First Pitch: Like the Pirates Pitching Staff? Thank Neal Huntington.

Dave Littlefield has not been in the general manager’s office for over five years, but his impact on this Pirates team can still be felt.

Neal Huntington

Neal Huntington became Trader Neal to get a lot of young players in his early years.

No, that’s not a bad thing! Sure, he left the Pirates’ minor-league system in shambles despite six straight Top-11 picks, but at least a couple of those prospects worked out. Three productive players in the Pittsburgh lineup were all amateurs picked up by Littlefield: Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Starling Marte. The current front office gets credit for taking these guys as minor leaguers and polishing them into starters, but kudos to Littlefield for getting them.

As for the success of today’s Pirates’ pitching staff, that is pretty much all Neal Huntington and Company. Every pitcher on the current roster except for Tony Watson was acquired by Huntington since 2008.

When Huntington took over as general manager near the end of 2007, the Pirates had no pitching prospects in Baseball America’s Top 100, and only Brad Lincoln and Daniel Moskos appeared even close to making that list. The Major League staff Littlefield had left behind was below average, finishing the 2007 season 10th in FIP and 14th in ERA. Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny were the only two good young starters on that team, both both ended up having their career years in 2007 and never reaching that level again.

When Snell and Gorzelanny fell off the next year, the Pirates’ pitching staff basically consisted of a good Paul Maholm, a decent Zach Duke and a shallow bullpen. The 2008 Pirates pulled off the Triple Crown of Pitching Awfulness™ by finishing last in the NL in ERA, FIP and xFIP. At the All-Star Break, Pittsburgh was 13 games back and ready to sell at the trade deadline. Huntington had a couple outfielders he was willing to part with so he could get some pitching, any pitching.

Then Came The Trades

Joel Hanrahan

Joel Hanrahan was one of the few quality Major Leaguers the Pirates received in early Huntington trades.

Out went Xavier Nady, Jason Bay and reliever Damaso Marte. In came pitchers Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, Ross Ohlendorf, Bryan Morris and Craig Hansen along with third baseman Andy LaRoche and outfielders Jose Tabata and Brandon Moss.

Huntington wasn’t done. On June 3, 2009, he shipped off Nate McLouth to Atlanta for pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. The rest of the deals from 2009 —

Out: LHP Sean Burnett, OF Nyjer Morgan, OF Eric Hinske, 1B Adam LaRoche, RHP Ian Snell, SS Jack Wilson, 3B Freddy Sanchez, LHP Tom Gorzelanny, LHP John Grabow.

In: RHP Joel Hanrahan, OF Lastings Milledge, RHP Casey Erickson, C Eric Fryer, RHP Hunter Strickland, SS Argenis Diaz, RHP Aaron Pribanic, RHP Brett Lorin, RHP Nathan Adcock, SS Ronny Cedeño, C Jeff Clement, LHP Tim Alderson, RHP Jose Ascanio, RHP Kevin Hart, IF Josh Harrison.

The plan was to bring in as many young prospects as possible. The execution was not so good, especially being swindled on trades of Adam LaRoche and Sanchez and failing to draw on the potential of position players like Andy LaRoche, Milledge and Clement. When you look at all the players traded at the 2009 deadline, you would expect a greater Major League impact than Hanrahan and some decent play from Milledge and Cedeño.

However, if you trade for enough pitchers, some are bound to work out. Huntington was a no-doubt winner in getting in Locke and Morton for McLouth, as well as the Xavier Nady trade, and the 2010 deal that sent Octavio Dotel to the Dodgers for James McDonald and Andrew Lambo.

Building the 2013 Staff

A.J. Burnett pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates

A.J. Burnett has become one of the NL’s best pitchers. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Eventually, the Pirates didn’t just offer veteran players to bring in pitchers, they offered salary space. Look at the 2012 calendar year. The Bucs took on half of A.J. Burnett’s salary before the 2012 season to get him from the Yankees, took on a hefty portion of Wandy Rodriguez’s contract with the Astros (while sending out prospects Robbie Grossman, Rudy Owens and Colton Cain), and signed Francisco Liriano to a deal likely be worth $4.75 million after they knew they could shed Joel Hanrahan’s salary.

The result of these moves, and a few more, created a depth chart of 10 of 11 starting pitchers that were acquired by Huntington. Here is the depth chart Tim created, with the amount the Pirates are paying each pitcher in 2013 and the way each was acquired.

  1. A.J. Burnett
    ($8,000,000 – Trade From Yankees)
  2. Wandy Rodriguez
    ($8,000,000 – Trade From Astros)
  3. James McDonald
    ($3,025,000 – Trade From Dodgers)
  4. Francisco Liriano
    ($4,750,000 – MLB Free Agent)
  5. Jeff Locke
    ($497,500 – Trade From Braves)
  6. Kyle McPherson
    ($119,850 – Drafted by Littlefield)
  7. Charlie Morton
    ($2,000,000 – Trade from Braves)
  8. Jeff Karstens
    ($2,500,000 – Trade from Yankees, then re-signed)
  9. Gerrit Cole
    ($8,000,000 signing bonus – Drafted by Huntington)
  10. Phil Irwin
    ($80,000 – Drafted by Huntington)
  11. Jeanmar Gomez
    ($500,000 – Trade from Indians)

If you estimate Cole’s 2013 salary at about $2 million, the Pirates are paying these 11 starting pitchers about $31.5 million. For comparison, the Dodgers started the 2013 season with about $95 million of starting pitching on their payroll, not counting Hyun-Jin Ryu’s $25.7 million posting fee.

The real thrifty shopping by Huntington was in creating the bullpen. Look at the current bullpen, where every pitcher is being paid about league minimum except Grilli:

  • Jason Grilli
    ($2,250,000 – Trade from Phillies, then re-signed)
  • Mark Melancon
    ($521,000 – Trade from Red Sox)
  • Tony Watson
    ($505,500 – Drafted by Littlefield)
  • Justin Wilson
    ($493,500 – Drafted by Huntingon)
  • Vin Mazzaro
    ($490,000 – Trade from Royals)
  • Bryan Morris
    ($490,000 – Trade from Dodgers)
  • Jose Conteras
    ($490,000 – MLB Free Agent)

The starters, despite multiple injuries that led to Jeanmar Gomez finding his way into the rotation and succeeding, have performed very well. The Pirates’ rotation is in the top half of the NL: 3rd in strikeout percentage, 6th in ERA, 6th in xFIP, and 7th in FIP despite being 14th in walk percentage.

The bullpen has been even better this season: 1st in ERA, 2nd in xFIP, 3rd in strikeout percentage and 4th in FIP. Grilli and Melancon are consistently wrapping up the final innings, making the Pirates ‘pen tops in the league in Win Probability Added.

Huntington’s strength has been in finding undervalued relievers like Grilli, Hanrahan, Melancon, Chris Resop and Evan Meek to pitch the later innings instead of overpriced established closers on the free agent market. On the starting side, the greatest success has been with American League starters looking to rebound (Burnett, Liriano) or young pitching prospects that had gone backwards in value (Morton, Locke, McDonald).

It is no surprise that the Pirates’ pitching is made up almost entirely of Huntington pickups nearly six years after Littlefield’s departure. Pitching is volatile, and pitching prospects are especially uncertain commodity. Credit must be given to Huntington and the Pirates front office, though. They have taken a Major League staff that was below average with few good prospects, and they built a strong run-prevention squad with Top 100 prospects Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia developing on the farm.

Well done, Neal.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide and the 2013 Annual are both available on the products page of the site. If you order them together, you’ll save $5.

**The newest Pirates Prospects Podcast is up and available for download or streaming. P3 Episode 5: Polanco the Top Prospect? Can Pirates Keep Winning? Mark Melancon Interview

**Glasnow, Bats Lead Turnaround For West Virginia

**Pirates Beat Brewers 5-2 With Four Homers, Another Locke-Down

**Minor League Schedule: Three Afternoon Games On TheSchedule

**Prospect Watch: Cole Starts Rough, Then Throws Six No-Hit Innings

**Draft Prospect Watch: College Bat and Middle Infielders To Watch Early On

James Santelli

Author: James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as NBCOlympics.com, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

Share This Post On
  • http://www.facebook.com/andrew.smalley.35 Andrew Smalley

    Great article, James. Only gripe: LaRoche, at the time we traded him, had very little value and wasn’t playing particularly well.

    Considering his salary/performance, it was quite expected that he wouldn’t fetch much in return.

    • James Santelli

      You’re right, Andrew, it wasn’t expected to get much. However, to get practically nothing at all from a starting MLB first baseman who could still hit late in the season counts as a loss for me, even if “swindle” may be a bridge too far.

  • http://twitter.com/mocasdad mocasdad

    Agree with both the article and AS comment. Especially, tho, on NH’s acumen on accumulating arms. They haven’t all worked, but they don’t all have to.

  • https://profiles.google.com/112281016698063169031 krinks35

    Great article giving credit where credit is due. You could go further. The lineup currently in AAA could beat the lineup that the pirates ran out there for most of the past 20 losing seasons. I recall the minor league lineups of not all that long ago and how embarrassingly thin they were of actual prospects. Now the upper levels have decent players at every position.

  • tempman89

    I commend Neil for his work with the rotation and just overall pitching depth. He created that all by himself, with a very limited budget.
    But for his first few years, just way to many misses on MLB evaluation acquisitions, IE: Dana eveland, Ramon Vasquez, Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz, Awki Iwamora, ect…
    And every GM has bad trades, but the Jason Bay trade was just horrible. A relief pitcher is all we have to show for an all star OF at the time.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      every GM has those kinds of deals. James never said NH was perfect. People around here need to ‘get over it’ as far as the Bay deal goes and just enjoy what Neil has built.

      Foo

  • skliesen

    The proof is in the pudding. Pirates FO has provided CH a balanced team of power/speed, old/young, RH/LH, etc. The Pirates are a legitimate contender thanks to the development and execution of the plan NH and co. put in place. And just as importantly, there is every reason to believe they will be the NL version of the Rays by remaining competitive despite a bottom-tier payroll for the foreseeable future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    As a longtime NH support, I love this article. He’s had some missteps along the way, but overall he has done well.

    I loved the TB Rays comparison above. The way to turn around a team is with the pitching.

    Foo

  • LWD

    Not sure NH was swindled in the Bay and Sanchez trades. Hansen was considered a big piece of the deal but his injury ended his career. It meant they had to trade for Hanrahan. If Hansen worked out the pieces sent to the Nationals might have been used to address something else.

    As much as I loved Freddy, his value was pretty low. Great hitter but was battling injuries and was a rental player with his contract up in two months. There was a very good chance the Giants weren’t going to play him the last 50 games, lessening his value. And if I remember correctly. He did go on the disabled list after the trade. All Star. Batting Champ. But how much could they have gotten for him for approximately 40 games?

    • James Santelli

      – Good points about the Bay trade, but I think it still ultimately ends up a failure in my book. You have to evaluate trades on the basis of (A) how it looked at the time, (B) the other offers that were on the table and (C) how it looks in retrospect. How you weight those three areas is up to you, but I think the ultimate value and how many teams were likely in on Bay makes it a negative for me.
      — Maybe “swindle” is too harsh for the Sanchez/Alderson trade, I’ll own up to that. But likely getting no Major League value out of a former batting champ who was still playing pretty good defense with an OPS+ over 100? That’s certainly disappointing.