First Pitch: Putting Neal Huntington’s Amazing Off-Season in Perspective

Francisco Liriano Pitching

Francisco Liriano has been the biggest free agent value this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

There was a lot of talk today about the big off-season moves the Pittsburgh Pirates made. Most of that discussion probably stemmed from a question by David Todd on Twitter, asking people to rank the big three off-season additions. It was only after David asked this that I got a few similar questions. I’m not going to discuss tonight my feelings on who was the better addition out of Mark Melancon (for 4 years), Francisco Liriano (2 years), or Russell Martin (2 years). You can look at this so many different ways and split so many hairs to come up with your choice, but it all boils down to the fact that all three have been outstanding moves.

After thinking about those moves today, and thinking about the situation surrounding the Pirates prior to the season, I have to give credit to Neal Huntington for his approach over the off-season.

The Situation (Not to be confused with a character on a horrible MTV show)

The Pirates front office was not in a comfortable situation this past off-season. The team just finished their second straight collapse, and this one was historically bad. That was capped off by a mess of a story involving Navy SEALs training (which wasn’t bad, and is something a lot of sports teams do), the Hoka Hey story (continuing the Navy SEALs atmosphere outside of the three day training, which wasn’t good), and small things that had nothing to do with the on-field product like crazy sounding motivational e-mails and weird motivational signs.

If all of that stuff came out this year — with the Pirates having the best record in the league and one of the best farm systems in the game — you’d hear about how innovative it was, and how other teams were also adopting that strategy.

But that wasn’t the case. The Pirates just lost for the 20th year in a row. They lost in the worst possible way ever. The only worse way is if this year’s Pirates bullpen took the “Shark Tank” thing a little too far, went swimming in an actual shark tank, and had all of their pitching arms bitten off, thus sending the season into a third straight collapse. But that’s unlikely.

You combined last year’s collapse, the long losing streak, the complaints about the off-season training, the complaints about valid concerns like drafting and development, and the result was that people were calling for the Pirates management group to be fired. It’s a mixed outcome when the owner has to come out and say that everyone will be retained. In one hand, no one is losing their job. In the other hand, the fact that the owner had to make that public announcement means no one’s job is safe.

And that’s the situation the Pirates were in this off-season. The management group basically had one year. They couldn’t afford another losing season, and definitely not another collapse.

The Approach (To my friend Robert, who is a Royals fan: If you’re reading, you might want to skip this part)

Usually when General Managers have poor job security, they start to get desperate. They go for the “guaranteed” additions, rather than gambling on upside. They trade the future to win now, because why care about the future if a losing season means you’ll only be around for one more year?

Look at the approach the Kansas City Royals and Dayton Moore took this off-season. They traded for Ervin Santana, which wasn’t a bad risk to take, and they didn’t give up much. They signed 34-year-old Jeremy Guthrie to a three year, $25 M deal. That’s pricey, but Guthrie hasn’t been horrible this year. As for ages 35 and 36, that might be more of a concern. But then…

A friend of mine is a Royals fan. The first conversation I ever had with him, he talked about how he was always waiting for the other shoe to drop. How no matter how good the Royals were doing, he was always waiting for the rug to be pulled out from under him. How things got so bad that you could only laugh and joke about it, and talk about how horrible the team was, yet if anyone else said the same thing you would be furious. Basically with everything he said, you could have replaced “Royals” with “Pirates”, and it would sound like any Pirates fan over the previous 20 years.

That same friend will not go to a Rays game because of one Wil Myers. If Dayton Moore would have just gone with Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie, the off-season probably wouldn’t have been that bad. But he didn’t stop there. He traded top prospect Wil Myers, along with Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, and Patrick Leonard to the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis.

Shields has been good in the rotation. Davis hasn’t, and that was a big key to the deal since Shields was only under control through the 2014 season. Meanwhile, Myers is a rookie of the year candidate in the AL, and the Rays have him for six more years. Odorizzi has pitched in the majors this year, and it probably wouldn’t have been a bad move to gamble on him instead of gambling on Davis. Basically this deal boils down to 6+ years of a top hitter in Myers for 2 years of Shields. That’s never a deal that a team like the Royals should make, and as my friend notes, it’s not like the Royals were going to contend this year with Shields. They are currently 4.5 games out of the Wild Card, but they would have to pass three other teams to get a spot.

Huntington was in a situation where he could have easily taken a similar approach. People were calling for his job. Every move over the off-season was analyzed in a “this won’t be enough to save his job” way. Even if there was any hope that the Pirates could contend, it was met with the irrational fear that the season didn’t matter until August, and that fear only seemed rational because of the previous collapses. The Pirates had a top farm system over the off-season. They could have traded prospects away to get an instant upgrade. They could have gone for safe bets, rather than giving Jeff Locke a chance to show what he could do in the rotation. Instead, they went the opposite way. They gambled. We talked all off-season about high-beta players, who had a ton of possible outcomes including boom or bust.

Most of the time when General Managers have poor job security, they play it safe. They draft a college left-handed reliever who is perceived as close to the majors, rather than a top catching prospect. They trade for Matt Morris. They trade Wil Myers away. They don’t take a risk on playing young players. Huntington went a different route. He took some huge risks, and they are paying off this year.

High Risks (That have led to high rewards)

Let’s review some of those moves where Huntington acted like he had all of the job security in the world, and could afford to hold his job through another losing season.

The Pirates gambled that Mark Melancon would bounce back, and he did. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates gambled that Mark Melancon would bounce back, and he did. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Joel Hanrahan trade and other bullpen moves

How easy would it have been for Huntington to keep a “Proven Closer”, rather than trading for a guy coming off a horrible season? The Hanrahan trade was basically a swap of Hanrahan for Melancon, hoping that Melancon could bounce back like Hanrahan bounced back when he was acquired. The three prospects added in the deal — Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel, and Ivan De Jesus — were the bonus. If Melancon worked out, the Pirates traded one year of a strong reliever for four years of a strong reliever and won the trade. If one of the other prospects worked out, it would be a huge boost.

This move also allowed the Pirates to make Jason Grilli the closer, despite the fact that he had never served in that role before, and was a year and a half removed from being a mid-30s Triple-A reliever. Huntington has always taken this approach with the bullpen, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he dealt Hanrahan, bought low on Melancon, went with a top reliever without regard for the ability to pitch in the 9th inning, and then filled out the rest of the bullpen with guys like Vin Mazzaro, Justin Wilson, and other unproven pitchers.

Francisco Liriano

After a lot of drama surrounding the move, the Pirates signed Francisco Liriano, who didn’t exactly look like a slam dunk. Right now he looks like the biggest value signing in the off-season. After the move was originally made (before all of the delays), I wrote that Liriano was a good gamble to take, and could be this year’s version of A.J. Burnett. That ended up being right, but it wasn’t really a guarantee at the time. And when your biggest addition to the rotation is a guy with an ERA over 5.00 and a horrible walk rate in the previous two years, that doesn’t add a lot of comfort. Liriano had a lot of upside, but he also had a ton of risk.

Russell Martin blocks pate

Russell Martin has been a huge addition for the Pirates this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Russell Martin

The Russell Martin signing was heavily criticized at the time of the deal. If you’re interested in reading some of the criticism that was written, and that is now clearly wrong, take a look at my article where I wrote over 2000 words on why the Pirates shouldn’t have signed Russell Martin. Here were my concerns with Martin, and how he has performed this year.

**I thought Martin would see a drop in power outside of Yankee Stadium. He has seen a slight drop in power, going from a .170-.192 ISO in the previous two years to a .152 ISO. But it’s not like Rod Barajas just seeing his power disappear.

**I was concerned that Martin’s average had declined every year since 2007, and his on-base percentage was dropping at the same time. Both bounced back this year, which has made up for the lack of power.

**Martin only threw out 24% of runners last year, and I was concerned that would continue to decline. Instead he is throwing out 47% this year, which is insanely good.

**Overall I felt the Pirates could get the same value from Tony Sanchez and Michael McKenry at a much cheaper price. No. I don’t even need to review why this was wrong.

At the time of the deal, signing Russell Martin as your big move didn’t really add a lot of confidence. It was met with “they’re going to need a lot more than this if they want to have a shot next year”. They did add more, but the reality was that Martin has been a huge boost for the Pirates, and very few people saw it coming.

The Results

The Pirates took some gambles over the off-season, and they’ve pretty much all paid off. Even the smaller moves, like trading Quincy Latimore for Jeanmar Gomez or two DSL pitchers for Vin Mazzaro have been huge. It’s almost like a curse was lifted. In previous years, Latimore would have finally tapped into his raw power and would have hit 20 homers in the majors, while Gomez would be DFAd by May. The DSL pitchers would both immediately become top prospects. Russell Martin would become the next all-defense, no bat free agent signing. Francisco Liriano would struggle with his control, showing occasional flashes of success that gave you just enough hope to tear you down the next time he walked the bases loaded and gave up a grand slam in the first inning. Mark Melancon would have…well, Mark Melancon would have worked. Even in the bad years, Huntington was getting the bullpen right.

What goes unsaid about the off-season moves is that the Pirates have Jeff Locke in the rotation, rather than adding someone proven for that spot. They still have every top prospect in the system, which means Gerrit Cole is in Pittsburgh this year, and possibly Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, and/or Nick Kingham next year. They went for an extremely hard to sign draft pick last year, who could have been on the fast track to the majors, and didn’t give up future picks to sign him. That resulted in a top prep outfielder this year who is 4-5 years at least away from the majors, along with the four picks that were saved. That’s definitely not a short-sighted move.

It would have been so easy for Huntington to go into job protection mode, play it safe, make some desperation moves by adding “proven” talent, refuse to play rookies, and trade away the future. But he didn’t. He went for moves that could very well have led to another losing season, and which would have almost certainly cost him his job. Those moves came with that high risk, but they also came with the potential for high rewards. Those rewards are all we’ve been seeing this year. The Pirates have the best record in baseball today, and a four game lead in the NL Central because of that approach.

If Huntington would have taken the “Dayton Moore Job Preservation” approach, we could be sitting here today with the Pirates sitting a few games back from the second Wild Card, barely over .500, while watching Gerrit Cole pitch in the majors for another team.

Links and Notes

**Check out the latest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 15: Recapping the Slow Deadline; The Pirates Are Legit Playoff Contenders. We’re pushing the next show back to Saturday instead of going up tomorrow morning.

**Here is the newest episode of Pirates Roundtable Live: VIDEO: Pirates Roundtable Live — Episode 4.

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Minor League Starters Combine For Impressive 1.45 ERA Tonight.

**Luis Heredia Has a Strong Start a Few Days Before His 19th Birthday.

**Minor League Schedule: Pimentel Looks to Recover From Poor Outing.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Pirates Beat Rockies In Extras, Rain Halts Pitchers’ Duel.

Pirates

**Pirates Complete Third Straight Comeback Win to Sweep Marlins 5-4.

**The Fixes That Will Help Jeff Locke Avoid the Dreaded Regression.

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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