Neal Huntington has turned the sad-sack Pirates into a formidable contender with a bright future. So why is he still not appreciated?
When the Pittsburgh Pirates make a baseball transaction, it’s never viewed as being primarily about baseball. Financial motives are often suspected as the driving force. Rumors have swirled nearly all season long that former first-overall pick Gerrit Cole will be briefly sent back to the minors, only so the Pirates can save an indefinite amount of money at some unknown future date. This delaying of free agency happens to be a fairly common practice for highly regarded prospects these days – the Nationals tried it with Stephen Strasburg; the Mets are trying it with Zack Wheeler. But these are the Pirates, and so it feels different – penny pinching and insulting, just another way of putting money above all else, including winning.
The franchise has earned this lack of faith by consistently and willingly making awful moves with one eye on the bottom line, for the better part of two decades. Even in recent years, as the Pirates have flipped from sellers to buyers (using the latter term loosely) both in free agency and at the trading deadline, they are still seen as shopping mostly at the bargain bin. Nobody else wanted A.J. Burnett or Francisco Liriano or Jason Grilli, and the Pirates, bargain-crazed as ever, took the bait.
This is the atmosphere in which general manager Neal Huntington operates. When he took the job in 2007, the Pirates were at an ultimate rock bottom after breaking the professional sports record for consecutive losing seasons. His job was to rebuild the team from inside out, on an extremely limited budget, while placating a dwindling and outraged fan base. After six long seasons, his reclamation project has finally come to fruition, and it must be considered brilliant. This is even more astonishing than it sounds.
It’s astonishing because Huntington is also the guy who traded for a broken-down Aki Iwamura. Who dealt Jason Bay, in his prime, for nothing. Who dealt Jose Bautista, future home run king, for even less. Who gutted a last place team so they could finish in last place again and again. Prior to 2013, the offensive position players signed during his tenure had a collective .231 batting average and a combined WAR of -4.4. With little money to spend, he spent it disastrously: $4 million for Ramon Vazquez; $4.25 million for Matt Diaz; $5 million for Lyle Overbay; $10 million for Clint Barmes. The Yankees or Red Sox can treat mistakes of this nature like accounting errors. In Pittsburgh, these were the biggest transactions of the offseason.
Huntington always insisted on taking the long view, showing remarkable patience and doing his best to convince anyone listening that rebuilding doesn’t happen overnight. He slowly and meticulously dismantled the roster he inherited, trading established players for prospects, cash or draft picks. He was heavily criticized, especially as the losses piled up: 95 in ’08, his first summer on the job, 99 a year later, and a 105 in 2010, the Pirates’ worst season in 58 years.
Huntington didn’t do himself any favors during this dark period. Speaking to Sports Illustrated in 2010, he basically acknowledged that the Pirates were cheapskates, saying, “If a player wants to chase every last dollar, he’s probably not going to be here. If he buys into what we’re doing, he’ll leave some money on the table and he’ll stay.” At the 2010 draft, Huntington said the Pirates didn’t have universally lauded super-phenom and eventual first overall pick Bryce Harper in their top ten.
This was the nonsense that alienated a huge swath of a long-suffering fan base. But if the anti-Huntington movement was sizable from the beginning, it truly exploded in 2009, thanks to a move that appeared to be the very definition of Pirates-esque. On June 3rd – without warning and almost two months before the trading deadline – Huntington traded popular all-star Nate McLouth to the Braves for three minor league prospects, none of whom was ready for the majors, none of whom projected to be a star.
Reaction was swift and decisive; the Pirates were panned by just about anyone paying attention. Adam LaRoche, speaking out from the team clubhouse, said at the time, “There ain’t a guy in here who ain’t ticked off about it.” McLouth, who in February had signed a three-year contract extension, cried in the locker room after the game. Fans in Pittsburgh were so outraged that Huntington was compelled to send a personal email to season-ticket holders to explain his justifications for the trade.
Four years later, the trade looks like a steal…for the Pirates. From the Braves, they received minor leaguers Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernandez. Locke made his first All-Star team this year and is the anchor of the best pitching staff in the majors. Morton is a solid if inconsistent member of said rotation. And Hernandez was later traded for Gaby Sanchez, the current starting first baseman.
It helped that McLouth tanked with the Braves, hitting .229 and missing significant time with injuries in the next two-and-a-half seasons before returning to Pittsburgh, earning a release, and eventually restarting his career with the Orioles last season. But even if McLouth had continued to play well, the deal would have made sense, as the sort of unsentimental, lottery ticket-hoarding deal that small-market GMs have to make.
The McLouth deal also forced the Pirates to immediately promote one of their most prized young prospects in years: centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, their first true superstar in decades, an automatic all-star, and the face of the now-revitalized franchise.
For the third season in a row, the Pirates are one of baseball’s unlikely success stories. For the first of those, they appear more or less capable of making good on that initial surprise. Despite modest expectations and a sputtering offense, they are jostling with the Reds and Cardinals for control of the NL Central; as I write this, they have a tenuous grip on first place. Unlike the past two seasons, in which they collapsed so completely that their streak of consecutive losing seasons was extended to 20 – and, technically, still counting! – this version of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club feels like a lock to be competitive down the stretch. Not to jinx anything.
Naturally, the national media has been gobbling up this long-awaited resurgence. Grilli, the fiery closer, became the first Pirate since Skinny Barry Bonds to grace the cover of Sport Illustrated, before falling victim to the apparently still-active SI cover jinx. Clint Hurdle is the front-runner for manager of the year. The Pirates sent five players to the all-star game in New York, their most since 1972.
Huntington remains mostly in the background, sticking to his guns despite many still having little faith in his (sometimes) unpopular moves and his sabermetric approach. Although he did very well at the trade deadline in ’11 and ’12 – getting vets like Derek Lee, Ryan Ludwick and Wandy Rodriguez while retaining all his top prospects – there are some who still viewed him as culpable in the two collapses that followed, as if his meddling somehow upset the delicate balance of clubhouse chemistry. There was even speculation last winter that Huntington would be fired, even though the Pirates finished with their highest win total since 1997.
But, at long last and amazingly, the frugal Pirates now appear to be built for the long haul. Key players such as McCutchen, Cole, and Starling Marte are under team control until the later half of this decade. Drafting in the top five just about every year has helped also; the minor league system is now brimming with intriguing young talent, including Jameson Taillon, Alen Hanson, and Gregory Polanco, all among Baseball America’s top 50 prospects.
Huntington’s recent personnel moves have been outstanding, too. In 2012, he acquired Burnett in a sign-and-trade while getting the Yankees to cover over half of his remaining salary. He signed Liriano off the scrap heap, stuck with him even after he broke his (pitching) arm while trying to scare his children (!) on Christmas Day (!!), and he’s been lights-out so far. He outbid the Yankees (!!!) for catcher Russell Martin. He grabbed Grilli in 2011 when he was nearly out of baseball, and last fall, traded former closer Joel Hanrahan to the Red Sox for Mark Melancon – he of the eye-popping 0.86 ERA, and the team’s closer while Grilli recuperates – and three promising prospects, all of which are performing fairly well in Triple-A. And he’s hit on many of his high draft picks, including Cole, Pedro Alvarez, and catcher-in-waiting Tony Sanchez.
Is Huntington getting the credit he deserves? Does it really matter? It’s accruing all the same. The Pirates are relevant, contending, and seemingly on the verge of a major breakthrough – not just above .500, but possibly deep into the postseason. There is hope, as Diana Moskovitz wrote in this space, and that is something new. The future, both immediate and long-term, is filled with optimism for the first time in a generation. When the trading deadline arrived last week, Huntington displayed great faith in the team he has constructed by not making a single move.
For the better part of two decades, most of the upper management of the Pirates has regularly invoked their own built-in excuse for failure – small markets and all that. Huntington has moved beyond this, and built something that resembles long-term stability for a franchise that has been without it longer than any other. Amazingly, he did it mostly on the cheap, molding together a group of castoffs and spare parts to supplement a burgeoning collection of young, homegrown talent. It’s all in place now, and here’s Huntington’s long view, finally in focus, and much brighter than anyone expected.