By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, August 1, 2011
Good time to go home?
"Got that right," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said.
This 6-5 loss to the Phillies stung on several levels, not least of which was manager Clint Hurdle's continuing, maddening refusal to use Joel Hanrahan in anything but save situations. The Pirates are now 4 1/2 games off the Central Division lead, having been swept here and finishing the trip 2-5. Hard to imagine chins raised after that.
And, to be blunt, I don't think general manager Neal Huntington's haul at the trading deadline yesterday will change any of this much.
Part of that is that these Pirates are showing kinks in the key area - pitching -- that has long looked unsustainable. Sure, Jeff Karstens showed again yesterday why he has richly earned that 2.49 ERA by fending off the mighty Phillies. Paul Maholm is staying strong, too. But the rest of the rotation, plus bombs-away reliever Jose Veras, are fading fast.
No pitching was acquired.
The offense was correctly deemed a priority, but adding no pitching is hard to swallow. Evan Meek doesn't look close to returning, and shuffling Ross Ohlendorf and/or Brad Lincoln into the mix is no solution.
The other part of my sentiment is that Huntington's two moves to bolster the offense were trades for first baseman Derrek Lee and outfielder Ryan Ludwick, both of whom must first bolster their careers.
You have to love the price tags. The Pirates will not part with any top prospect, which would have been a mistake, and they stepped up by taking on $4.8 million in the two veterans' salaries. That's the combination of prudence and commitment that was needed.
Good for owner Bob Nutting, president Frank Coonelly and Huntington for keeping their word on those two fronts.
And I'll buy Huntington's explanation for the return, too: "We kicked the tires just about everywhere you can imagine. Teams felt they had better matches elsewhere."
But I still find myself having the same muted reaction that most players seemed to have yesterday: That's nice.
I do like the addition of Lee.
No, he isn't as sexy an acquisition as Hunter Pence or Carlos Beltran would have been. But Philadelphia is in a far better position to forfeit top prospects for Pence: The Phillies, as was evident here all weekend, have every reason to eye the World Series. And Beltran flat-out didn't want to play for the Pirates.
Lee will be 36 in a month, and he has shown a steep decline from his last Lee-like season, 2009, when he batted .306 with 35 home runs and 111 RBI. His overall average this season with Baltimore was .246 with 12 home runs and 41 RBIs. Nothing sexy about that.
But Lee always has been better as the summer gets longer: Since the All-Star break, he is batting .298 -- 17 for 57 -- including a 4-for-5 output Tuesday in Toronto with an opposite-field home run and five RBI. And the Pirates' scouts saw other traits at the plate they found encouraging.
"We think he's got a lot of ball left in him," Hurdle said yesterday.
So do I.
Lee isn't the big-time power bat many coveted, but he represents a legitimate upgrade at the position where the Pirates had the greatest room to improve. Lyle Overbay lasered a home run yesterday, but his equipment bag should have been sent somewhere other than Pittsburgh.
Ludwick, 33, has had a decline that has been steep and steady. After a monster 2008 in St. Louis -- 37 home runs, .299 average -- those two figures have fallen, year by year, to 22 and .265, 17 and .251 and the 11 and .238 he had with San Diego this season.
There are mitigating factors, notably that the Padres' Petco Park is the hitter's graveyard of baseball. And, maybe because of that, Huntington's statisticians showed him indicators that he should perform better the rest of the way.
Here, too, there could be an upgrade. Ludwick is better than Garrett Jones, Xavier Paul and Matt Diaz as a right field option. Whether he is better than Alex Presley, we'll see. But Presley and his .333 average, .402 on-base percentage and speed shouldn't just be cast aside once he returns.
Second baseman Neil Walker, as eager as any player to welcome reinforcements, remarked of Lee and Ludwick, "Both those guys will help our offense, and they both seem like good guys. I'm pretty happy about it."
Yeah, I guess I am, too.
Photo: Infielder Derrek Lee #25 of the Baltimore Orioles poses for a photo during photo day at Ed Smith Stadium on February 26, 2011 in Sarasota, Florida. (February 25, 2011 - Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images North America)