I’ve drawn a lot of comparisons this year between the 2012 and 2017 seasons. The 2012 season saw the Pirates collapse in the final two months, which led to a lot of questions about their future. Those questions went to the extreme, wondering if Neal Huntington, Clint Hurdle, and the rest of the front office should be fired, and wondering if the Pirates were ever going to be winners.
I argued that offseason that Huntington deserved another year. The Pirates had gone from the worst team in baseball with the worst farm system, to a team with a top farm system on the verge of being real contenders at the big league level. My feeling at the time was that the Pirates front office deserved a chance to show they could make the final jump to becoming a real contender.
They did just that the following three years. They made the playoffs each year from 2013-2015, and while their runs were cut short, they managed to win more regular season games than anyone in baseball other than the Cardinals. They won so many games those two years that even when you add in the two losing seasons that follow, they still rank in the top five in MLB in wins from 2013-2017.
There’s no question that the Pirates have been successful since the 2012 season. But now they find themselves out of the playoffs for the second year in a row, and headed toward their second losing season in a row. They find themselves with some similar questions to that 2012 season: Can they get over that hump and become real contenders again?
Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle were just officially extended today, with both receiving four-year deals that run through 2021. Before I go on, I will say that this is the right move in each case.
I’ve criticized Huntington for some of the moves he’s made the last two years, whether that was relying too much on prospects in the rotation for the first half of 2016, or not really having a strong direction at the trade deadline this year. I’ve criticized Hurdle for playing veteran players on expiring contracts over younger players who could help the Pirates in the long-term (although for the last few games, he has been playing the younger players).
But there have been positives the last two years. And before the 2016 season, when they had that strong three-year stretch, there were negatives and positives you could have pointed out. The negatives tend to be magnified and repeated for years, while the positives have a short shelf-life, and are minimized with the idea that those are expected moves. When no credit is given to the positive, and endless criticism is given to the negative, you get a system where even the best General Manager or Manager would look bad.
I don’t know if Huntington is the best General Manager in the game, but I’d rank him up there among the top in the industry. That seems to be an opinion shared outside of Pittsburgh as well. Whether you want to blame Bob Nutting, or blame MLB’s small market inefficiencies, Huntington has been working with a budget in the bottom half of the league, and probably in the bottom third, while putting the Pirates in striking distance of contending for each of the last five years.
Or maybe there’s a better way to show Huntington’s achievements. Any questions about his abilities going forward are entirely based on the last two losing seasons. The Pirates won’t make the playoffs for two years in a row, and fans want Huntington fired. That might be the biggest accomplishment for Huntington in his time in Pittsburgh.
Before Huntington arrived, the feeling was that the Pirates would never see a winning season again. If they did, it would be a “by the skin of their teeth” deal where they went 82-80 by winning game number 162 of the season. The playoffs? That was a long-shot. That was “sell your soul” territory, and almost unimaginable.
And now we’re in a time where missing the playoffs and having a losing season for two years in a row leads to fans questioning whether a General Manager and Manager should continue. That’s a massive difference in where things were ten years ago. The playoffs used to be a dream. Now they’re a requirement, and almost the minimum for expectations.
But the concerns about Huntington aren’t solely on any mistakes he made the last two seasons, or on the fact that it will be two losing seasons in a row. The concerns are about whether the Pirates can get back to being contenders.
In one way, it seems silly to question whether Huntington and Hurdle can lead the Pirates to being contenders, whether that’s Huntington in the front office or Hurdle in the clubhouse. We’ve seen them do it. It wasn’t that long ago. And they haven’t really been far off the last two years either.
But this is also a different challenge than they had in 2013. The organization had one clear direction prior to 2013, and that was to build up from nothing. They had started making minor trades the previous two years at the deadline, but the focus was on keeping all of their important prospects, adding value in any way they could, focusing on buying low and finding inefficiencies in the marketplace, and hoping that would all come together at the big league level. It did in a big way starting in 2013, although it’s fair to say that it started coming together before that.
The Pirates now have a different challenge. They have guys like Andrew McCutchen under control for one more year, and Gerrit Cole under control for two more years. They have top prospects on the way, although injuries have led to questions about the future of the outfield, and pitchers are never a guarantee.
This isn’t an organization with one obvious direction. It’s an organization that could either go for a rebuild, or go all-in and win with the veterans they have now. There is some middle ground to those two approaches, although the passive middle ground the Pirates have currently found isn’t the best approach, in my opinion.
Back in 2012, I had questions about whether the Pirates could get over the hump and become strong contenders on an annual basis. I felt Huntington and company deserved a chance to prove they could make that leap, considering everything they had done up to that point.
They have a different challenge now, and once again they have to do something they haven’t done before. Once again, I feel they deserve the opportunity to show they can get the organization where it needs to be. This offseason will be a big one for them, and a big indication of the direction going forward.
As far as the extensions go, those were deserved. Huntington and Hurdle have put the Pirates in good position the last five years, whether in terms of front office moves or on-field moves. They’ve made some mistakes, but that’s something you can say about literally every General Manager and Manager. In the end, they earned these extensions. Their performance over the next few years, and their ability to get the Pirates back to being a strong contender again, will determine if they will earn the next extensions.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.