The Times West Virginian

June 30, 2014

Using patience, Pirates have now found new life

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — This weekend past the Pirates roared by the season’s halfway point, taking three of four games from the New York Mets to position themselves for the run through the second half at two games above .500, sporting a 42-40 record.

As almost always, there are two ways to view the 2014 Pirates.

The first is to note, as Pittsburgh’s most esteemed sports columnist Gene Collier did in Sunday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that a year ago the Pirates were 10 games better at 51-30 after 81 games, which certainly is a fair assessment.

It is not, however, the gold standard that must be held up against this year, for it is fair to say that the Pirates have survived the unsurvivable after facing a far more difficult set of circumstances and have done so through some of the shrewdest general managing by Neal Huntington since Syd Thrift was sucker punching the National League in the mid-1980s to build his club into a contender.

Huntington had to transverse a maze filled with land mines and dead ends to keep from becoming the Pittsburgh Pirates of old. All one need do is look at the pitching staff he had a season ago that provided the heart and soul of the club, and see the evolution there.

He needed Charles Darwin, not Clint Hurdle, to work through the changes the pitching staff took.

In 2013’s playoff season, A.J. Burnett won 10 games and was the emotional leader of the staff. Francisco Liriano won 16 games. Jeff Locke won 10 games. Gerrit Cole won 10 games. Charlie Morton won 7 games. Wandy Rodriguez won 6 games.

That’s 59 wins.

This season, halfway through, that same group of pitchers has 12 victories.

A dozen, that’s all. Burnett is gone. Rodriguez is gone. Liriano is injured. Locke has pitched just five games.

And the bullpen a year ago was anchored by Jason Grilli, whose 33 saves were good enough to allow him to write a book. This year he has saved 11 games and this weekend was traded to California.

Add to this severe enough injuries to a pair of top-pitching prospects to require surgery and one might simply forgive Huntington for writing the year off, but that was not the case.

He rescued Edison Volquez from the baseball scrapheap and nursed him along slowly until now he is looking as though he might be a dominant pitcher. Cole showed flashes of taking Burnett’s role, although he is just now returning from a minor injury. Locke was in the minor leagues and was awful, but has found the magic he had while Charlie Morton has been the best pitcher with the worst record on the staff, a 4-9 record belying a rotation leading 3.41 ERA.

Toss in an unheralded 19-3 combined record out of unhittable Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Justin Wilson, Brian Morris, Stolmy Pimentel and Vance Worley, another reclamation project coming off years of 6-9 and 1-5, and you have maybe a more solid staff than a year ago for the second half.

As far as the ballclub went, the patience Huntington has shown has been nothing but incredible.

It’s easy, when the pressure mounts … and it was mounting through the offseason and the early days of this season ... to rush to judgment.

The media and the public were screaming for a move to bring in a first baseman, a right-fielder — especially one named Gregory Polanco — a shortstop … but Huntington just took his time until the timing was right on the move he wanted to make.

He grabbed Ike Davis from the Mets on April 18 and if he hasn’t been Willie Stargell, he has been a solid contributor and an everyday player helping to stabilize the lineup.

And just when the public was ready to hang him for leaving the wunderkind Polanco in Indianapolis to push back the date upon which he could go into arbitration, he sent for him and he provided the spark expected of him.

What’s more, while he waited to get him to Pittsburgh, he is not waiting to find a way to keep him in town, reports circulating he has offered a contract that would keep him with the Pirates 11 years past this one, a contract worth somewhere around $75 million, but there is a sizeable gap in the negotiations.

After all, $75 million just doesn’t go as far as it used to, even if you are being offered it with less than a month’s experience in the major leagues.

All the while, as this was happening, second baseman Neil Walker missed time to remove his appendix, left fielder Starling Marte has fought a hand injury, catcher Russ Martin spent time on the disabled list and third baseman Pedro Alvarez has not taken the steps forward one might expect after having hit 66 home runs and driven in 185 runs over the past two seasons.

Again, though, Huntington is showing patience, commenting on the air the other day that he’s not anywhere near giving up on him.

“In Pedro’s case, we’ve got a young man that cares and that cares a lot, and wants to be an All Star-caliber third baseman and is committed to that, wants to be a threat every time he steps in the batter’s box,” Huntington said.

“The league has made a significant adjustment to Pedro. He hit a lot of home runs the last two years and that gets people’s attention. They’ve studied him, the amount of video, the amount of time, energy and effort, and they found some holes, and they’re working to exploit those holes, and Pedro’s working to make an adjustment back.”

Making it able to survive all that went on with the position players has been the incredible performance put forth by Josh Harrison, who has been an infielder, outfielder, pinch hitter and managed to creep out of the shadow of the dugout to become perhaps the most valuable contributor on the team other than MVP Andrew McCutchen.

What happens from here on no one knows, but this is a team in position to make a run through the second half when there were times during the first half when it looked like it might not be able to score a run.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.