Interview With Neal Huntington: Part Two
Yesterday I posted part one of my interview with Neal Huntington from last week. Part two focuses on the MLB draft, as well as the international market:
You’ve got the first pick in the draft this year. What goes in to selecting a guy when you’ve got your choice of anyone in the draft? At what point do you say “this is the guy we want to have”?
Unfortunately we’ve had a lot of high picks, we’ve had two twos and a four since we’ve been here. The process really doesn’t change, except that we know come draft day we’re going to get the guy on our board, no matter what, and that’s a good feeling. We’d rather not pick one, we’d rather pick 30 at some point, hopefully sooner than later we’ll be there. The process is the same as it’s been really since day one of getting here. You can’t go in to it looking at 2-3 guys, because what if you have two injuries and a bad year? You’ve got to take the same approach, and throw the net out, and cast it as wide as you can, with the understanding that you can’t look at 30 guys for the number one pick in the country, but whether it’s 10, whether it’s 8, whether it’s 6, you’ve got to give yourself a wide enough net.
Our scouts have done a tremendous job, and really we started the prep process for the number one pick in 2011, before the 2010 draft had ended, but it’s not any different than preparing for the number two pick in 2010. That process began before the 2009 draft ended. Multiple years, guys that are juniors in high school, we’ve seen them as sophomores, seen them as freshman, see them most likely as seniors in high school. Guys that are freshman or guys that are seniors in high school, we’ve probably seen as juniors, we’ve probably seen showcases. So the process is very much the same as it’s always been. The one upside of picking one is that you know you get the guy you want.
With the prep pitchers, there’s been a lot of talk that the draft could change and go to a hard slotting. How do you see that affecting the approach that you’ve used the last few years of taking over-slot pitchers?
Until the rules change, we’re going to play aggressively under the rules that are in place. I know there’s a lot of concern that we’re going to lose the high school players if there’s a hard slotting system. I know there’s also been a lot of talk about how to make it such that we don’t force players to go to college that want to come out and sign. We like the high school player, given the Pirate City, given the dorm, given everything we have, we think that we’re a tremendous environment for an 18 year old that wants to come out and play professional baseball. We think that we can, not replace those three years in college that guys typically get, but we can put them in a pretty good situation, to put them in a somewhat protected environment as they mature as young men, because the difference from 18 to 21 is tremendous. Our approach this year in the draft is going to be no different than it’s been in the past. We’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to find some guys that we believe have some projection, some projectability, some upside, based on our philosophy of what we look for. We’re going to spend aggressively in the draft again this year, and as the rules change, if they change, we’ll look to find a way to maximize whatever those rules are to the best of the Pirates’ ability.
You’ve focused a lot on the high school players, you’ve taken a few college bats with Alvarez and Sanchez. There are a lot of college pitchers at the top of the board this year. Do you have any reservations with the injury history of college pitchers in the past, and the high pitch counts that would stray you away from taking a college pitcher?
We’ve taken a lot of college pitchers in the 3rd, 4th, 5th round. Guys that we’ve liked, guys that we like a lot. We just liked other players better at the top of the board when we’ve picked. We liked Alvarez the best of anyone that was available. We liked Sanchez the best of anyone that was available. And then last year we liked Taillon the best of anyone that was available. So there’s not an aversion to taking a college pitcher, in fact probably the opposite. Every pitcher comes with risk. Pitching is a game of attrition, and that’s why we’ve tried to stockpile as many quality arms as we can in the system that meet our criteria. The more we have the better off we’re going to be as an organization. Pitching’s always a tradable commodity, and you can never have enough of it. As we put the board together, we work hard to stay with the integrity of the board. That’s probably why our drafts have been so pitching heavy over the last couple years. Especially, it’s been pitching heavy drafts. We don’t want to look at our board and drop 30 spots on our board to get a position player just to get a position player. We want to continue to take the guys as we’ve ranked them out, as we’ve worked hard to put the board together as (Greg Smith) and his staff do a great job. So it’s really been the integrity of the board and staying true to that. All pitchers come with risk, we’re trying to minimize that based on what we do once we get them, and then based on the selection process.
Stephen Strasburg last year made it up in one season. If there was a college player that was being compared to Strasburg, would you move the player as quick as Strasburg moved, or would you take it at a slower pace?
I think the reality is that Stephen Strasburg is a once in a generation type player. We believe that anyway. There’s a lot of very good players in this year’s draft, a lot of guys we’re excited about, a lot of guys we’re locking in on. I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison for anybody, to compare him to Strasburg, or to compare any pitcher to Strasburg, be it high school or college. In terms of the movement throughout the system, we’ll certainly be very cognizant of pitch work load as much as innings work loads. Pitch workload, it’s the understanding of the increased stress as a pitcher goes from level to level, and that 20 innings in AAA vs 20 innings in the big leagues vs 20 innings in A-ball may be different.
The other shame of it all is the lost development time over the course of the summer. When that pitcher finishes throwing his last pitch for a college some time in May, if he were able to get right out and get going, you can continue to build, you can continue to progress, and you don’t have a shut down/cool down period, and he might be able to throw an extra 40 innings the next year and might be that much closer to the big leagues. Instead, unfortunately what happens with the real high profile pitchers is they get shut down for June, they get shut down for July, they get shut down for half of August. And if they do sign, now you’re two and a half months down. So now as an organization you have to run the decision, do you heat them back up again to go pitch in a Fall League, to go pitch in an instructional league, and then cool them back down and bring them back out. So it’s a double edge sword when we lose that development time that pitcher, of the cool down period, but also the loss of innings, and the impact it’s going to make on how far the pitcher can go the next year, and how many innings he can go the next year. Do you jump him to AA the next year, maybe to AAA the next year? Or, do you have to start him in A-ball, and now you have to really monitor the innings and now you have to shut him down because he’s at 140 innings, instead of being able to get him to 160 or 170 and put him on the verge of the big leagues.
With the drafts the last few years, you’ve been heavy on the pitching prospects in the system, especially at the lower levels. You haven’t selected as many position players. At some point would you try to balance that out, would you start trading some of your pitching depth for some of your position players if that were a need for you?
The beautiful part about the pitching prospects is pitching is always a need. There’s always a demand for pitching. And again, it hasn’t been a focus the last couple of years, it’s been the integrity of the board, and both have been pitching heavy drafts. This year sounds like another pitching heavy draft. If all things are equal, maybe we begin to lead a little more toward a position player over another pitcher, but if things aren’t equal we’ve got to take the best player. We’ve got to select the player who we think has the highest impact and the most probability of reaching an impact for us. And yeah, at some point in time we might have some pitching to trade. Prospect for prospect trades aren’t as easy as people like to think that they are to make, because everybody always thinks that their guy is a lot better than the other guy, and it’s hard to trade prospect for prospect because it’s risky. As we progress, and to have the pitching prospects in our system to be able to fill in prospects for established major league players, to fill in on our major league club, to play key roles on our major league clubs perhaps, it’s a good position, it’s a good thing to have depth of.
You mentioned prospect for prospect trades. As far as prospect for major league player trades, some teams are willing to do that. There are some teams, such as the Rays, who are hard to come off their prospects. Would you guys be willing to trade one of your prospects for a major league player on a short term contract, or would you value the prospects more for the long term?
It’s case specific. We are getting to the point in time where we’re going to be a lot more open to trading our prospects. To trade a top notch prospect for a short term fill, probably not. We’re not there yet. Are we ever going to be there? That’s always going to be a tough one, given the need to build from within. That’s the reality of where we are, it’s the reality of our existence in the market size, the size of 10-15 other markets in the game. But we are looking forward to…you want to stockpile prospects in your system, you want to stockpile future major league players in your system for two reasons. One, to play for you and to be integral parts of your major league team, or to be role players on your major league team, and the second thing is to help you acquire players who can be integral parts of your major league team, or role players on your major league team. In theory, sure, we’ll absolutely be open to it when it becomes a practical application, those are always a lot more difficult. We’ve got to make sure we keep the right players, and we’ve got to make sure we’re open to trading the right players if it brings us back the right return.
You’ve got the number one pick. Coming in to the season everyone is talking about Anthony Rendon. How does that affect you, knowing that everyone is looking at this one guy as the guaranteed next thing and number one pick? How does that affect your decision making, and with Rendon, do his injuries concern you at all over the last few years, with the two ankle injuries and the shoulder injury?
I’m going to avoid commenting on any specific player in the draft. It’s March 23rd and the draft is early June, so we’re a long ways away from being able to comment specifically on any player. Obviously he’s a talented player and we’ll do our due diligence and do our work on it. Generally speaking, we’ve got to focus on making sure we get the player who we believe is the best player for us, and we believe is the best player available in the draft at the time our name is called, whether it’s in the first round or the 50th round. They might have burned down PNC Park if we drafted Buster Posey back when we decided to take Pedro Alvarez. Now we’re ecstatic with Pedro. We agonized over Pedro Alvarez and Buster Posey, and we spent a lot of time on it. Hindsight evaluation, we probably would have been just fine if we drafted Buster Posey and not Pedro Alvarez. Again, each player a great player.
At the same time, if you go back and you review the periodicals and you review “Player X was going to be the best player in the draft” and “Player Y is going to be the best player in the draft”, you know Mauer has been the best player from his draft, A-Rod has been the best player from his draft. I would say more often than not, the first player taken isn’t always the best player in the draft. The first player projected to be taken first isn’t always the best player in the draft. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, to draft future major league players. I remember the debate like it was yesterday between Ryan Leaf and Peyton Manning, and those are two guys going right in to the NFL. If you go back and you look at Michael Jordan is the third pick in the country, and Kevin Durant is the second pick in the country, and those are the levels where they’re plugging guys in to the highest level. That’s where they’ve got the best feedback, the best information. We’re talking about guys that we’re trying to project what they’re going to be 3, 5, 7 years from now, and it’s an inexact science. We’re going to aggressively attack information. We’re going to scout. We’re going to get multiple looks on multiple people. We’re going to gather as much information as we can, and select the player that we think is the best player for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Do the politics in Venezuela affect your scouting and your presence in the Venezuelan Summer League?
We actually moved in to, in our minds, one of the better academies down there. One of the clubs chose to move out of the academies. For us, we felt like we capitalized on some other team’s decisions to do something different. We’re still going to be aggressive in Venezuela. They’re still producing players. Obviously we need to make sure that wherever our scouts travel, whether it’s in the United States domestically, or it’s internationally and abroad, that we don’t put them in harm’s way, and that’s always a concern. But that’s not just isolated to Venezuela, that’s everywhere. We’ve got to make sure we take care of our guys as best as we can. Venezuela still produces good baseball players, we still have an academy down there. We’re still excited about the Venezuelan prospects that we have in the system, and fully plan to move forward. As long as the situation is what it is, we intend to be there.
You’ve got the Dominican Academy now. You’ve made a lot of signings the last few years in that area. You’ve been asked this in the past, but at this point in time, have there been any changes, or any plans to look forward to adding a second Dominican team?
Probably not at this point. Anticipating that everything continues as it is internationally, we like our set-up in Venezuela. We like our set-up in the Dominican Republic. Again, we had a significant upgrade in our academy in Venezuela, the one we lease now. Our Dominican Academy, for me, is one of the best in the game. We’re capable of adding a second team in there now. Is that because situations change in Venezuela, and we close the academy there and we move everybody to the Dominican? Or we just grow that much? Bottom line is there’s not a limitless supply of prospects. We can sign 100, $100,000 players, and we’ll get more because the quantity is higher, but the quality may or may not truly increase at that time. You don’t want to start making things up. You have players you like, you have reasons why you like them. We’ve not been limited financially over the last three years about who we can and cannot sign. We’ve had to make decisions, we don’t want to go to “dollar figure X” or “dollar figure Y”, but it hasn’t been because we’ve run out of money. It’s because we’ve not wanted to allocate that many resources to a given player, whether that’s domestically in the draft, or internationally, or even the free agent market, for that matter. I don’t necessarily anticipate us going to a second team in the Dominican Republic, unless there’s a dramatic change in the culture overall.
You recently finalized a deal with Cesar Lopez. Where is he at right now as far as his preparation and training. Is he at 100%, or are you easing him in at this point?
We’re getting a feel for that right now. It is a dramatic shift of culture to have a player coming out of Cuba, or coming out of an environment like that one and drop him in to the United States. Having gone through it with Danys Baez in Cleveland, it is a culture shock. I mean a borderline culture shock. It’s difficult enough for a young Venezuelan or a young Dominican player, or a young player from outside of one of the baseball productive countries. To come from Cuba, we’ve learned, first hand experience, it’s a dramatic culture shock. First and foremost, we’re trying to get him settled and get him comfortable with the environment, and with teammates. On the field he’s very comfortable. We’re trying to make sure we take care of him off the field, and put him in a position to be successful. Right now baseball is important, but we’re not going to run him out there before he’s ready to handle it on all facets.
Do you think he’ll start in the Gulf Coast League this year?
We’ll see. We’ll see where he is. Physically, he’s in pretty good shape. Like any young player, we’ve seen some things that we believe we can help him with. Where he ends the season again is our focal point. Where he begins the season isn’t necessarily important to him. He may start in extended, and come out of extended, and skip a level. He may start in extended and go to the Gulf Coast League. He could go to State College. Right now there’s too much to speculate on where he could end up. I do know we like him a lot. We were very pleased when he agreed to terms with us, and again our focus is on where we can have him be in two years, or four years, or six years, and the main focus is where we can finish this year with him.