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Pirates in midst of 12-game skid

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Pirates know all about bad times after failing to field a winning team since 1992, but few weeks in their history have been as bad or bizarre as this one.

Just when it seemed it couldn't get any worse for a franchise that is setting itself up for a record-extending 18th consecutive losing season, it did.

Hours after GM Neal Huntington adamantly insisted top prospect Pedro Alvarez wasn't ready for the majors, someone in the organization ordered him called up. Alvarez went hitless in his first 10 at-bats as the Pirates ran one of their longest losing streaks in a half-century to 13 games.

Team president Frank Coonelly was forced to reveal that the contracts of Huntington and manager John Russell were secretly extended during the offseason. The team never disclosed the deals because it apparently feared fan backlash.

And for an odd twist, the Pirates fired one of their racing pierogi mascots because he criticized the extensions on his Facebook page.

What a week. What a team.

During spring training, Coonelly said he felt the Pirates -- despite averaging nearly 96 losses for five seasons -- were on the verge of becoming a dynasty because of their young talent. A week like this one makes them look more dysfunctional than dynamic.

"The level of disappointment is so high I can't accurately give you a word for it," Coonelly said.

Perhaps he should ask the team's put-off fans, some of whom vented their frustration with more than a few choice words during a three-game sweep by the White Sox from Tuesday through Thursday.

Alvarez heard loud booing after striking out to end an eighth-inning rally Thursday, even though he was playing in only his second career game. That appeared to be a sign the team's dwindling fan base -- the Pirates' attendance is the NL's second-lowest -- is running out of patience with the never-ending rebuilding and those in charge of it.

Even if it sometimes appeared the Pirates didn't know who was in charge.

On Tuesday, Huntington said this of Alvarez, the Pirates' top prospect and the No. 2 pick in the June 2008 draft:

"We're going to be conservative about moving guys up, not only to the majors but from A-ball to Double-A. There's too many damaged prospects. The game is littered with players that were rushed because teams were desperate. If a player's not ready, he's not ready. That's a foolish way to run an organization and a foolish way to run a business."

Within six hours, the Pirates called up Alvarez. Huntington insisted he made the call.

Two days later, the Alvarez confusion was overshadowed by Coonelly's admission that the Huntington and Russell contracts were extended through 2011 shortly after the team ended a 99-loss season last fall. His disclosure contradicted everything the team had said for months about the contracts.

During a fan chat on the Pirates' website in April, Coonelly flatly denied the team was considering extensions that had been given months before.

"No, there has been no talk of contract extensions, because we have a policy of not discussing such matters publicly," Coonelly said. "Both Neal and J.R. are keenly focused on turning around the Pittsburgh Pirates and not concerned about their contract status."

The deals so irritated 24-year-old Andrew Kurtz of New Brighton, Pa., he criticized them on his Facebook page. One problem: He was employed by the team as an in-game racing mascot. The Pirates fired him a few hours later.

The extensions also aggravated fans who have been critical of management's decisions to keep players such as pitcher Charlie Morton (1-9, 9.35 ERA), infielder Aki Iwamura (.182 average, 9 RBIs in 54 games) and first baseman Jeff Clement (.189, 8 extra-base hits in 45 games) long after it was evident they weren't performing.

All were acquired by Huntington, giving the appearance they were kept simply because the team did not want to acknowledge its personnel mistakes. All three have since been taken off the 25-man roster.

"When we talk about performance, we don't always talk solely about wins and losses at the major league level," Coonelly said.

Especially when a team is more than 20 games under .500 with fewer than 70 games played.

Coonelly, Huntington and Russell maintain there's plenty of time for a team that's been reconfigured by recently adding top prospects Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Brad Lincoln to start playing markedly better.

"We need to get them going now and not worry about what has gone on here the first couple of months of the season, and the last 17 years," Russell said.

Or the last week.