's been such a long time, and I think the pieces are falling into place, maybe even faster than some people expected. The next step is winning and doing it on a consistent basis. I think we can do it."


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


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