The recent draft and the recent performance of the Major League team got me thinking about Neal Huntington’s current contract situation. The Pittsburgh Pirates are sitting at 30-32 on June 11th. They just finished a draft where they selected Gerrit Cole, a potential future ace, in the first round, and Josh Bell, the #15 ranked prospect, in the second round. Despite the talk that the majority of his trades have not worked out, we’re seeing Charlie Morton getting Roy Halladay comparisons, Joel Hanrahan looking like one of the top closers in the game, James McDonald continuing to look like a steal, and then there’s the Xavier Nady trade, with Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, and Daniel McCutchen playing big roles on the team, while Ross Ohlendorf currently sits on the disabled list, following two straight years with an ERA around 4.00.
I’m not trying to make an argument that Huntington has been anything near the top GM in the game. There’s certainly moves that haven’t worked out. The Jason Bay trade is a disaster, with three of the four players received now out of the organization, and the final piece, Bryan Morris, still in AA, and unable to remain healthy. Huntington has also signed a lot of free agents that just haven’t worked out, with Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz being the latest signings that haven’t looked good. I’d mention Jose Bautista, but I really can’t pin that on anyone, since Bautista was even a risk to be cut by Toronto before his surprise breakout season.
The thing is, that’s normal for any General Manager. Look at the Minnesota Twins. They had horrible results with the Johan Santana trade. And how many teams have made a free agent signing that they regret? Answer: all of them. I’d also point out that the addition of Kevin Correia has been huge, and Huntington has made some great bullpen additions over the last two years.
If there’s one trend I’ve noticed, it’s to constantly rehash the mistakes that have been made, but chalk the success stories up to “that’s what he should be doing”. In fact, we barely even notice the success stories, mostly because we continuously move the goal posts when success has been achieved. Consider…
…prior to the season the debate was whether the team would lose 100 games or not. Now, on June 11th, the debate is whether they should add a catcher for the short term to try and compete or stay near .500.
…prior to 2008, the Pirates didn’t take many over-slot/high upside players. On Tuesday, the Pirates took Josh Bell, the 15th ranked player in the draft, in the second round, with rumors that it might cost $6 M or more to sign him. And that strategy of taking over slot players is now considered run of the mill for them.
…two years ago the Pirates were desperate for starting pitching. Now the Pirates have Justin Wilson putting up a 3.49 ERA in AAA, and Brad Lincoln having a lot of success over the last two months, with no spot for them in the rotation due to all five starters performing very well.
…last year at the start of June, the Pirates had zero pitching prospects with top of the rotation upside. Their hopes were that someone like Zack Von Rosenberg would add velocity as he got older. Now the Pirates have Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Stetson Allie, and Gerrit Cole, assuming he signs, which means that guys like Von Rosenberg are now fighting to claim one of the final future rotation spots, rather than working to lead a future rotation.
…the case of Alex Presley. To give a better indication of what I’m talking about, this is what Indianapolis broadcaster Scott McCauley had to say in his recent blog post:
Presley is not the first or the last player to be blocked from a Major League spot. It just so happens this is the first time it has happened to a position player while the Indians have been affiliated with the Pirates. In the past a really good 30 or 50 games stretch would put you in Pittsburgh. However, with improved play and better talent the times have changed and it must be nice for the Pirates to know they have a player they can call on when needed.
…the Pirates are 30-32, despite injuries to their top starter from 2010 (Ross Ohlendorf), their top three catchers (Ryan Doumit, Chris Snyder, Jason Jaramillo), their projected future star (Pedro Alvarez, who was slumping even when he was healthy), and one of their top late inning relievers from last year (Evan Meek).
…the starting rotation went from being one of the worst in the entire league the last two years, to being in the top half of the league this year, made up of 80% Neal Huntington acquisitions.
The fact is, there is no denying that Huntington has improved this team. We used to talk about a total lack of prospects in the system. Now we wonder when prospects will arrive. A few months ago it would have been optimistic to predict 70 wins. Now 70 wins would be seen as a disappointment. Prior to the season people wanted Jeremy Bonderman signed to start for the Pirates. Now legit pitching prospects can’t even crack the rotation. In the past the Pirates would have called up a guy like Alex Presley by now. Now there are concerns that it might affect the team chemistry.
I’m not saying Huntington has completely turned this team around, and again, I’m not saying he has been perfect. However, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t have the Pirates going in the right direction. The team is actually fun to watch, and it’s June. It’s not one of those cases like in the past where they’re completely out of it, and the only excitement is watching the young players who might help in the future. They’re actually putting up decent results this year, and the best part is that you could argue that they’re not even playing well while getting those results. What happens when the offense lives up to it’s potential? What happens when some of their top prospects start arriving from Altoona and lower?
Prior to the season, if I told you that the Pirates would be sitting around .500 in June, with a rotation that has been the strong point of the team from starters 1-5, and another strong draft, you probably would have said that was enough to extend Huntington. Now the goal posts have been moved. We’re not expecting a 100 loss season. We’re not expecting the rotation to be a complete disaster. We’re not saying that every trade has been bad (well, some still are, although it’s not accurate).
Yes, this is what Huntington is supposed to be doing. He’s supposed to be drafting well. He’s supposed to be improving the team. It’s not a huge praise to say that the team isn’t on pace to lose 100+ games. It’s not a huge praise to say they’ve got a good rotation after three years. It’s what would be expected of any General Manager. The fact is, Huntington is doing his job. That doesn’t call for any excessive praise, but it does call for a question. If he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing, and the team is obviously showing major signs of improvement, why wouldn’t he be deserving of an extension?