On the Pirates: 17 bests and worsts from 2009
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CINCINNATI -- It was the year of 17 for the Pirates.
From losing 17 in a row to the Brewers to the 17-2 loss at Wrigley Field to 17 consecutive losing seasons, here are 17 bests and worsts of the franchise's 123rd season that ends today at Great American Ball Park ...
Top player: Zach Duke. A starter's primary job is to give his team a chance to win, and no one did that more often. Duke's 213 innings led the staff, he pitched into the seventh inning in 18 of 32 starts and, as the Pirates' second choice for the All-Star Game, he made it on merit.
Bottom player: Ian Snell. He underperformed, complained, asked for a demotion, then bashed pitching coach Joe Kerrigan after Kerrigan had been the only supporter he had left.
Finest moment: Andrew McCutchen's third home run on the evening of Aug. 1 provided Pittsburgh its two rarest commodities as related to baseball: A curtain call, and some hope.
Foulest moment: How much lower does it get than Charlie Morton and Chris Bootcheck giving up two touchdowns in two innings of the 17-2 rout Aug. 14 at Wrigley Field?
Emotional high: The 11-7 start through an April trip to San Diego had the Pirates, perhaps naively, confident to the point of a little healthy cockiness.
Emotional low: The trades of Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez, July 30 in San Francisco, brought a near-funereal atmosphere to the clubhouse that would take weeks to dissipate.
Best front-office move: Keeping ticket prices level for a seventh consecutive year.
Worst front-office move: Not signing Miguel Angel Sano. Blame can go all-around for this mess, but the bottom line is that the player Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo identified as the best prospect he ever saw will wear the uniform of the Minnesota Twins for $3.15 million, only $550,000 more than the Pirates' last offer. Something went wrong.
Best personnel move: Some in baseball snickered with the Pirates' low-cost top draft pick in June, Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez, but he batted .309 with seven home runs in his Class A debut. And the money invested in the rest of the draft brought, by all accounts, another impressive class.
Worst personnel move: Setting aside how the Nate McLouth trade actually turns out, general manager Neal Huntington's most controversial move damaged not only the public's trust in the franchise -- if that still has room to be damaged -- but also the view among players that they can stick around long enough to matter. It will take a long time to undo this on both fronts.
Best managerial move: John Russell's relentless stressing of fundamentals in the field resulted in the fewest errors in franchise history, this despite many of his top gloves being traded. A manager has more control over this facet than any other, and the work ethic of Russell and his coaching staff was without peer.
Worst managerial move: Pulling Duke last week. Russell surely meant well, but the move and his reaction afterward displayed a striking disconnect from the team's paying customers and, far more important, from one of his best players.
Best quote: In late July, Sean Burnett called the Pirates a "laughingstock," and, as per the strict definition of the term, he was proven right. The franchise became the butt of jokes across the country, including the Web-circulated photo of the road sign that read: "Welcome to Pittsburgh. City of champions. And the Pirates."
Worst quote: The summer-long complaining the Brewers did about Ryan Braun getting hit by a Jeff Karstens pitch. Where have you gone, Bob Gibson?
Historical high: Garrett Jones' 21 home runs are the franchise's most by any left-handed rookie, and they came in half a season.
Historical low: Clinching the 17-year losing streak drew national attention, but nothing rivals the 3-23 spiral fall last month that was the franchise's worst such span since ... 1890!
Top play: With apologies to Wilson and Sanchez, the play that might have meant most to the Pirates' future was Lastings Milledge's crash-into-the-wall catch Sept. 20 at PNC Park. Although his knee was bloodied, he stayed in the meaningless game, addressing with one fell swoop many of the doubts that accompanied him in the trade.
Bottom play: Ryan Doumit's swing April 19 that resulted in his missing 2 1/2 months with a fractured wrist. If it can go wrong with Doumit ...
Most encouraging: The maturation of Ross Ohlendorf into an often dominant starter was a boon to the rotation, as well as a needed boost for the return on the Pirates' many trades.
Most discouraging: By contrast, Kevin Hart's showing, 1-8 with a 6.92 ERA, was the latest showing that called player evaluation abilities into doubt.
Leap forward: Andy LaRoche has been modest offensively -- .260, 12 home runs, 64 RBIs -- but but no player showed greater improvement in any facet than LaRoche with his defense.
Step backward: Matt Capps recorded 27 saves despite being baseball's Maytag repairman as the Pirates' closer. But a 5.80 ERA, eight losses and a .324 opponents' batting average -- all fueled by an unprecedented lack of control -- were nowhere near good enough.
Accountability: Team president Frank Coonelly was the only member of management to express -- and display -- visible disgust with the Pirates' performance, though his sentiment apparently rubbed off on few.
Lack of accountability: Some of the worst baseball seen in Pittsburgh in a century resulted in exactly one non-player change, that being the dismissal of Rich Donnelly, the seventh coach on a seven-man staff.
Leadership: With Doumit in a huge slump before an Aug. 22 game, Chuck Tanner pulled him aside, put his arm on his shoulder and told him -- in bold terms -- of his faith in the Pirates' catcher. Doumit had a home run, double, single and three RBIs that night, then became emotional afterward in talking about Tanner.
Lack of leadership: Take your pick.
Positive force: The smile, the passion and the energy of Nyjer Morgan was unmatched on the Pirates' scene in years. Small wonder so many still steam over his departure.
Negative force: Eric Hinske never came close to fitting in, sought a trade, then trashed the city and his former employers even after they granted his wish. And this was the player management touted as Doug Mientkiewicz's replacement.
Sweetest swing: Not long after Pedro Alvarez's big cuts in spring training prompted Manny Sanguillen to compare him to Willie Stargell, Alvarez hit 27 home runs with a .288 average and 95 RBIs in his first full professional season. Expect him next summer.
Miserable miss: Brian Bixler's 26 strikeouts in 44 at-bats is futility that might not be matched anywhere for a long time, even by a pitcher.
Powerful crowd moment: The booing of Russell for pulling Duke, by a PNC Park gathering thick with season-ticket holders, probably had the feel of scream therapy for those who had watched so much abysmal baseball for six months.
Weakest crowd moment: A solitary fan clapped two weeks ago when pitcher Eric Hacker made his major league debut. And the fan, as it turned out, was local horror novelist Stewart O'Nan. Fill in your own punch line.
Reason to believe in the 2010 Pirates: If San Francisco could contend with a lineup as weak as the Giants had, pitching clearly is the answer. The Pirates cannot match the Giants' pitching, obviously, but there is some ceiling there.
Reason not to believe: Teams that win one of every four games, as the current roster has since late July, are not exactly trending toward dramatic turnarounds.
First Published October 4, 2009 12:00 am