Cook: Pirates are being steered in a familiar direction

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The baseball season has reached the quarter-pole, the perfect time to take a hard look at the Pirates. They have taken their usual bad turn -- Destination: Dreadful -- but what the heck? Let's start by accentuating the positive.

Neil Walker.

So much for that.

It really is a lot harder to pick the Pirates' biggest negative. Is it Pedro Alvarez? How about Lyle Overbay? Or maybe Neal Huntington?

I say Huntington.

The GM signed Overbay as a free agent in the offseason. He has been a bust so far.

The GM signed Matt Diaz. Bust.

The GM traded for Chris Snyder last season. Bust.

The GM really didn't want to bring Walker to the big leagues last season and did so only because Aki Iwamura was such a failure after the GM traded for him and his $4.85 million contract. Walker looks like the Pirates' All-Star, which is proof that it's sometimes better for the GM to be lucky than good.

The GM spent the winter unsuccessfully trying to trade for a shortstop because he knew Ronny Cedeno is maddeningly inconsistent. Cedeno has been maddeningly inconsistent.

The GM spent the winter unsuccessfully trying to trade Ryan Doumit because he didn't want to pay him $5.1 million to back up Snyder. Other than Walker, Doumit has been maybe the team's best hitter, which strengthens the case for lucky in that lucky-vs.-good argument.

But, hey, the Pirates' minor league system looks better!

Unless the big club shows dramatic improvement -- it lugs an 18-23 record and a six-game losing streak into Cincinnati tonight -- the next GM will get to reap the potential benefits because there's no way this GM will be back next season.

But Huntington's blunderings don't excuse Alvarez's poor performance. A slow start -- he's known for 'em -- is one thing. Hitting .210 on May 18 with one home run, seven RBIs and 41 strikeouts in 119 at-bats is hard to fathom or accept. If he keeps up at that pace for another few weeks, Huntington will have to consider letting him find his stroke in Class AAA Indianapolis. The team can't allow him to bury himself in the big leagues all season.

Nor is Overbay without blame. Huntington gave him a $5 million deal for this? Three home runs, 14 RBIs and, despite his reputation for being a top-notch fielder, four errors at first base?

For that matter, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata -- two of Huntington's bigger building blocks along with Alvarez -- have been disappointing. McCutchen looked terrific on that triple against the Washington Nationals Monday night -- there is no more exciting play in baseball -- but those special moments with him have been rare this season. It's not so much that he has just five stolen bases after he promised to run more or even that he's hitting .242, a pretty lame number for the man considered by many to be the team's best player. He had to be benched by manager Clint Hurdler for not hustling. That's inexcusable.

As for Tabata, he's playing hurt with a sore hamstring or he has regressed badly. He was hitting .354 after 13 games. He's hitting .160 since with just one home run and five RBIs. No, the team can't allow him to bury himself, either.

In fairness, there have been other positives besides Walker, who has been a joy to watch because he looks like he's actually having fun.

Kevin Correia -- a Huntington free-agent signing during the winter -- started fast, although he lost his past two starts.

Doumit shrugged off the trade talk and has hit a couple of big home runs to win games.

Charlie Morton -- a Huntington trade pickup, tonight's starter and, hopefully for the Pirates' sake, their stopper -- has done a great job resurrecting his career from the dead after going 2-12 with a 7.57 earned-run average last season.

Paul Maholm has been sabotaged by little run support and has pitched better than his 1-6 record.

The bullpen -- rebuilt by Huntington -- has been mostly good even without injured 2010 All-Star Evan Meek, although it has tailed off lately, especially Chris Resop. Jose Veras looks like a heck of a minor league free agent pickup by Huntington. Closer Joel Hanrahan -- he came from Washington in a 2009 trade, perhaps Huntington's finest -- has been perfect with 11 saves in 11 chances.

But, obviously, the negatives outnumber the positives.

That 18-23 record, remember?

That's the same record, by the way, the 2010 Pirates had on their way to 105 losses.

No, I'm not suggesting these Pirates will lose 105. There's a different feel about this team if only because of Hurdle. It would be nice if he stressed the fundamentals a little more, as he promised to do when he took the job after last season. The team's base-running has been frightful. But his willingness to bench McCutchen showed me something. He's not going to go quietly on that road to Dreadful. There will be hell to pay along the way.

There is that to look forward to in the final 121 Pirates games.

There is at least that.


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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