Neal Huntington has taken a great deal of heat since his arrival in Pittsburgh. Faced with a dwindling and impatient fan base, the Pirates general manager was placed in an unenviable position of turning around the fortunes of a storied baseball franchise, albeit one that has been seemingly allowed to decay.
That decay—whether from neglect, incompetence or both—has frustrated Black & Gold fans and led to ridiculous speculation that "Pittsburgh's just not a baseball town." Nothing could be further from the truth.
Pittsburgh proudly boasts its football heritage, but, its baseball heritage is also significant. Huntington has gone about his business, working as carefully and as cautiously as a safe cracker. One can almost hear the tumblers beginning to drop into place on a winning season.
The big knock on Pedro Alvarez has been his glove. Before going on the DL, the big third baseman committed seven errors in 35 games. Steve Pearce, a converted first baseman, committed two of his own during games at the hot corner before he too went on the DL.
Neither man is showing signs of getting healthy any time soon. However, Brandon Wood (acquired from the Angels) and rookie Josh Harrison have fielded flawlessly in a combined 39 games since losing Alvarez and Pearce to injuries.
Wood has also been perfect in nine games at short and two more at first. At short, Ronny Cedeno has just four errors in 67 games there and one flawless game at second. Neil Walker has also just four errors in 70 games at second.
Lyle Overbay has made just six miscues in 69 games at first. In the outfield, the nimble Andrew McCutchen leads all flycatchers with four errors in 68 games. But then, "Cutch" gets to balls that most others wouldn't have a prayer of running down.
The injured Ryan Doumit has two miscues in 26 games. The rest of the catchers have been perfect. The defense this season has been tightened considerably over that of the past several seasons.
Improved speed at the top of the order?
Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata have each pilfered 14 sacks while getting caught five times. Ex-Dodger, Xavier Paul (a part-time player) has eight swipes while being gunned down just twice.
Manager Clint Hurdle would like to run even more, but the offense has been sputtering. He's walking that fine line between trying to use speed to make things happen and trying not to squander outs that could result in the loss of potential big innings.
There is no doubt that these are not the lead-footed Pirates of the Jim Tracy era.
Improved starting pitching?
Last year's 105-loss team had the worst ERA in the National League. Not a single starter was under four earned runs per game. The worst was Charlie Morton's 7.57 ERA in 17 starts.
James McDonald's 4.02 ERA was the best. He pitched in 15 games, starting in 12 after being acquired midseason from the Dodgers. This season, J-Mac has been the only starter above four earned runs per game.
However, he's just lacked any semblance of consistency. When he's been able to have command of his pitches, he's been dazzling.
Ross Ohlendorf, who was being counted on as a key starter out of spring training, has spent all, but two games on the DL. Kevin Hart also was being touted as a piece of the roatation's puzzle going into spring training, missed much of that camp and all of this season.
There's been no word on his return from shoulder surgery in May 2010. Losing two rotation arms in the past would've been devastating. 2010's swingman Jeff Karstens has helped erase doubts about the starters by turning in a 2.54 ERA in 16 games, 12 of them have been starts.
Improved bullpen pitching?
The other portion of the pitching staff has been equal to the task of marked improvement as well.
Last season, Evan Meek's 2.14 ERA in 70 games was a bullpen best. Among pitchers with at least 10 appearances, Steven Jackson's 8.74 ERA in 11 games was the staff's worst. Daniel McCutchen has made the biggest improvement, going from a 6.12 ERA in 28 games (nine starts) in 2010, to a 2.34 ERA in as many game this season, all out of the 'pen.
Joel Hanrahan has stepped up big as well. In 2010, Hanrahan's ERA was 3.62 in 72 appearances. He inherited the closer's role when Octavio Dotel was dealt to Los Angeles in the deal that brought James McDonald to Pittsburgh.
This season, Hanrahan has a microscopic 1.39 ERA in 32 appearances. Rookie Daniel Moskos, a No. 1 pick out of Clemson a few years ago, is at a 3.14 ERA in 14 appearances, giving the Pirates a valuable lefty arm out of the 'pen.
Cap all of this improvement off with a manager who knows how to motivate, especially the developing young players that make up most of the roster, and you could probably excuse Neal Huntington if you caught him slyly ginning.
However, Neal's job is far from complete. Most problematic for Clint Hurdle this season has been the lack of consistent offensive fire power. Pedro Alvarez was stuck at .208 and just two homers and 10 runs driven in before his nagging injury shelved him.
Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata both started very slowly. McCutchen has been torrid the last month or so, while Tabata has also shown signs of coming out of the early season funk. Garrett Jones has also struggled, finding himself on the bench in favor of Xavier Paul in the early going.
Lately, Jones has lifted his OPS (on-base plus slugging) to .774, thanks to some timely extra base hits in a pinch-hitting role. Although, he's not turning on pitches and driving the ball with any consistency, Jones is third on the club in round-trippers, with seven.
Lyle Overbay's defense has been praiseworthy, but his difficulties at the plate have drawn sharp criticism on the local sports call-ins.
There are a growing number of fans who think that the big first baseman may be washed up. A recent lineup card found him hitting eighth, which hasn't quieted critics. Neil Walker has good line-drive, extra-base power but is far from an ideal cleanup hitter.
Neil has assumed that role, however, in the wake of losing Pedro and the general dearth of overall team power. Give Walker his due. The switch-hitter has collected an impressive 46 RBI (currently tied with Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki for eighth in the NL), leading such well-known big sticks as Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Carlos Beltran.
Matt Diaz has fought to bring his average up to .252, but he has yet to clear the fence this season. The bad thing is that Diaz was expected to shoulder some of the power load when he was inked to a two year deal.
Huntington has been searching high and low for a veteran power bat off the bench at a reasonable and fair exchange rate. He is adamant that he won't sacrifice quality prospects in order to acquire a "rent-a-player-type" for the remainder of the season.
On his Father's Day weekend radio show, Huntington expressed exasperation at not being able to swing a deal and get "quality-for-quality" in the bargain. Asking prices are unreasonable, apparently.
The Pirates are due for a gentle shakeup, though. Fans are clamoring to get a peek at speedy outfield prospect, Alex Presley. Utility infielder Pedro Ciriaco is languishing on the Bucco bench. He's got just four at-bats in five games and is hitless since being called up a month ago.
Hitting "soft-toss" in the cage and taking daily batting practice with his teammates isn't making use of the Dominican's skills. He's got soft hands, a nice arm and great range. Plus, he can play multiple positions.
Can he be packaged to acquire a hitter? If the answer is "maybe," then who else would go in there? That might depend on whether there's a veteran available who is signed to a multi-year deal. Huntington might cough up a big prospect or two if the right deal comes along.
Clint Hurdle has held fan interest by putting winning baseball on the field, a first for PNC Park. He's been hampered by having at least eight guys on the DL as of this writing and by a popgun offense showing up all too often.
Many key pieces have been put into place and the team is beginning to gel. More weapons are needed, but this is no time to strip the team as has been an annual practice for the 15 seasons.