Pirates might not jump ship

Forget Paul Maholm's 3-7 record. He has compiled a 3.12 earned-run average over 89 innings, holding opponents to 70 hits.

With limited options expected to become available on the trade market next month, Maholm is having the kind of season that could make him a prime target for teams looking to upgrade. After all, few teams sell players better than Maholm's Pirates.

But hold the phone, as Humphrey Bogart might have said.

This time around, the Pirates might be buyers, not sellers.

Imagine them making a splash as the team to land Jose Reyes. Or Bobby Abreu. Or Geovany Soto. Or maybe just a ripple in acquiring the likes of Carlos Pena, Chris Davis or Ivan Rodriguez.

We're more than halfway through June, closing in on the midpoint of the season, and the team that has had 18 consecutive losing seasons hasn't only shown itself capable of having a winning record but of possibly even competing in a powerhouse-free National League Central.

Entering the weekend, the Pirates had won 17 of 27 to move two games above .500 and only three behind the first-place Brewers.

It's no wonder manager Clint Hurdle doesn't want his players to limit their dreams to a winning season.

"We're happy to be playing well," Hurdle said last week. "I can understand it's important to some people. I respect it. I get it. But .500 is not what we're looking at."

Hurdle was echoing the message he delivered in spring training, when cynics inside and outside the clubhouse were evaluating his positive, outgoing style. But how positive could anyone be when the Pirates essentially pulled names out of a hat before appointing newcomer Kevin Correia (10-10, 5.40 with the Padres last season) as the Opening Day starter?

The Pirates were dealt a huge blow when Ross Ohlendorf, whom many considered their top starter, was lost to a shoulder injury after his second start. But Jeff Karstens stepped into that spot, and Hurdle hasn't needed to add another starter since.

A 180-degree turnaround from Charlie Morton and solid work by James McDonald, Maholm, Correia and Karstens has contributed to the starters' 3.60 ERA, the fourth best figure in the NL.

The bullpen hasn't been as solid overall but Joel Hanrahan has been the NL's top closer, going 19-for-19 in save situations with a 1.39 ERA.

At some point, pitchers are going to get tired or lose some of their confidence or rhythm. It's almost inevitable. But general manager Neal Huntington can make life easier on his pitching staff if he improves a lineup that ranks near the bottom of the NL in runs (14th), on-base percentage (12th), home runs (12th) and OPS (15th).

Catcher is the major concern at the moment, as injuries to Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit triggered a revolving door that has seen six get starts. Center field (Andrew McCutchen) and second base (Neil Walker) are about the only positions Huntington probably won't consider upgrading before the July 31 deadline.

Hurdle has the right idea. The goal should be more than 82 wins, even if you haven't had a winning season since Barry Bonds couldn't throw out Sid Bream.

Systems still go: Despite an unflattering profile in Forbes Magazine, which details a long history of employment complaints from minorities and women, Houston businessman Jim Crane still appears on track to be approved as the Astros' new owner. However, one source said Major League Baseball staffers are investigating one allegation raised in the story, with an outside chance it could complicate things.

MLB long ago vetted Crane, who was involved in attempts to purchase the Cubs and Rangers, and excused him in almost all of the cases Forbes raises. But at least one element of the story surprised Selig's staff, requiring additional legwork.

The source denied Crane is under additional scrutiny because of the troubles of the Dodgers' Frank McCourt and Chuck Greenberg, whom Nolan Ryan and their other partners bought out within his first year of owning the Rangers.

The last word: "He's a great teammate. He has your back 100 percent. We called him 'the big teddy bear' in the clubhouse. When he gets between the lines, he's a beast. He's trying to win. Nothing else matters. His main word is 'success.' He uses that word a lot." — former Brewer Bill Hall on Prince Fielder.


Twitter @ChiTribRogers

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