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Walking the Plank
by Matt Etling
The Pirates are in fourth place due in large part to two starting pitchers, including Kip Wells.

The All-Star break is upon us, as good a time as any to talk about the Pirates -- where they've been, where they are, and where they're going.

After a hot 12-7 start featuring great pitching from the rotation and the bullpen, the Pirates' lack of offense has caught up with them. Pittsburgh goes into the break with a record of 38-49, sitting in fourth place and ten games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. Pittsburgh is dead last in the NL in runs scored with 314. They are next to last in the league in batting average, hitting only .241 (one point better than the Cubs). They are next to last in home runs with 69, only one more than San Diego. Dead last in on-base percentage at .308, nine points worse than the Mets. They've drawn only 248 walks as a team, next to last in the league.

This is a team that's lucky to be in fourth place, thanks only to their pitching.

Kip Wells and Josh Fogg have been the cornerstones of a surprisingly decent rotation. Both have 9-6 records and very respectable ERAs (Wells at 3.41, Fogg at 3.56). The bullpen has remained solid despite any run support from the anemic lineup. Scott Sauerbeck has emerged as stalwart left-hander (2.38 ERA, 14 holds), and veteran Brian Boehringer has provided similar results from the right side (2.56 ERA, 14 holds). All-Star closer Mike Williams is 25 of 27 in save opportunities and has already reached his career high for saves in a season.

The Pirate defense has been steady all season, particularly in the middle infield. Shortstop Jack Wilson and second-baseman Pokey Reese have triggered fantastic double plays all season. In left field, Brian Giles has cranked his play up a notch with some astounding diving catches while Chad Hermansen has been adequate in center.

The current Pirates are a punchless lineup, still with a shot to lose a hundred games this year despite the performances of the pitching staff. Trade rumors are rampant in Pittsburgh including their only two true stars, Giles and Jason Kendall. This next part may prove to be futile based on those rumors, but I've got a few ideas to switch up the Pirates lineup. Given that manager Lloyd McClendon has already used over sixty lineups to this point in the season, expect to see one of these sometime soon.

The NL Central is heavy on right-handed starting pitching, and has been for the past several years. Despite this knowledge and the fact that PNC Park is only 320 feet to the right-field foul pole, the Pirates have exactly TWO left-handed hitters who play with any regularity... Giles and OF-2B Rob Mackowiak. With that in mind, options are limited when it comes to putting together a solid lineup day after day. One option I whipped up last night:

SS- J Wilson
C- Kendall
LF- Giles
3B- Ramirez
CF- Mackowiak
RF- C Wilson
1B- Young
2B- Reese

There is no lead-off hitter on this Pirates roster. Jack Wilson has some speed and has been at least making contact more often this season, so he's really no worse than anyone else. Kendall, Giles and Ramirez form a decent enough core of a lineup, especially if Ramirez can fully recover from a nagging ankle injury and regain some of last year's form. Mackowiak has shown some power and is second on the team with ten homers. Craig Wilson's bat has fallen off a bit lately, but he's still hitting .278 and is one of the few power threats on the team. Kevin Young... well, he's making six million a year. Pokey Reese is batting well under his .247 career average. His defense partially atones for that, but he's still a major liability in a weak lineup.

Don't like Jack Wilson hitting lead-off? Try this approach:

RF- Mackowiak
C- Kendall
LF- Giles
3B- Ramirez
CF- Hermansen
1B- C Wilson/Young
SS- J Wilson
2B- Reese

As stated earlier, nobody on this team fits the role of a typical lead-off hitter so why not try someone with a little pop in his bat?

I know this is the equivalent of moving the deck chairs on the Titanic, but some of the less experienced players on this team could use the stability of a consistent role. We all know what Kevin Young can and can't do at this point, I'm interested in finding out more about Hermansen and Craig Wilson. This team isn't going to be playing in October, why not see who can be a productive player in the future and who can't?

There are big changes in the air in Pittsburgh. The next several weeks are going to go a long way toward determining the foundation and direction of this team. GM Dave Littlefield will try to continue his success with trades, but the coming weeks will be his biggest challenge to date.