First Pitch: Neal Huntington Deserved the Executive of the Year Award

Austin Meadows and Neal Huntington
Pirates GM Neal Huntington (right) deserved the Executive of the Year award. (Courtesy: Pittsburgh Pirates)

Earlier this evening it was announced that Boston Red Sox GM Ben Cherington was named the MLB 2013 Executive of the Year. Neal Huntington was named the runner up. I’m a Pirates writer, so this might come across as biased, but Huntington deserved the award over Cherington.

It’s ironic that Cherington beat out Huntington, when last off-season it was Huntington beating out Cherington. The Pirates traded Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt to the Red Sox in exchange for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Stolmy Pimentel, and Ivan De Jesus. Hanrahan was due $7 M and was only under control for one more season. The Pirates needed to deal Hanrahan to make payroll space for Francisco Liriano. If you dig deep into this trade, you can see why Huntington deserved the award over Cherington.

Huntington signed two of the top free agent performers in the game this year, bringing in Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano. You could easily argue that they were numbers one and two among the best free agent signings last year, and they were definitely the best values. Huntington also brought in guys like Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez for nothing, signed Jason Grilli to a deal that pays a third of what elite closers make on the open market. He did all of that on a tight budget, and couldn’t make it happen without dealing Hanrahan.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox traded for Hanrahan and it was a disaster. Hanrahan ended up struggling and going down for the year with an injury, while Melancon turned into one of the best relievers in the game. Stolmy Pimentel revived his prospect status with the Pirates, and finished the year in the majors. Sands and De Jesus didn’t do much for the Pirates, but getting four years of Melancon and six-plus years of Pimentel is definitely worth much more than what Hanrahan gave the Red Sox.

Despite all of this, the Red Sox were able to win the World Series. They were able to do this because they don’t have to worry about payroll. Cherington made some good moves by bringing in Shane Victorino, Stephen Drew, and Mike Napoli. But he also spent about $36 M for those three players, which was half of the Pirates’ entire payroll. And this doesn’t include pending $13.25 M per year on Ryan Dempster, $3.1 M on backup catcher David Ross, or making a big trade for Hanrahan a year after making a big trade for Andrew Bailey, then watching that trade fail. They ended up turning to Koji Uehara for the closer’s role, after signing him to a one-year, $4.25 M deal to be a set-up man.

Cherington made some good moves, but you expect players to be good when you’re paying them eight figures. The advantage for Cherington is that he had room for error. He wasn’t really a better executive than Huntington. He was just working with the safety net of more resources, which Huntington didn’t have. The Pirates had two players making eight figures (three by the time Justin Morneau was added), but they received salary relief from other teams for those players. The Red Sox started the year with six players making eight figures, and added two more by the end of the year after roster bonuses.

The big reason why Huntington deserved the award over Cherington was how the teams were built. When Cherington arrived in Boston, he already had John Lackey, David Ortiz, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Clay Buchholz. He didn’t built a World Series team. He inherited a contender and used his massive resources to add a bunch of pieces, some of which worked out. Huntington built the Pirates from the ground up. They were contenders largely because of the moves he made, and not because of a talented roster he inherited.

The Pirates didn’t just make the playoffs because of the additions over the 2012-13 off-season. Their pitching staff led the way, and that pitching staff was almost entirely drafted or developed by the Pirates under Huntington. The off-season saw them add Liriano, Grilli, Melancon, Mazzaro, and Gomez, but the following players were added by Huntington in previous years.

A.J. Burnett – Acquired for two low-level prospects pre-2012

Justin Wilson – 2008 fifth round pick

Gerrit Cole – 2011 first overall pick

Jeff Locke/Charlie Morton – Acquired in 2009 for Nate McLouth

Tony Watson – Wasn’t drafted by Huntington, but was converted to a reliever under Huntington and has turned into a top lefty

The team wasn’t entirely a result of Huntington. Andrew McCutchen had the biggest value on the team, and he was already in the system when Huntington took over. Starling Marte was also in the system, although most of his development came under Huntington. I always give credit for international signings to Rene Gayo and his team in Latin America, since they have been largely responsible for the signing of any international prospect whether it’s Dave Littlefield or Huntington in charge. But Huntington was responsible for Pedro Alvarez, Russell Martin, Jordy Mercer, and the mid-season trade for Marlon Byrd.

It wasn’t even just about the players. As a team with a small payroll, the Pirates had to take unconventional approaches to compete with teams like the Red Sox. When Huntington arrived, he brought in advanced statistical analysis, which led to the extreme defensive shifts that were so effective for the Pirates in 2013. That helped lead to the turnaround of several pitchers like Liriano and Burnett, giving the Pirates ace-level production at mid-to-back of the rotation prices.

If we move beyond the major league team, the Pirates have built one of the top farm systems in the game, with some saying they have the top system. They managed this even after removing guys like Gerrit Cole, Jordy Mercer, and Justin Wilson from the prospect ranks this past season. They maintained this top system despite being contenders at the previous three trade deadlines, with pressure to deal their top prospects for immediate help. It turned out that the players they acquired each year performed the same or better than the players who would have cost top prospects.

If you look at our rankings at the end of the year, you’ll see that this wasn’t just a result of the Pirates having picks at the top of the draft each year. Their top farm system is headlined by the following players.

1. Jameson Taillon – 2nd overall pick in 2010

2. Gregory Polanco – International free agent who signed for $150,000

3. Tyler Glasnow – 5th round pick in 2011

4. Alen Hanson – International free agent who signed for $90,000

5. Austin Meadows – 9th overall pick in 2013

6. Josh Bell – 2nd round pick in 2011 (Red Sox passed on him several times, despite interest)

7. Nick Kingham – 4th round pick in 2010

8. Luis Heredia – International free agent who signed for $3 M

9. Reese McGuire – 14th overall pick in 2013

10. Barrett Barnes – Compensation pick in 2012

Jameson Taillon was the only pick at the top of the draft. Meadows and McGuire were first rounders this year, giving the Pirates only three first rounders in their top ten. There were also three international players, and as I said before I give credit to the Latin American scouts here. But one of the first things Huntington did when he arrived was increase the budget in Latin America to $3 M. That was an increase over the previous amount of “They play baseball in Latin America?” Gayo and his crew are excellent, and one of the best moves was giving them more resources to work with.

The Boston Red Sox won the 2013 World Series, which was a great accomplishment for their team. It wasn’t a testament to Ben Cherington, since most of the team was already in place, and he just threw money at several players to add the final pieces. The Pirates won 94 games and made the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. That was a great accomplishment for the team, and that team was almost entirely built by Huntington. He built that team while working with a budget that was less than half of what Cherington has to work with. Cherington had room to make mistakes, and he made several along the way. Huntington had no room to make mistakes. He made a few minor mistakes — not every move was perfect this year — but he also extracted a ton of value from the limited resources he had to work with.

It all goes back to the Hanrahan trade. The Red Sox can afford to trade four years of a player who would go on to be one of the best relievers in the game, and in exchange they received horrible production from someone making $7 M on a one year deal. And that move didn’t even hurt them. The Pirates would be crushed if that trade was reversed, and the only way they can contend is by making these types of trades and having them work out just as the Melancon deal worked out. When you’ve got the Red Sox situation, and you’re spending what they spend, a few good transactions are pretty much expected. When you’re the GM of the Pirates, the only way you can compete is to make some of the best moves in the game, and avoid any big mistakes. For that reason, Huntington deserved the Executive of the Year award over Cherington.

Links and Notes

**Pre-Order the 2014 Prospect Guide

**Neal Huntington Is the Runner Up For Executive of the Year

**Reds Hire Jay Bell as a Bench Coach

**Who Are the Best Bounce Back Free Agent Starting Pitchers?

**Getting a Good Look at Catching Prospect Jin-De Jhang


**Mets Have Shown Interest in Marlon Byrd

**Pirates Have Been Making Calls on High Upside Starters

**Pirates Open to Discussing an Extension With Neil Walker

**Burnett Hasn’t Given Pirates Any Indication on His Plans

Winter Leagues

**Winter Leagues: Streak Ends For Polanco in Loss

**AFL: Dickerson and Hanson Reach Base in Loss

  • Cherington winning because the Red Sox won the Series is like a Golden Glove going to the best offensive player at a position who also plays defense. Doesn’t make sense if you look at the relevant details, only makes sense when you realize that the awards go to the folks with the most notoriety, not the best pure performance. And of course winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, right?

  • Let Ben win the awards, just so we continue to win the trades.

    • NH clearly deserved the award more than Cherington. The Red Sox have won the Series 3 times in the last 10 years, and Cherington had both more talent and more money with which to work than DL. Further, the Pirates had barely sniffed an opportunity for a winning season in the last 20 years and have not won the series since 79.

      Regardless of who ‘they’ chose to pick for the award, NH should take great pride in his accomplishments last year. Awards and being recognized by your peers is always nice. That said, this snub was not deserved.

  • I take consolation in the fact that Huntington will win it next year when the Pirates win the World Series. 🙂

  • If it really came down to these 2 execs, shouldn’t NH win the award due to winning the head-to-head matchup? Just another example of large market bias in the sport.

    I agree with all of the great points Tim makes in the article. My question is, do you think there’s any animus towards NH by other GMs since he has “won” the majority of the trades he’s made in recent years, plus he seems like a difficult guy to deal with since he holds such a hard line on his prospects? I think this award is voted on by the MLB GMs, who I assume can’t vote for themselves. I’d say there’s zero chance Cherington voted for NH after the fleecing he took, but a good chance NH voted for Cherington (thanks for Mark the Shark and Stolmy buddy, let’s talk at the winter meetings).

    And is this fact just ironic or does it actually make the award totally meaningless: the 2 GMs that made 2 of the worst trades last offseason finished 1st and 3rd in the voting.

  • Can we say “East Coast, Big Market bias, neighbors”?

  • Good article. Spot on.