Interview With Neal Huntington: Part One

Neal Huntington

While I was down in Pirate City last week, I talked with Neal Huntington for about 40 minutes about the Pittsburgh Pirates, the draft, and the international market.  Because the interview was so long, and because I was so crunched for time (editing videos, transcribing other interviews for features, watching games, writing), I didn’t get a chance to transcribe the full interview until now.  For that reason, some of the information in part one is a little dated, as this took place before Pedro Ciriaco was optioned to AAA, or before Josh Fields was traded to Colorado.

On a related note, Pat at WHYGAVS also interviewed Huntington while he was down in Bradenton, and somehow we ended up asking different questions and covering different topics, outside of the draft.  Check that out as well.

Part one will look at the Pirates, from the majors throughout the system.  Part two will look at the draft and international markets.  Here is part one:

One of the long term holes at the major league level is the shortstop position. Do you see a guy in the system who projects as a guy who can hold down the shortstop position for years to come?

We obviously, when we signed Ronny Cedeno as a five-plus, we got an option on his first free agent year, because the talent is there to be a good major league shortstop. Can we get the consistency? That’s the question we’ve got to work hard to answer this year. Internally, we’ve got some guys that we like a lot. But we’ve got some guys who need to take some steps forward this year, whether it’s the consistency, or something with the bat, or something with the glove, or something with their overall approach to the game. We’ve got any number of guys that we feel are capable of handling the shortstop position as we move forward, but we need to see some advancement this year to make us feel that much better about it.

With Cedeno, how short is the leash this year? You benched him a few times last year, you mentioned the inconsistent play. With him basically on his final guaranteed year, how short is the leash before you move on to somebody like a Pedro Ciriaco or somebody else in the upper levels?

He’ll show us. He’ll show us “is the work there”, “is the consistency there”, “is the approach there”. It’s going to be predicated on his work and his performance. It’s not just going to be about the numbers. It’s going to be how he’s approaching things, and he’s off to a good start this Spring. The numbers may not show it, but he’s making some adjustments and he’s doing some things that will allow him to be a successful big league shortstop for awhile.

You’ve got Josh Rodriguez, took him in the Rule 5 draft. Is he a guy that you hope to keep. Do you project to keep him around, does he project to make the major league roster at this point?

The Rule 5 has really shifted from the first two years where we took (Evan Meek) and (Donald Veal). The extra year of protection that all clubs got going in to last year’s Rule 5 draft has really impacted the overall talent that’s available in the Rule 5 draft, and it kind of shifted our mindset. There’s some arms that throw 96, but might hit the bull versus hitting the strike zone. You can dream a little bit on some upside. We had a need coming in to this off-season for a middle utility guy, looked at the free agent market, it wasn’t very solid. We took Josh with the idea that he could come in and compete to make the club as our utility guy, with a little bit of upside to be more than that if the bat comes on, and we’re still working through that. We see some things that we like a little bit. We see some things that we know we need to improve upon with him. Pedro Ciriaco’s actually had a nice camp. There’s been a little bit of an adjustment to his swing. He’s always going to be aggressive, but he can run, he can throw, he can play defense, and he’s had a nice camp. We’ve still got a week left before we need to make a decision on that, and we’re probably a split camp on whether we carry Rodriguez or Ciriaco at this time.

You lost Nathan Adcock in the Rule 5 draft. If he’s offered back, and Kansas City tries to trade for him, are you looking to trade, or is he a guy who you want to get back? And if you do get him back, what level would he start off at this year?

We’d love to have Nate back. We were disappointed when we lost him in the Rule 5 draft. We knew it was a gamble, we’d love to have him back. That said, you always want to find a way to make your organization better, and if we’re able to work out an agreement with Kansas City, we’re certainly open to that as well. But we fully anticipate taking him back if we’re not able to get an agreement with them. And then where he falls in to place from there, you know he’s had some very good outings this Spring, a little tough one last night or the night before. But it’s a question that will get answered if and when that day comes.

You’ve got some shortstop prospects coming up in the AAA and AA levels. Chase D’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer have been working their way up from Lynchburg in 2009, Altoona in 2010. At the end of each season, you switched D’Arnaud to second base, and you had Mercer playing shortstop. Is that more to get them time playing at different positions? Do you see them both as potential shortstop candidates in the majors one day?

We do, and that’s been really misunderstood out there that we’ve moved Chase D’Arnaud to second base and we’re done with him as a shortstop. The reality is, Jordy Mercer is a very accomplished defensive player. We’ve been trying to get his bat in the lineup, but we don’t want to move him off of short for too long. Chase D’Arnaud played third in college, and we’re trying to get him back acclimated, and get him comfortable at shortstop, and really show us can he play shortstop at the major league level defensively, is he going to do what he needs to do? So we like both a lot.

There’s some questions that we have to answer with both guys, and I go back to when I was with the Montreal Expos. We had shortstops lined up top to bottom that we were most excited about. If I remember the names correctly, it was (Wil) Cordero in the big leagues, who was coming off an All-Star year. I think it was Mark Grudzielanek who was in AAA. Jolbert Cabrera was I believe in AA. Geoff Blum I think was the shortstop in high-A. Hiram Bocachica was in low-A, he was a first round pick. We had Tomas de la Rosa was in the Gulf Coast League, and our third round pick of the year prior, Jason Camilli, was a shortstop in the New York Penn League. And again, I may be off on a name or two there, but we had shortstops lined up top to bottom that we thought had a chance to play major league shortstop. The best shortstop of the group turned out to be the second baseman in the New York Penn League by the name of Orlando Cabrera.

So as much as we think we’ve got this thing figured out, predicting human beings, their behavior, their development, their ability to perform, is an incredibly difficult challenge. So what we want to do is give our guys versatility to give them the ability to make a club, but we also want to make sure that we give everyone an opportunity that we believe has a major league future, the ability to develop at their most valuable position. Again, Jordy’s a little more accomplished at shortstop, but we can’t let him lose that shortstop ability. Chase needs more time at shortstop, but we can’t just forget about some of the other guys as we go through the system. And as they get higher they have to earn it more, and that’s the beautiful part about having depth, having options, is we no longer just run a guy out there because we hope he’s one of the best guys. We’ve got somebody else who can take his job if he’s not ready to go.

Brian Friday was in AAA last year. Now you’ve got D’Arnaud moving up. You’ve got Mercer, Josh Harrison, guys like that who are candidates for the infield. Is Friday still in the picture as far as getting playing time, having the chance to make the majors, or is he a guy who might be getting pushed out, getting his playing time taken away?

Brian is a hard worker, he cares. He can do some things on a baseball field. He can bounce around, play different positions. He’s a threat when he walks in the batter’s box. Again, Brian’s just like every other guy that’s on that AAA club or on that AA club. They’re going to get everything we have, as long as they’re here. Sometimes guys have to just go get it. They have to go get after it, and they’ve got to make the adjustments, and they’ve got to go out and show the work pre-game to get the opportunity to play the game, and then when they’re in the game just get the job done, especially at the AAA level. It’s about getting the job done, it’s about preparing to come help that major league team play better and win games.

The AAA infield looks like it could be a crowded situation with Matt Hague at first, Corey Wimberly, Josh Rodriguez, D’Arnaud, Mercer, Harrison, Marte or Fields if they don’t make the majors. You mentioned with the starting rotation that you’re looking for a veteran who could move up to the majors if there was an injury in the majors. Do you also do that for the infield? Are you going to have a guy like Marte or Fields staying fresh, in case they’re needed in the majors, or are you going to give the prospects the preference there?

That’s where AAA is always the balance between the present and the future. The present is the guy, we’d like to have 1 or 2 arms in that AAA rotation that can come up and make major league starts for us, and not rush a prospect. Same way, you’d like to have some guys in that AAA position player group who can come up and play a role for you at the major league level in case of injury, in case of sub-standard performance. At the same time, we’ve got to make sure our prospects are getting opportunities to develop. We’ve said since day one, we need to have multiple guys at every position to feel good about the depth in the organization, and that may mean some guys get pushed back. It’s not an automatic 300 plate appearances in one level means you get promoted to the next level. It may be you’ve got to earn your way to the next level, and it may even be a situation where a guy had a pretty good year, but because of things out of his control, we’re not able to get him to the higher level. We may have some guys who are probably on the borderline of making their way to AAA, but don’t get to AAA this year because of somebody ahead of them, or because of somebody else that clouds the picture a little bit. We’re going to have some interesting discussions as Spring Training winds down here. The trickle down effect of what we do at the major league level, how that impacts the AAA group, and how it impacts the AA group, and all the way down the chain.

Are Harrison and Mercer projected to move up as well right now, or is that still undecided?

You know, they’re in that mix, and we really continue to emphasize with our guys “control what you can control”. You can’t impact what we do, but you can influence it, and how they carry themselves, how they go about it. Spring Training evaluations are tough to make. You don’t want to get too high or low based on what somebody shows you in Major League Spring Training, or certainly Minor League Spring Training. What we try to do is make the bigger picture decisions on our roster moves, and right now they’re in that mix, but who knows where they end up? Again, some of it based in their control, some of it out of their control.

Based on the popular Ultimate Zone Rating, Andrew McCutchen was a little below average. Where does McCutchen rank on your metric, defensively compared to other outfielders?

It’s an area that we can help Andrew get better. Part of it was a philosophy of positioning early in the season, as compared to late in the season. Part of it is just Andrew’s continued development and maturation as an outfielder. He has tremendous athletic ability. He has tremendous intelligence. We need to put those two things together, position him well, get him to get off the bat, to read, to anticipate, to get good routes, to take good jumps, to take good routes, and to run the balls down, to become the impact defender that he has the physical skills and the aptitude to become. He’s not there yet. He has a lot of work to do. We have a lot of work to do. But he showed signs of really being one of those guys who can just flat go get the ball in center field.

The big talk this off-season has been when will you extend McCutchen? From your side, how much do you need to see of a player before you decide “this is a guy we need to look in to extending”?

There’s probably a reason that in the history of the game I think there’s one “zero-plus” extension. Some have happened after the player’s first season in the big leagues, but very few have happened early on. There’s more “one-plus”, there’s a lot more “two-plus”, and the longer you wait, the more expensive it gets. The key to it is it’s always got to be a two sided agreement. If the club wants to pay a player the very minimum amount it can, it’s going to have a hard time getting a deal. At the same time, if the player wants market setting dollars, it’s going to be a very hard time getting a deal, especially in these markets, it doesn’t make any sense. The thing that has to happen is there has to be a compromise from both sides. The club has to be willing to step out there, really with all of the exposure, because the club’s guaranteeing dollars it doesn’t have to guarantee. There’s going to be a reason why it’s getting those back. One, it’s a fixed cost. Two, you’re hoping to save a little money in arbitration years. But ultimately it’s trying to keep a free agent year or two, or in an ideal world, three. The player’s exposure is that he gets underpaid for two years, three years, but the reason why he’s underpaid is because he’s become one of the top free agent commodities out there, and he’s about to go get $50 or $75 or $110 M dollars.

So really it’s a matter of how many generations of his family does he want to take care of? Does he want to take the initial guarantee and take care of his generation? Does he want to go year to year and maybe run the risk of getting nothing? Or does he want to go year to year and then go get the free agent dollars and take care of five generations of his family? It’s always got to be a two sided agreement. The player has to be willing to not chase the maximum dollar every single year. The club has to be willing to put an enormous amount of risk and faith in a player. But we understand why deals don’t come together sometimes. A player doesn’t think that that’s enough guarantee, the club doesn’t want to take that big of a chance, deals aren’t reached, and you go year to year with a player. There’s a lot worse things out there. It is a part of our philosophy as we go forward. We’re going to aggressively approach some players when we feel the time is right. If we can’t work out a deal, we’ll continue to go year to year with them.

You have a platoon this year with Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz. There’s a lot of guys in the majors, John Bowker, Steve Pearce, guys who have platoon splits to this point. At what point do you platoon those guys, and say Steve Pearce is a left handed specialist, John Bowker can’t hit left handers?

That’s a good question, and it’s a tough question to answer because it’s almost impossible to have two platoons in the National League. It’s a little bit of a hamstring to have one. But as we looked at how we maximized the value, how we maximized the impact of the dollars that we have, to get what we believe will be a near league average, if not an above league average bat for $3 M in right field with Diaz/Jones as a platoon, it made all the sense in the world for us. As we look at other pieces and other parts on the bench, you know, John Bowker’s ability to hit a fastball late in the game, he has value to coming off the bench, but he could also go plug that role of Garrett Jones if something happens to Garrett Jones and he takes an injury, or something happens to Lyle Overbay and he takes an injury. We’ve got John Bowker we can plug in there. At the same time, Steve Pearce, really great story in terms of maturity and how far he’s come since 2007 in terms of his approach, and in terms of his maturation, his ability to handle different things thrown at him, his willingness to accept challenges. Steve Pearce is a great story, and he’s going to get every chance in the world to show us what he can do this year.

Ultimately you don’t want to pull the plug too quickly, if you don’t give a guy enough major league at-bats, you can run away from a pretty decent player and label him a platoon player. At 26, 27, 28, and 29, if you’ve got a lot of major league plate appearances, then at some point in time you’ve got to make a call. With Garrett Jones, if we didn’t have Matt Diaz it probably wouldn’t have been a platoon, but Matt Diaz is a guy that has had a terrific track record against left handed pitching. Garrett has done well against right handed pitching. It was a natural fit there. Remove Matt Diaz from it, we might or might not have gone out and aggressively searched out another right handed platoon complement to Garrett Jones, because every time Garrett steps in the box he’s a threat to leave the ballpark. There’s not a lot of guys out there. Those are not easy guys to come by. Wanted to just settle things down for Garrett, expose him to what he does well. He may end up being an everyday player again. Matt Diaz may end up getting a lot more at-bats. So this is not a strict platoon where as soon as a left hander comes in the game, Garrett Jones is out, or as soon as a right hander comes in the game, Matt Diaz is out. They’re both capable. The best way to maximize their production in our minds was to match them up.

Would you ever consider an 11 man pitching staff to try to get an extra spot on the bench, and what would it take from the rotation or bullpen to get that?

It would take a lot of innings from our rotation. You go back in time, and the transition from 11 pitchers and 14 position players to 12 pitchers and 13 position players ultimately came about with specialization, and it came about with the 300 innings starting pitcher becoming extinct. Now it’s 250 inning pitchers is greatly endangered. That’s a lot more innings that you’ve got to pick up out of your bullpen. With our rotation right now it becomes very, very difficult to run an 11-man pitching staff out there right now, and we’ve talked about not being really equipped to not have a left-on-left guy, to have that one hitter left handed pitcher. We’ve got to have some depth, we’ve got to be able to get some innings out of our rotation, we’ve got to get some innings out of our bullpen as well, because we’re not starting five, eight-inning starters in the face. We’d love it if they could do it, and if they’re capable of it, we’ll certainly let them stay out there. But right now we’ve got to make sure we put enough pitchers out there to give Clint the chance to manage a game and have enough options to win games.

Where do you project Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie to start off? Are they going to go to West Virginia at the start, or are they going to get some time in extended Spring Training or maybe go to State College?

You know, another situation where the extended negotiation window really hurts the young pitchers. With Zack Von Rosenberg and Colton Cain the year prior, and the guys that we signed in early August. By the time you get them out, the season’s lost. Instead of going out and getting 30, 40, 50 innings and continuing the development and getting in to our system and getting going, and understanding what pro ball is all about. They sit at home for the summer, they come down for instructional league, and the first taste they get of pro ball is the next Spring Training, and it’s tough to run somebody out there for a 144 game season having not experienced it at all. And it’s a shame the process, the way it’s played out. We miss so much development time with these guys. That said, if Jameson Taillon or Stetson Allie show us that they’re ready to go to West Virginia this year, we’ll run them out there.

Zack Von Rosenberg came to us as a pretty accomplished high school pitcher, and our guys felt that it wasn’t the right step to push him out to West Virginia to start the year last year. Now he went to State College against a little bit older hitters, in a tougher league than maybe arguably what West Virginia would have been at that point in time, and Zack and those other high school pitchers did a nice job for themselves. But where Taillon and Allie go, they’ll ultimately show us where they are. Their mental development, their physical development, their fundamental development, their personal development. They’ll give us pretty good indicators of what we think they can handle. Now we’ve got to interpret that, and if Jameson gets to West Virginia and Stetson’s in extended, or vice-versa, then that’s a decision.

As we’ve seen here this Spring, they’re both making good progress, we’re excited about both guys, and we’ll factor in all of the variables, the other people in the rotation, the Bradenton rotation, the Altoona rotation, and the trickle down effect and what spots are open. We’re excited about both guys, and we’re more concerned about where they end up than we are with where they start. We want to have a great developmental year for them, want a great fundamental gains year for them. Physical, mental, maturity, understanding what it takes to be a professional player. We’re a lot more focused on where they finish the year around Labor Day than where they begin.

Check back tomorrow for part two, covering the draft and international markets.

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There is a lot of hard work and a lot of thought that goes into running a minor league system maybe thats why Littlefield opted out and just signed a bunch of minor and major league free agents every year. it sure made his job a lot easier.

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