First Pitch: 2013 Is the Make or Break Year for Huntington and Company
Last September, Neal Huntington was given a three year extension, running through the 2014 season with a team option. This September was filled with questions of whether Huntington would be fired at the end of the year. Those questions picked up when the Pirates drew national attention for their Navy SEAL workouts over three days in the minor league instructional leagues. But those questions reached an end today, as Frank Coonelly issued a statement saying that Neal Huntington, and his assistant General Managers Kyle Stark and Greg Smith, would all be retained in 2013.
When the Navy SEAL controversy came out, I had the feeling that someone was going to be fired. It was a perfect storm, with the mixture of the second half collapse, the team falling below .500 the day the article was released, the losses to teams like the Cubs and Astros, and the national attention the issue received. That combination would have made it totally justifiable to fire anyone. The Pirates wouldn’t have seen much negative PR, unlike the situation now after today’s announcement. I also felt that the Navy SEAL controversy was a non-issue. If you wanted to bring up issues with the major league team losing, or the minor league development, there were plenty of topics to focus on.
When it comes to Huntington, and this management group, I get labeled Pro-Huntington, or a Huntington apologist, or whatever the term of the week is on Twitter, the message boards, or any other outlet. Truthfully I’m pretty close to the middle when it comes to this group, and I’m a little more patient than most. There are things they’ve done that are positives, and there are things they’ve done that are negatives or that can be questioned. I’ve brought up examples of each over the last few weeks. The tipping point for me right now comes by stepping back and looking at the team from a different perspective.
The Pirates are currently 76-79. If you would have said before the season that they’d be 76-79 at this point, and that they’d be within three games of the Wild Card spot as late as September 17th, you’d probably get a strange reaction if you suggested firing Huntington for those results.
Looking at the minor leagues, they’ve had two players — Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco — who are not only the biggest breakout players in the system, but two of the biggest breakout players in the minors. A lot of their top prospects took positive steps forward. Stetson Allie was really the only top prospect who saw his stock drop a significant amount. Looking at those results, it would be a strange suggestion to fire Kyle Stark, who has a big role in the development of the minor league players.
Then there’s the draft. The Pirates have spent more on the draft than any other team from 2008-2011. I wrote last week about how the 2009 draft is lacking impact players. However, the 2008 draft got a boost this year when Pedro Alvarez stepped up, and Robbie Grossman was the key piece for Wandy Rodriguez. Players have emerged from other drafts, including Nick Kingham (2010 4th round), Tyler Glasnow (2011 5th round), and Clay Holmes (2011 9th round). The Pirates have also seen some later round guys put up surprising numbers, such as 2009 21st round pick Phil Irwin, 2010 23rd round pick Adalberto Santos, and 2010 25th round pick Casey Sadler. Looking at those results, it would be hard to justify firing Greg Smith.
That’s just a quick summary of each guy. To get in to some more detail, let’s take a closer look at each person.
We went from “the Pirates won’t match their 2011 win total” to “they’ll win 72-75 games” to “they could win 90 games” to “they’ll probably fall just short of .500″ in the span of one year. Which one of those seems like the outlier? If you guessed the 90-win comment, you’re right. The Pirates were on fire in June and July. They were on a pace where they could have won 90 games. But hindsight tells us that they were playing over their heads, and it wouldn’t continue.
I find it hard to blame Huntington for the late season collapse. That would be more on Hurdle than Huntington. Considering that the Pirates were hurt by Andrew McCutchen and A.J. Burnett slumping in August, and James McDonald slumping in August and September, it’s hard to blame either person. The Pirates looked like contenders in July because they had an MVP favorite (McCutchen), and two Cy Young candidates (Burnett, McDonald). None of those players played well in August, and only McCutchen and Burnett snapped out of it in September.
The Pirates didn’t do what most of Pittsburgh wanted at the deadline. They didn’t make that big statement by adding a name that everyone knew. They didn’t add Shane Victorino, who was traded to the Dodgers and has hit for a .606 OPS since the deadline. They didn’t add Hunter Pence, who was sent to San Francisco and has hit for a .658 OPS since the trade. Instead they dealt for Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez. Snider has dealt with injuries, and has a .651 OPS since the trade. Sanchez is looking like the 2010/2011 version, with a .777 OPS and four homers in 107 at-bats. The Pirates could have added a name like Victorino or Pence, but as it turns out, they would have been worse off with those two.
Then there’s the issue that the Pirates were one of 29 teams who didn’t trade for Chase Headley, who remained with the Padres. They could have given up three big pieces from the farm system for Headley, but would it have really helped? Would one player make a difference with this collapse? Would Headley prevent McCutchen, Burnett, and McDonald from struggling in August? The answer is no.
I can’t blame Huntington for how this year turned out, specifically with the late season collapse. But there are some questionable decisions Huntington has made this year.
The first one comes with some of the organizational philosophies. The glaring issue here is holding base runners. The Pirates don’t put a big importance on holding runners. Instead they focus on the pitchers executing their pitches. That made sense when they practiced this in the minors. If you’re developing pitchers, you want them focusing on pitching, rather than the guy on first. But in the majors, giving up free bases doesn’t make any sense. I broke down the numbers a few weeks ago. If the Pirates were below-average to average in catching runners, they’d add 2-3 wins compared to their current season total. That’s not a huge issue over the course of a season, but it is giving up wins, and I can’t see how the Pirates can regain that by having the pitcher focus only on the batter.
There’s also the way that the team uses younger players. All season they’ve seen Michael McKenry out-hit Rod Barajas by a huge margin. McKenry has good defense behind the plate, which raises the question of why he isn’t getting more playing time. I covered this topic as well. If the Pirates would have swapped their playing time this year, McKenry’s bat would have added about an extra win. And that’s with them getting mostly equal playing time. If McKenry gets 60% or more of the starts, and keeps his same production, that number goes up. The Pirates have their own system to evaluate a catcher’s defense, and that system supports Barajas. I can’t see how any system would support Barajas over McKenry. You’re already ignoring stolen bases, so that aspect is removed. McKenry is better at blocking pitches than Barajas, based on their passed ball numbers (2 for McKenry, 7 for Barajas). I just don’t see where Barajas could make up for the difference in almost .200 OPS points on the batting side.
There are other issues with younger players. All season Bryan Morris was dominating in Triple-A. The Pirates had plenty of opportunities to call him up, but didn’t. Instead they made moves like trading for Chad Qualls, who was on the verge of being designated for assignment for the second time this year. They claimed Hisanori Takahashi off waivers. Even after Morris was called up in September, Rick VandenHurk was used more frequently in the early part of the month. It’s not just Morris. The Pirates had a lot of pitching in Triple-A, and some of those guys could have benefited from getting their feet wet in the bullpen during the season. Obviously there was a need for this, otherwise they wouldn’t have to add Qualls and Takahashi. There’s the fear of the unknown with prospects. But is that fear worse than adding guys who we know are bad players, and who have been dismissed from other teams because of their poor numbers?
And while we’re at it, the team has openly said that Jordy Mercer is number two on their depth chart at shortstop. Yet when Clint Barmes gets time off, it’s usually Josh Harrison getting those starts. Mercer isn’t the first prospect to be brought up by this group only to ride the bench. He’s not even the first shortstop prospect. The same happened to Pedro Ciriaco last year, even though Ronny Cedeno was on his way out. If Ciriaco’s .294 average and .700 OPS this year turns out to be the real thing, the Pirates will look foolish for not only letting him go, but not giving him a chance in meaningless games in September 2011, all while starting a guy who wasn’t going to be back next year.
We could get in to the trades with Huntington, but that would be a whole new article. To sum it up, most of the 2008/2009 trades haven’t worked out, although the Pirates didn’t have much to offer. The biggest disappointment was the Bay trade (if you’re not using hindsight with Jose Bautista). Two of the biggest standouts were the trade that added Joel Hanrahan, and the Nate McLouth deal. The deals since 2009 have been much better, and a few of those deals have played key roles on this team. James McDonald was added for Octavio Dotel. A.J. Burnett was added for next to nothing. Michael McKenry was added for cash. And then there’s the deals this year, which give the Pirates some promising guys in Snider and Sanchez, without giving up much in return.
There have been some mistakes with Huntington. There have been some success stories. There are questionable philosophies and questionable forms of roster management. He hasn’t been perfect at all, but he also hasn’t been a disaster. He built a team that was 16 games over .500 in late July this year. That team crashed and burned down the stretch for a ton of reasons, and a big reason would be that the top three players all struggled for a month. That’s something you can’t avoid, no matter who the General Manager is.
Most of this team is under control next year. The team salary is at a point where the Pirates can make an off-season addition. They should have Gerrit Cole joining the team by mid-season next year. Starling Marte will have his feet wet. The same might be said for Kyle McPherson or Jeff Locke. On paper, this is a team that can easily be improved upon. Coming in to this year, everyone seemed to be looking at 2013 as the year that things would happen. It doesn’t make sense to fire Huntington now because things didn’t happen one year earlier. But if we see the same thing in 2013, there wouldn’t be anything justifying keeping Huntington on the job.
There’s been a lot of local talk that the farm system isn’t in good shape. Some of that stemmed from Dejan Kovacevic’s column on the SEAL controversy, where he quoted an American League scout as saying the Pirates development approach was the “laughing stock of the industry”. A lot of it comes from the struggles in the majors being applied to the minor leagues incorrectly and out of frustration. It sounds better to say “this team is horrible, they’re collapsing, and there’s no help on the way”. But that’s not true.
Most of the people commenting on how bad the farm system is don’t follow the farm system. They wouldn’t be able to pick Alen Hanson or Gregory Polanco out of a lineup, and might not even know who those two are right now. They only know Gerrit Cole as a guy who can hit 100 MPH, and don’t know that he has a plus slider and a plus changeup that really make him the pitcher he is. Until he reached the majors, they thought Starling Marte was a small, skinny, no-power outfielder. I totally understand all of this. Most fans only follow the minors through the box scores. In fact, most fans don’t follow the minors at all. For most of the media, it’s their job to follow the team in Pittsburgh. There’s too much involved with that job to provide any time to take close looks at the minor league system.
The national writers, who follow prospects closely and who talk to scouts all around the league, have a different take. The growing consensus is that the farm system is very good. It might even be one of the better systems in the game, and that’s even after Marte lost his prospect eligibility. Having top picks definitely helps that. But it’s not just the first round picks. MLB.com released their updated top 100 list earlier this month, which featured six Pirates. Two of those were Alen Hanson and Gregory Polanco. Ben Badler of Baseball America had a lot of input on the system recently on Twitter, and followed up by naming four Pirates prospects to the 2012 GCL top 20.
There’s two aspects when evaluating the job Stark is overseeing. Having talent in the system is one thing. The Pirates definitely have that. But developing that talent is something totally different. Guys like Cole and Taillon might be chalked up to just being high draft picks. But the development has been shown with the progress of guys like Hanson and Polanco, or some of the prep pitchers like Nick Kingham, Tyler Glasnow, and Clay Holmes.
Ultimately the most important aspect of development is unproven. That aspect is developing major league players. The only examples we have to go by so far are Pedro Alvarez, Alex Presley, and guys who are just starting to arrive in the majors, like Starling Marte, Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke, and so on. We’re just now starting to see a lot of the guys from the first drafts, or a lot of the guys who this group inherited in the lower levels in 2008, make the majors. That’s a normal time frame for those guys to arrive. Because of that, we don’t really know how the development in the minors will translate to the majors.
This group took Alex Presley from an organizational A-ball player to a major leaguer who profiles best as a fourth outfielder. They turned 14th round pick Kyle McPherson in to a pitcher who could be a strong number three starter in the majors. They might have developed a potential impact player in Starling Marte. We just don’t know if those guys will make that successful jump. We might not know for a year or two. Some players instantly have success. See Andrew McCutchen. Some players take a few years to break out. See Pedro Alvarez.
There have been issues with fundamentals. The biggest issue would be that the Pirates have so many fast runners, and almost all of them are bad at stealing bases. There’s also a lack of awareness when on the base paths. The stolen bases raise an interesting question. If the Pirates don’t care about other teams stealing, then why would they try to steal? If it’s not going to hurt them giving up a free base, then why would it be beneficial to risk an out trying to get a free base on the other side of the game? Those seem to be two conflicting approaches.
Since we’re just starting to see players arrive in the majors this year from this development system, we don’t have enough information to draw a conclusion about the ultimate goal of that system. Next year will bring more players, and will give us a longer look at some of the guys who arrived this year, after they make adjustments to what they saw this year. That should give us a better idea of how the development is going, and how we can grade Stark.
The drafting has seen some mixed results. The 2008 draft was mostly centered around Pedro Alvarez, Robbie Grossman, and Quinton Miller as far as spending goes. Miller is turning in to more of a non-prospect in A-ball, while Alvarez is breaking out in the majors this year, and Grossman was the key piece for Wandy Rodriguez. Some of these picks, particularly Alvarez, get written off with comments like “that’s an obvious pick that anyone would make”. There’s two problems with that.
First, a year before Alvarez was drafted, the Pirates passed on another obvious pick: Matt Wieters. So at the time it wasn’t obvious that the Pirates would take Alvarez. There were also people at the time who doubted Alvarez. Some favored Buster Posey (and they might have been right so far, although Alvarez is starting to close the gap). Some favored Justin Smoak. Alvarez was the top prospect that year, according to Baseball America, but he wasn’t given the treatment we saw from guys like Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper. The Tampa Bay Rays passed on him to take Tim Beckham. As noted, Alvarez wasn’t the consensus choice. The Pirates wouldn’t have gone wrong with Posey, but Smoak would have been a bad choice in comparison.
The Pirates started their extreme approach with over-slot players in 2009. They reached for Tony Sanchez, who signed for slot, and spent the extra money on the prep pitchers. I won’t go in to much detail, since I’ve already covered this. I’ll just sum it up by saying the 2009 draft is looking weak. There’s a lot of guys who could make the majors, but right now no one stands out as more than an average starter, a back of the rotation starting pitcher, or a late inning reliever. That evaluation could change going forward, but right now there’s no middle of the rotation starters or better, and there’s no above-average position players or better.
The 2010 draft threw a curveball to the prep pitcher approach. Several of the top ten round picks didn’t sign, including potential 2013 first round pick Austin Kubitza. Some of the over-slot picks haven’t worked at all. Stetson Allie isn’t much of a prospect anymore after converting to a hitter. Mel Rojas Jr. hasn’t converted his raw tools to on-field success. Ryan Hafner and Jared Lakind both were later round over-slot guys, and both had horrible 2012 seasons. But there have been others who have emerged. Nick Kingham reminds me a lot of Kyle McPherson when he was coming up through the lower levels. That doesn’t say much, since McPherson hasn’t established himself in the majors. Adalberto Santos was a 22nd round pick that year, and displayed some great hitting this year in Altoona. Casey Sadler was a 25th round pick, and emerged as a starting pitching option this year. 9th round pick Brandon Cumpton has a good shot at being a back of the rotation starter or a late inning reliever. 16th round pick Matt Curry probably isn’t a long-term first base answer, but could be an average first baseman with the ability to hit for some power. 41st round pick Bryton Trepagnier saw his velocity increase this year from the mid-80s to consistently sitting in the 92-93 MPH range.
It’s really early to evaluate the 2011 draft, but so far we’ve seen great results from Tyler Glasnow and Clay Holmes. Glasnow has seen his velocity increase, to the point where he was touching 96 in his final start in State College. Alex Dickerson is the best first base prospect in the system. Colten Brewer put up good numbers this year in the GCL. And this doesn’t mention Gerrit Cole or Josh Bell. There’s no ceiling on guys like Holmes or Glasnow. Dickerson could be a starting first baseman, and his power potential could make him an above-average player at the position. They’ve got the talent, and where they go from there depends on the development. But it’s Greg Smith’s job to add the talent. The rest is out of his control.
There have been mixed results with the draft. The 2008 draft looks good but not great when you consider that it has ultimately led to Alvarez and Wandy Rodriguez in the majors. The 2009 draft looks weak. A lot of the big names in the 2010 draft aren’t looking good, but others have emerged to fill the void. It’s too early for the 2011 draft, and even the 2012 draft, but the talent is there.
That talent evaluation is shared on a national level. The Pirates have taken a lot of players who are highly ranked by outlets such as Baseball America, Perfect Game, and writers like Keith Law. Every year they’ve received good grades on their drafts. That’s even with some of the players who are struggling, such as Zack Von Rosenberg, who was Baseball America’s 41st best prospect in 2009. If the approach the Pirates take for drafting talent is wrong, then that means a lot of other people are wrong about the talents of the same players.
As far as Smith goes, it’s another situation where we don’t have a lot to go on. We just started to see the 2008 draft picks arrive in the majors this year. We’re starting to get a feel for the upside of the 2009 picks. Most of the 2010 picks are in the lower levels. The 2011 and 2012 guys are in the lowest levels. There have been some good picks and some questionable picks. The pick that hurts Smith the most is Tony Sanchez. That’s the first big pick that reflected their scouting abilities, and so far Sanchez isn’t looking like a 4th overall pick. There are also picks that work in favor of Smith, like Kingham, Glasnow, and Holmes. The Pirates have definitely been adding talent in the draft, and it’s not just the first round. There’s still the question of how that talent will end up, and that will partially fall on Smith, good or bad. For now, we only have two drafts that have a somewhat clear picture, which isn’t a lot to go on.
Each one of the above could have been an individual article, but I wanted to keep them all in the same location. I think the most concerning aspect of all of this is that it takes so long to build a baseball team from scratch, which is what this group had to do. The farm system had next to no one. The major league team consisted of one impact player, and a bunch of role players, with most of them over-paid, 30 years or older, and nearing free agency. There was nothing to build around. The first chip came in 2009, with Andrew McCutchen. The next pieces came in 2010 with Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Brad Lincoln.
McCutchen is just now becoming the star player everyone hoped he’d be. Alvarez is just now starting to break out. Tabata has struggled. Walker has been inconsistent. Lincoln failed as a starter, turned in to a good reliever, and was dealt for Travis Snider. Just think about that. They didn’t start to build around anyone until 2009-2010. And in 2012 we’re starting to see those players break out. That could be good or bad, depending on your expectations for how long it should take a major leaguer to break out.
I think if you want to get a good feel for the job this group is doing, ask yourself what a new General Manager would inherit. They’d have Andrew McCutchen, one of the best players in the game, under a very team friendly deal. That might be Huntington’s most under-rated move. They’d have A.J. Burnett and James McDonald in 2013. They’d have Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon on the verge of arriving in the majors. They’d have Starling Marte, Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke, and all of the other guys who are getting their feet wet this year. They’d have two of the biggest breakout prospects in the game in Hanson and Polanco. They’d have a lot of talent throughout the minors, with a lot of high upside guys. They’d have one of the best international scouting departments in the league.
That would be an extremely attractive position for any GM candidate. A lot of that was built by this group. We’re not really to the point where they’ve had a chance to finish what they started. The feeling before the season was that they wouldn’t have a chance at contending until 2013. That chance came a year earlier. That shouldn’t work against them. They should be given the 2013 season, for all of the benefits I mentioned above. At the same time there are unanswered questions. They’ve got a team that is close to .500, will be returning all of the key players, and will have two of the best pitching prospects in the game coming up in the next year or two. They’ve got a very talented minor league system. In my opinion, they’ve been good in building this system up from scratch. We just don’t know if they’re the group that can take things to the next level. The 2013 season should give them an opportunity to prove themselves. That would make it a key season. Another collapse, or another year where they struggle to end up around the .500 mark, and it will be time to start looking elsewhere for a group that can take what this group has done, and take that next step to become a contender. It’s just too soon to rule out this group and say that they can’t also be that group who takes the next step.
Links and Notes
**The Pirates lost to the Mets 6-0.