Bucs looking to answer more questions

Bucs looking to answer more questions

PITTSBURGH -- So how exactly does one characterize the first half of the Pirates' season? It's a more complex answer than you may think.

2009 Midterm Report

The makeup of the club has changed quite notably since the start of the season, with Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett having been shipped out as part of June trades. But at the same time, there have been key first-half additions, with Andrew McCutchen, Delwyn Young, Charlie Morton and Garrett Jones among them.

There have been encouraging signs of maturity, with the Bucs actually posting winning records in two of the first three months and the starting staff being among the best in the National League for much of the early part of the season. The team's overall defensive play, often overlooked, has been as impressive as that of any other team in the league.

Yet there have emerged questions, too. Will Ian Snell reach his potential, and will he pitch for the Pirates again? Does Brandon Moss really have a future as an everyday outfielder with the team? Will Ryan Doumit be able to stay healthy for an entire season? And which of these new young faces can potentially become cornerstones down the road?

The record has certainly been disappointing, as anyone in the clubhouse will attest. But for a team that externally had minimal expectations before the season started, management continues to contend that the organization is moving in the right direction.

Club MVP: Hand this to Freddy Sanchez, one of two All-Star representatives. Though his numbers both offensively and defensively have been as good as any second baseman in baseball, he continues to get overlooked nationally for his consistency. But in a season when the Pirates' offense has lacked consistency, Sanchez has been the bright light. With trade rumors swirling, the big question now is whether Sanchez will remain with the team long enough to be considered the second-half MVP, too.

Call him 'Ace': Zach Duke runs away with this label after having a superb first half. At somewhat of a crossroads in his career, Duke has taken off following a stringent offseason regimen and work with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. Though Duke's record may not reflect how good he has been, consider that 12 of his 17 starts have been quality ones. There's no question he's been the most consistent arm the Bucs have had.

Greatest strength: Give credit to general manager Neal Huntington for better preparing this team to weather injuries and ineffectiveness this season. When Doumit went down for three months with injury, Jason Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz stepped in admirably. There has been pitching depth when rotation changes have been needed, and the bench is certainly improved from where it was last year.

Biggest problem: Call it consistent inconsistency if you'd like, but the offense has been too much all-or-nothing this season. In the first 85 games, the Pirates had scored seven times or more in a game 24 times, but had been limited to two or fewer runs in 29 games. The Pirates have made other staff aces look vulnerable, only to scuffle against some of the league's struggling pitchers. Getting Doumit back will provide some more thunder to the offense.

Biggest surprise: The emergence of some young arms in the bullpen has to be one of the biggest encouragements through these first three months. Relievers such as Jesse Chavez and Evan Meek, neither of whom had a full year of Major League service time under their belt before the season, became reliable late-inning options. With injuries to Tyler Yates and Craig Hansen, the presence of some new options has been refreshing.

Team needs: The team isn't likely to make a run at the postseason, so don't expect it to start adding players for that reason. With some uncertainty as to whether either of their middle infielders will be back next season, the Pirates do need to start finding themselves some backup options. More than anything, though, this young team could use a .500 record in the second half to give it a springboard into next year.

He said it: "I left it up to myself. I told them I want to go down. I just felt like it was the best decision for me and for this team. I don't want to be a negative person. I don't want to ruin this team. I just made a better decision for myself and for my career and better for my life. You [reporters] don't understand it, and nobody's going to understand it unless you play baseball. I'm just going to go down there, get my thoughts together and do good." -- Snell, on being demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on June 25

Mark your calendar: July 31. The Pirates open a 10-game homestand that day with the Nationals, but it won't be the game that garners the day's attention. It will be the 4 p.m. ET non-waiver Trade Deadline. With the Pirates sitting as sellers two weeks away from that deadline, any number of players could be moved.

Fearless second-half prediction: The Pirates will avoid the tailspin that they endured in August and September last season to at least improve on their 67-win season from 2008. But the results probably won't be that much better. With a tough schedule ahead, the Pirates seem inevitably headed for a 17th consecutive losing season.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.