First Pitch: Why I Trust Neal Huntington

Neal Huntington has earned some trust after building the Pirates to a 94 win team.

Neal Huntington has earned some trust after building the Pirates to a 94 win team.

If it was up to me, A.J. Burnett would have been given a qualifying offer of $14.1 M. That would have been more than a fair price for Burnett, no matter what valuation system you look at, and no matter what cost per win you use. I also believe that the Pirates have the payroll for Burnett, since that salary would put them right around $77 M, which is a few million more than where they finished last year. Factor in the added revenue from the National TV deals, the playoffs, and the increased ticket sales last year, and the Pirates could definitely afford Burnett plus other help.

So when Neal Huntington said multiple times this off-season that the Pirates can’t afford to pay A.J. Burnett, I disagreed. I said both times that I would pay Burnett. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go.

I’m not going to call out the Pirates for not spending money. I’m not going to start screaming and freaking out because Huntington isn’t doing what I would do. I’m not going to worry that the Pirates will screw up this off-season — the first one where fans expect them to be contenders going into the following season.

And why am I not doing these things?

Because it’s still November, and that would be ridiculous.

Because everyone who has ever screamed that the Pirates will never spend X amount has been moving the goalposts the last few years after the Pirates do spend X amount.

Because I don’t confuse years 1993-2007 with years 2008-2013, and can see that Huntington took a horrible all around organization to a contender with a top farm system.

But most importantly because I like to learn something from history.

Let’s go back to last off-season. The Pirates were coming off a huge collapse. Some people wanted the management group fired, others felt they deserved one more shot. There was pressure to improve the team, not with the expectation that the Pirates could be contenders, but with the belief that they had very little chance of being contenders and needed to do anything they could to get to that point.

The first move the Pirates made was in late November when they signed Russell Martin. The deal wasn’t seen as a good one. Martin had poor offensive numbers, and good defense. He also had some great advanced metrics like pitch framing skills, which weren’t appreciated at the time. The total combination isn’t exciting to the average fan that gets frustrated with a pitching and defense approach to winning. And after the signing of Rod Barajas the previous off-season, there was worry that Martin was just going to be the next in line of some poor free agent hitters — especially when the Yankees wouldn’t even out-bid the Pirates for his services.

A few days later, the next move came when the Pirates non-tendered Jeff Karstens. He was due an estimated $3.8 M through arbitration, and the Pirates didn’t think he was worth that. It’s the Karstens move that reminds me of the current Burnett situation, although not on the same scale since Burnett is a much better pitcher. It’s more about the reactions being similar.

When Karstens was non-tendered, a lot of people were up in arms. That included myself. Karstens was seen as an injury risk, but his value when healthy was definitely worth the $3.8 M. That was the argument. It didn’t make sense that they would pay Charlie Morton $2 M when he was guaranteed to miss half the season, while passing on Karstens over the possibility of missing time. And if the Pirates wouldn’t spend $3.8 M on Karstens, then would they even spend money at all?

We know what happened with the above moves, so I don’t need to go into great detail about how Russell Martin looked great, how Karstens missed the whole season, how Morton was definitely worth tendering, and how the Pirates did spend money on Francisco Liriano (and eventually Karstens at a cheaper price). But the tone last off-season was the same as the tone so far this off-season, with people going crazy because the Pirates weren’t making the obvious moves.

That might have been justified last year. The Pirates were coming off their collapse and they had made questionable moves in the past. There were also things we couldn’t see. We didn’t know that the Pirates were planning on entering the 2013 season with an extreme focus on defensive shifts. We didn’t fully value Russell Martin’s defense behind the plate, especially when it came to the advanced metrics that got more popular throughout the year. In 2012, A.J. Burnett was just seen a former Yankees pitcher who found success again after leaving New York. In 2013, people weren’t looking at Burnett, Liriano, Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, and Jeanmar Gomez as much as they were looking at Ray Searage and the pitching coaches who were responsible for reviving their careers. We didn’t know about the future adjustments that were planned with each pitcher, plus the shifts that would help them all bounce back.

There was an excuse for the lack of trust last year. The trust wasn’t necessarily earned. That’s not the case this year.

The Pirates are coming off a season where they won 94 games, made the playoffs, and spent a franchise record $75 M in payroll. Not every off-season move worked out last year, but a large majority of them worked, and a lot of them worked because of things that were impossible for us to see during the off-season. At this point, Neal Huntington has earned trust. He has at least earned enough trust to get to the end of the off-season and evaluate how it actually went, rather than creating scenarios and complaining about them.

I disagree with Huntington on the Burnett decision. But I also trust him. I’m just a guy looking at Burnett’s value the last few years, and guessing that the Pirates could afford him while addressing other areas of need. The moves I’m suggesting are the obvious ones that we all see. I don’t have Huntington’s stats department finding hidden values about each player. I don’t know what new strategy they will employ to try and get an edge next year. I haven’t scouted each free agent to see which one might benefit the most from a specific adjustment that no one is even thinking about right now. I’m looking at the extra revenue they have and adding that to last year’s payroll, but I don’t know how much of that revenue will go to things we don’t track like scouting, statistical analysis, and other approaches that have produced some great values for the Pirates.

I’m also fine with my situation. I’m fine not knowing every detail of the Pirates’ plan for the following season. No one knew the plan last off-season, and no one will know the plan this off-season. The baseball off-season is supposed to be about discussing potential moves, reacting to the moves that are made, and stopping short of being outraged that the team wouldn’t do exactly what you would do. That’s the approach I take. I give my suggestions. I give my reactions. But I’m not going to call out Huntington for not making the moves I thought he should make, especially when Huntington is working with so much better information than anyone who gives an opinion online.

For years the big argument with the draft was that anyone with a Baseball America subscription can pick guys like Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, and the other top picks. Huntington’s job was to find value where we couldn’t see it, because he is supposed to have the resources and information to do that. So why is it different with the off-season? Why do we expect a General Manager to only make the obvious moves that we can see, and then lack trust when he goes to the resources and information that we don’t have in order to make a move?

It would be different if the Pirates weren’t coming off a great year full of excellent decisions that led to the winning. But they are coming off such a season. And so I’ll wait and see what they do, rather than screaming because they aren’t making moves on my timetable. I’ll react to each move, and as usual, I’ll later revisit those reactions to see if I was right or wrong. I might get labeled an apologist for this approach, and that’s only a bonus. I was always amused by the “apologist” labels when the Pirates were in the process of building a contender. The fact that you can be an apologist for a team that just won 94 games is something I never imagined, and something I find very funny. All those years, when I imagined how people would react to the General Manager that finally built a winning team in Pittsburgh, I never thought that two months into the following off-season that same GM would see a lack of trust.

Huntington has earned that trust. He’s earned the right to not make the obvious move in tendering Burnett, and to go with the move that none of us can see right now. He’s earned the right to mystery surrounding how the Pirates will spend their money this off-season, and how much money they will spend. If Huntington botches the off-season, then obviously the trust would disappear. But that hasn’t happened, and until it does, I’ll be trusting what Huntington does — even if I happen to disagree with the move.

Links and Notes

**Pre-Order the 2014 Prospect Guide

**Pirates Sign Two Minor League Free Agents

**New Player Pages: Nevin Ashley and Cody Eppley

**Winter Leagues Notebook: Pirates Have Talented Outfielders in Winter Ball

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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