First Pitch: Fire Neal Huntington? Let’s Keep Perspective

The Pirates have been playing some horrible baseball lately. Five game losing streak. Two wins in their last ten games. Going 13-25 since the start of August. Take your pick, but either way the story is the same. The team is just playing terrible baseball. Some call it collapsing. I think of it as a regression from a team that probably was too streaky and not good enough to continue where they were at the end of July.

The Pirates aren’t the only team struggling. Despite losing five in a row, they’re still 2.5 games out of the wild card race, mostly because the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers are also struggling lately. But that small number doesn’t matter as long as the team continues to lose the way they have been recently.

All of the recent struggles have taken a toll on Pirates fans. Going from playoff hopes in early August, to wondering if the team will finish over .500 in early September is tough. Seeing the team get swept by one of the worst teams in baseball, then lose two close games to Cincinnati only adds to the frustration. With all of that frustration comes emotions, and with those emotions come short-sighted reactions. One of those reactions? Fire Neal Huntington.

Earlier today, Randy Linville had that same opinion on the blogs section of the site, saying Huntington should be fired. The blogs section of the site is for personal opinions. I don’t edit it. I don’t approve any of the articles on the site. The writers are free to post whatever they want. I don’t even have time to read them. But this one stuck out, possibly because it was posted a minute after I got in the door after driving home from Raleigh. I can’t say I agree with the argument at all.

**First of all, let’s look at the short-term. It’s September 11th. The Pirates have already matched their season win total from last year. They have 21 games remaining. Even if they continue this horrible play and win one out of every three games, they’ll finish with 79 wins. That’s a seven game improvement over last year. And that’s after improving 15 games from 2010 to 2011. We’re currently talking about how the team is letting the playoffs slip away. Before the season we didn’t even think playoffs were a possibility until 2013 at the earliest.

The team got everyone’s hopes up in June and July. But based on how they played in April and May, and based on how they’ve been playing since the start of August, it’s safe to say that they were playing over their heads in June and July, and that they’re closer to a .500 team than a contender. It seems ridiculous to fire Huntington for this. Huntington wouldn’t have been fired before the season if he improved the team seven games over last year? So why move the goal posts in season and make a decision based on less than two months of play?

**Then there’s the long-term reasons, which are always the same vague arguments with very few facts to support the argument.

**There’s the trades. The Jason Bay trade is a big black eye. But show me a GM who hasn’t made a poor trade, and I’ll show you a GM who hasn’t made any trades. Some of Huntington’s trades have been bad. But some have been equally great.

You know the three best pitchers in the rotation this year? All acquired via trades. I’m talking about A.J. Burnett (acquired for Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno), James McDonald (acquired for Octavio Dotel), and Jeff Karstens (part of the Xavier Nady trade).

Then there’s the team’s closer, Joel Hanrahan, who was acquired for Sean Burnett as the second part of the Nyjer Morgan/Lastings Milledge swap.

Michael McKenry, who is inexplicably playing backup to Rod Barajas, was acquired for cash.

Travis Snider, a 24-year-old with power potential who has performed better than Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence have since the deadline, was acquired for Brad Lincoln. I’d trade a reliever for a potential every day starter any day of the week.

If we look at the trades, he’s made some moves that have been poor, and he’s made some moves that have brought in impact players for this year’s team. If we’re limiting the parameters to the team he inherited, it’s only fair to point out that the team he inherited was good enough to finish next to last the year before he arrived.

**The way he handled the trade deadline this year was outstanding. In a seller’s market, Huntington managed to get players who can help this year and for years to come. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Wandy Rodriguez trade (I’d rather have Jeff Locke in the rotation and Robbie Grossman in the system over Rodriguez), but the Snider deal was a good one for reasons previously mentioned.

Anyone saying the team should have dealt for Victorino or Pence has obviously not seen the numbers by those players. And the truth is that the trade deadline has very little impact. The Dodgers added Victorino, and all of the Red Sox’s best players, and they’re slumping right now. The Phillies traded away a lot of big names, and they’re one of the hottest teams in baseball. The Pirates added a starter who has a 3.57 ERA in 53 innings, and two hitters (Snider and Gaby Sanchez) who have performed better than the two biggest names who were moved (Pence and Victorino), yet they’ve been horrible since the deals.

**The next argument is usually that he is good at adding pitchers, but can’t add hitters. Take a look at the stats. The number one hitter on the team is Andrew McCutchen, who Huntington didn’t add. But look at the second and third best OPS numbers on the team. There’s Garrett Jones, who was signed as a minor league free agent, and retained even after posting a .720 and .753 OPS the last two years. Then there’s Pedro Alvarez, who was drafted second overall in 2008. And once again, there’s Michael McKenry, who was added for cash and has an .829 OPS (why isn’t he starting again?).

**Next is the draft. As I pointed out in the off-season, people tend to judge drafts way too soon. I mentioned that this was the year to judge the 2008 draft. That gave enough time for players to make their way through the system and get adjusted to the majors. Alvarez is starting to look like he’s working out. I don’t know if the dream scenario was him being Mark Reynolds or Adam Dunn, but his power this year is nice to see. The rest of the draft hasn’t produced much. Robbie Grossman was the key piece in the Wandy Rodriguez trade. Justin Wilson hasn’t been given much of a shot in the majors. Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, and Matt Hague have all arrived in the majors, but none have really made a strong impression. So the draft right now is one player, or two if you count Wandy Rodriguez as the end result to the Grossman pick. That’s not the strongest draft, but not a total bust either. That draft is also all we can really judge right now. As I pointed out in the article above, it’s not like other teams are seeing a lot of returns any earlier than the Pirates in this case.

**One thing Randy brought up that I haven’t seen for a while, and don’t typically see from the usual “Fire Neal Huntington” arguments lately, was the off-season moves. The decision to decline the options of Ryan Doumit, Ronny Cedeno, and Paul Maholm was heavily criticized last off-season. But let’s put the criticism of those deals to rest.

First, there’s Cedeno. He’s been a bench player this year for the Mets. He’s hitting for a .779 OPS, and perhaps playing off the bench is helping. We saw how inconsistent he was as an everyday player.

Then there’s Doumit. His hitting is excellent this year, with a .792 OPS. However, he’s not a full-time catcher. Doumit has 49 starts behind the plate this year. He has 43 starts as a DH, and 20 in the outfield. That’s certainly allowed him to stay healthy. Does anyone think he would have remained healthy as the every day catcher? Would anyone want him as the every day catcher? And have I mentioned that Michael McKenry should be catching?

Finally, there’s Maholm. In hindsight, Maholm has been the best of the group. But that’s hindsight. Last winter, many felt that Erik Bedard was an upgrade over Maholm. Bedard didn’t work out, and Maholm is putting up a great season between Chicago and Atlanta.

That brings us to the financial aspect of these moves. If the Pirates add all three of these guys, they’re picking up $28.25 M over the 2012-2013 seasons. That gives you Cedeno, who probably isn’t much of an upgrade over Clint Barmes due to Cedeno’s inconsistent play as a starter. You also get Doumit, who would most likely get injured based on history. And you get a good starter in Maholm. But guess who you don’t have money for? A.J. Burnett. If the Pirates pick up the options, does anyone really think they take on Burnett’s salary? Does anyone think this team would be the same without Burnett?

**I think that if you step back from the emotions of the recent losing, the picture becomes very clear. The Pirates have already reached their 2011 season win total. The team has improved over last year, and is heading in the right direction. All of the key performers that have led to this year’s winning are under team control next year. They’ll also be adding key prospects like Gerrit Cole and potentially Jameson Taillon, not to mention they’ll have Starling Marte in his first full season after a taste in the majors. All of this suggests the Pirates will continue to improve. That shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s what we were expecting coming in to the year. We weren’t expecting the Pirates to contend this year. We were hoping they’d continue to improve, and counting on them contending after Cole and company arrived.

Has Neal Huntington been perfect? Not at all. There have been some bad moves. There have been some questionable decisions, most notably the perceived lack of faith in prospects and younger players. But there have also been good moves. And most importantly, the team continues to improve. At this moment the team is playing horrible. Looking at the bigger, the team is trending upward. When evaluating the General Manager, you always want to look at the big picture. The small picture tends to be clouded with emotions. All you need to do is look at the Cardinals and Dodgers. Both teams are slumping. Both teams are only a game or two ahead of the Pirates. Yet I don’t think Pirates fans would be suggesting that their General Managers should be fired. The only reason those suggestions are made about Huntington is because of the emotions from being a fan and following the team closely.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost to the Reds 5-3. The Cardinals and Dodgers also lost, so the Pirates remain 2.5 games back in the standings.

**Win a Free Pair of Pittsburgh Pirates Headphones From BiGR AUDIO.

**Pirates Notebook: Losing Streak Reaches Five; Karstens, Walker Feel Good After Sim Game.

**McCutchen Showing Signs of Sparking on Offense.

**The blog section of the site is actually a totally different web site with a different log in. I’ve always worried that I’d post something to the wrong site. You’re seeing “First Pitch” on the main site today. That’s not a mistake. I’ve been considering moving it over, since it’s one of the biggest features on the site. I figured I’d make the switch before the end of the regular season, starting tonight.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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