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By Jeff Saukaitis, TSN Contributor - Archive - Email
Pirates trying to end a losing trend
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Young baseball fans know of nothing but losing in Pittsburgh. Still, if you throw out the last 19 years (although that's admittedly a long span to forget), the Pirates have had a rather glorious history.

The five-time World Series champions delivered one of the most memorable baseball moments of all time when Bill Mazeroski hit a Game 7, Series- clinching, walk-off homer - a couple of decades before anyone began using the term "walk-off" - to pull an upset of the New York Yankees in the 1960 Fall Classic.

Hitting stars like Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, as well as Dave Parker and Al Oliver, helped the Pirates win six division crowns and two World Series titles (in 1971 and 1979) in the 1970s.

The likes of Barry Bonds (you know, the sleeker, smaller version), Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla led a Pittsburgh resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Bucs won three consecutive division crowns from 1990-92.

In 1992, Bonds won his second National League MVP award to lead the Pirates to their third consecutive NL Championship Series appearance. The Bucs lost to the Braves in seven games, Bonds departed via free agency for the San Francisco Giants during the offseason, and Pittsburgh has never finished with a .500 or better record in any year since.

The 19-year streak of consecutive losing seasons is the longest in the history of the four major North American professional sports leagues.

For the first time since 1997 (when they finished a respectable 79-83 despite a paltry $9 million payroll), the Pirates have a chance to end their streak of futility. There's a long way to go in this 2012 baseball season, but Pittsburgh is 34-31 through 65 games, chasing front-running Cincinnati in the NL Central.

Realistically, the Pirates probably aren't going to finish with a winning record and challenge for their first playoff berth since 1992 without getting some reinforcements. The bottom line is, the Pirates need to upgrade their anemic offense.

They've scored a major-league worst 222 runs through 65 games, or just 3.42 per game. They've managed a winning record only because their pitching (3.51 earned run average) has been almost as good as their offense has been bad. Still, they've surrendered 244 runs overall, for a minus-22 run differential. Pittsburgh needs to reverse that number to have a realistic chance to post a winning record.

The Bucs' top three pitchers have done as well as anyone could have expected. A.J. Burnett has rejuvenated his career. No longer wanted by the Yankees, he has been an ace in Pittsburgh. If you subtract one start against the Cardinals, when took one for the team - left in to allow 12 earned runs in 2 2/3 innings - Burnett is 7-1 with a 2.04 ERA.

James McDonald has finally lived up to the potential he once showed as a Dodgers farmhand. He's 5-3 with a 2.32 ERA - sixth-best in the National League.

Despite being injury-riddled in recent years, cagey free-agent signing Erik Bedard has remained healthy and delivered consistent quality. He's just 4-7 with a 4.36 ERA but, like most of the Pirates' pitchers, he has not gotten much offensive support. He's allowed two runs or fewer in nine of his 13 starts.

Joel Hanrahan is having another strong season as the Pirates' closer, but the more impressive thing is the high-quality setup work Pittsburgh has gotten from journeymen like Jason Grilli and Juan Cruz.

Can it all continue? Even if the pitchers continue to perform at their current pace, the Pirates are going to need to add offense if they are to be a serious contender in the NL Central. Center fielder Andrew McCutchen (.325, 11 homers, 37 RBIs and 13 steals) is a terrific five-tool player, but he's really the only "plus" player among Pittsburgh's starting eight position players.

Second baseman Neil Walker (.271, four homers, 28 RBIs) is a solid complementary player, but he's pretty much the definition of league average. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, thought to be one of the brightest prospects in the minor leagues two years ago, has shown good pop (12 homers in 193 at- bats), but his .207 average and 67 strikeouts compared to 18 walks leave a lot to be desired.

There's little that could be said about the rest of the offense. Shortstop Clint Barmes has solidified the infield defense, but at what cost? He's batting just .188 with 47 strikeouts against just three walks in 186 at-bats.

Casey McGehee was brought in to give the Pirates extra power at the corner infield positions. His three homers in 141 at-bats were probably not what the team had in mind.

Jose Tabata might never develop extra-base power. Being just a singles hitter is fine, but not when his batting average is just .234 and his on-base percentage a mere .304.

Catcher Rod Barajas is what he is - a low-average hitter who will reach double digits in home runs but look unspectacular doing it.

Opening Day left fielder Alex Presley is back after having been briefly demoted to the minors earlier this season. Platoon player Garrett Jones is third on the team with seven homers, but he's hitting .253 with just five walks.

If the Pirates are to upgrade their offense at the trade deadline, any new player would probably be either a corner infielder or corner outfielder. They've been linked to a number of hitters, including San Diego's Chase Headley, the Chicago Cubs' Bryan LaHair and Boston's Kevin Youkilis.

Some other interesting names the Pirates could target would include free agents-to-be such as San Diego's Carlos Quentin or Houston's Carlos Lee, although their salaries could be prohibitive for a team with a $52 million payroll that is making just a reported $18 million in the third season of a 10- year local TV deal.

Pittsburgh would probably prefer to add a younger hitter that it could control for a couple of years, so that would make Headley attractive. If he can escape the hitters' graveyard that is Petco Park, perhaps Headley would be capable of putting up a .285 average with 20 homers and 80 RBIs.

The next few weeks will determine whether the Pirates will be trade deadline buyers or sellers. The guess is that if they're still in contention as late July arrives, they'll try to add a bat or two that would enhance their chances of finally posting a winning record.

Could the Pirates also challenge to end their postseason drought this year? That's not likely, since the Reds and Cardinals - and probably even the banged- up Brewers - appear to be superior teams in the NL Central.

If the next few weeks don't go too well, the Pirates could also be interesting trade deadline sellers, given their attractive targets such as Bedard, Cruz, and maybe even Hanrahan.

As long as the Pirates don't completely fall out of the race, though, one would suspect they'd make their best effort at the trade deadline to supplement a team that has a shot at a rare winning campaign.





Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.