July 23, 2017

It Ain’t Easy Raising the Dead: The Labors of Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington

April 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In the 1980s, Pirate general manager Syd Thrift, an old Southern gentleman with a dry wit, looked at the rebuilding task in front of him and moaned, “It ain’t easy raising the dead.”

Relatively speaking, Thrift’s task was a breeze.  He took over a team that had a winning record two seasons earlier, and was just six years removed from a World Series championship.  By comparison, current Pirate general manager Neal Huntington assumed responsibility for a franchise that was not only dead, but also badly decomposed and turning to dust.    Huntington has been leading the Bucs’ rebuilding effort for two-and-a-half years, and it still isn’t clear that the franchise is any closer to contending than it was in 1993.  Seventeen straight losing seasons are about to turn to eighteen, with no end in plain sight.

To be fair, the man stepped into a disaster area.  Huntington’s bumbling predecessor, Dave Littlefield, was arguably the worst general manager in baseball history.   Even in the hands of the most brilliant franchise builder, it would take the Pirates years to emerge from the devastation wrought by Littlefield’s malpractice and the benign neglect of departed managing general partner Kevin McClatchy.

Huntington has unfurled a beautiful blueprint.  Under his watch the Pirates have bolstered their embarrassingly inadequate presence in Latin America, spent liberally on the amateur draft, and courageously traded a handful of popular veterans for a barrelful of youngsters.   But whether his grand vision ever will be realized remains uncertain.

The biggest unanswered question is whether this new regime can recognize talent when it sees it.  Among Huntington’s first moves was to hire respected statistical consultants Dan Fox and Eddie Epstein, who brought a much-needed injection of brains and creativity into an organization that for years had been utterly confounded by modern baseball thinking.  On the other hand, a significant number of Littlefield’s scouts and special assistants remain on the payroll to this day — perplexing considering the Littlefield front office couldn’t tell the difference between a baseball player and a curtain rod.

For now, the best way to assess Huntington’s talent evaluation skills is to examine his trades, and the early returns are not good:

  • The Jason Bay deal, Huntington’s highest-profile move thus far, has been a disaster.
  • The Pirate brass remains excited about right-hander Kevin Hart, who came over from the Cubs, but it’s hard to see why after a 6.92 ERA with Pittsburgh in 2009 and a demotion to AAA this spring.
  • Lastings Milledge has been a model citizen since joining the club, but an OPS of .729 isn’t going to cut it.
  • Shortstop Ronny Cedeno remains an erratic defender with no concept of the strike zone.
  • The Pirates handed former Mariner catching prospect Jeff Clement the first base job this spring, but his bat doesn’t project as anything special at that position.
  • Jose Tabata, the key to the Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte deal with Yankees in 2008, looks like a corner outfielder with limited power who might be fibbing about his age to boot.

It is certainly possible some of Huntington’s acquisitions will take dramatic steps forward in 2010, but it’s also not obvious that any of these guys will be significant contributors at the major league level, and that is an ominous sign.

In a refreshing break from tradition, the Pirates have ranked among baseball’s top spenders on the amateur draft under Huntington.  However, with the exception of 2008 first-round pick, Pedro Alvarez, who could be manning third base at PNC Park later this season, help remains many years away.   The Bucs’ most promising pitching prospects are barely out of high school and still toiling in the lowest reaches of the minors.     Last year’s first-round pick, Tony Sanchez, could supplant Ryan Doumit as the everyday catcher by 2011, but unless Tabata breaks out, no other impact position players are looming.

Most analysts agree the Pirates have decent depth in their system now, but, as usual, few high-ceiling difference-makers.   Huntington has whiffed on a few opportunities to bring more of those kinds of players into the fold.  He showed almost no interest in dazzling, young Aroldis Chapman, who signed with the Bucs’ division rival, the Reds.   The Pirates drafted Tanner Scheppers out of Fresno State in 2008 but refused to meet his asking price.  Scheppers signed with Texas in 2009 and now is considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game.  Pittsburgh had the inside track on Dominican shortstop prodigy Miguel Sano, but Huntington gave him a lowball offer, got into a silly personality conflict with Sano’s agent, and lost him to the Minnesota Twins.

The Pirate front office yammers about Alvarez and Andrew McCutchen being stars in the making who will shatter the cycle of losing.  In February, team president Frank Coonelly went so far as to declare, “2010 is the beginning of the next dynasty for the Pirates.”  But Pittsburgh has had individual talent before.  Bay, Brian Giles, and, for a time, Jason Kendall all were brilliant hitters; unfortunately, they were surrounded by overpaid geezers, AAAA stiffs, and meatball-lobbing pus arms.

Playoff-caliber teams (and certainly dynasty-caliber teams) need more than one or two gifted players; they require a fairly high level of ability all over the diamond.  Assuming the best, which is that McCutchen and Alvarez blossom into all-star talents, where is their supporting cast going to come from?   Where is the pitching going to come from?  In the most optimistic scenario, it probably will be 2014 or 2015 before any of the high school hurlers drafted in 2009 establish themselves in the majors – and by that time Alvarez and McCutchen will be approaching their free agent years.   Will Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting, with his reputation in Pittsburgh as the town Scrooge, pay to lock up his stars long-term, and maybe even bring in a quality free agent or two?    Fans and media members who follow the team closely are skeptical.

Although Huntington is slowly breathing life into the organization, the pulse remains weak, the vital signs unstable, and the outlook guarded.   But at least there is a pulse, which is the most anyone has been able to say about this once-proud franchise in almost two decades.

James Forr is the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award and co-author of Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography, released in January 2010.

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