According to Dejan Kovacevic, the Pittsburgh Pirates are not expected to bring back manager John Russell, but are expected to retain General Manager Neal Huntington. There was a lot of speculation that Russell would be retained after Matt Walbeck was let go. That speculation was mostly following the speculation that Walbeck could replace Russell. I don’t think the status of Walbeck really impacts the status of Russell, or says anything about that status.
I say this every time a manager move is discussed, but I believe the importance of a manager is grossly exaggerated. I think that managers get too much credit when a team has success, and too much blame when a team struggles. A lot of the outcry for Walbeck being fired was due to Altoona winning the 2010 Eastern League championship, to which I credit the level of talent on the team. On a similar note, I don’t blame Russell for the team being this bad the last few years.
The Pirates have obviously been rebuilding. In 2008 and 2009 they traded away almost every established major league player on the roster. This year they spent the first two months without the key pieces of their future, namely Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Neil Walker. Those three arrived, and while they’ve each been good in their own regard, it’s unreasonable to expect a group of rookies to come in to the majors and immediately turn things around.
The rebuild was obviously necessary, and the record the last three years is the short term result of that rebuild. I think that you could put any manager in this scenario and they would have a similar result as Russell. Going forward, the Pirates have nowhere to go but up, and things are starting to look like that’s the direction the Pirates could be heading.
The Pirates have a promising top of the lineup with Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez. They have two promising young starters in the majors in Ross Ohlendorf and James McDonald. The Pirates have rotation help on the way, as soon as June 2011, with top prospects like Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris, and Justin Wilson making their way up from AA after leading their teams to championships the last two years at two different levels. The Pirates also have some promising offensive prospects in Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte, as well as the chance to draft Anthony Rendon.
It’s for that reason that I think it’s a smart decision to keep Neal Huntington around. I’m not going to try and hide the fact that I think Huntington is doing a great job. Have all of his moves been good? Of course not. The Jason Bay trade, for example, has had a minimal return, and any value hinges on Bryan Morris having success. He probably gave up on Tom Gorzelanny too early, which was especially bad considering the lack of pitching options in the upper levels at the time of the trade.
That said, it’s clear that the farm system is in much better shape now than it was prior to Huntington arriving. Huntington has done a great job in the draft, and it’s not like he hasn’t landed anyone via trade, with Jose Tabata, Joel Hanrahan, Ross Ohlendorf, and James McDonald coming back via trade, along with several promising prospects who could eventually make a major league impact.
There’s a misconception that a rebuild should net an immediate return. Teams don’t just blow up their major league roster, build through the draft and the farm system, and become competitive the next season. We just started seeing the first pieces of the rebuild this year, and those pieces look promising. More pieces are on the way, including the very important pitching prospects. That’s not to say that the Pirates should only focus on internal options. I believe the Pirates need to add one starter this off-season either by trade or free agency, and possibly even a bat for first base or right field.
The thing is, the Pirates are now in a position where it would make sense to add those pieces. They’ve got a group of hitters at the top of the lineup who will be together for at least five more seasons. They’ve got a lot of young pitchers who are close to the majors, and a few promising guys coming up through the system. I don’t care about Russell either way, but Huntington definitely needs to be retained. The Pirates would be foolish to let him go this far with the rebuild and drop him now, especially when the rebuilding efforts are starting to show signs of a positive return.