Williams: It’s Hard to Make An Argument For Neal Huntington To Keep His Job

Three years ago, the Pirates traded Mark Melancon at the deadline, getting Felipe Vazquez and Taylor Hearn back in the deal. The Pirates were sitting at 52-50 and three games back from the Wild Card, and I spent the weeks leading up to the trade deadline arguing that they should trade Melancon, as that team wasn’t a real contender.

Two years ago, the Pirates traded Tony Watson at the deadline, getting Oneil Cruz in return. They were 51-54, and 5.5 games back in the NL Central at the time. Once again it made sense to deal one of their top relievers, although it was an easier argument to make this time around.

Fast forward to now and the Pirates are in a similar situation from a trade standpoint. The biggest talk leading up to the deadline has been about whether the team will trade Vazquez. Unlike Melancon and Watson, this isn’t a situation where the Pirates have a pending free agent. They’ve got Vazquez under team control through the 2023 season, which combined with him being one of the top relievers in the game, gives him a lot of trade value.

The Pirates are currently 47-60, ten games out of the division and Wild Card, and in last place in the NL Central. Only one team in the NL has a worse record, with the Pirates having the seventh worst record in MLB.

Are you noticing a trend?

No, not the one about the Pirates trading relievers.

The one where the Pirates keep slipping further and further from contention.

I skipped over the 2018 season, when the team finished 82-79, and eight games out of the playoffs. But when that is the highlight of a four year stretch, and is followed up by the season the team is having right now, it’s not a good situation.

I think you can make an easy argument that the Pirates need a fresh start from top to bottom right now. That would include replacing Neal Huntington as the General Manager. I’ve felt that Huntington has been a good General Manager for the bulk of his time with the team. He inherited the worst team in the NL with one of the worst farm systems in the game, and turned them into a contender after a total rebuild.

But the last four years have been filled with mistakes. There’s the much talked about offseason leading into 2016. The mistake there was that Huntington tried to contend in 2016, while also waiting for prospects to arrive to help the future years. The result was lower upside additions in the offseason, so as to not block the prospects, and then relying on prospects making the transition to the majors and boost the team, which is never a good bet.

The 2017 season led to complaints from the players in the clubhouse about how the team lacked the will to win. That was followed by some big trades, sending out Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole prior to the 2018 season. The McCutchen trade is looking great right now, while the Cole trade is looking disastrous. The guys coming over in the Cole trade didn’t have the highest upsides, and you could have argued at the time that Cole had the highest upside in the deal — not the return you want to get when selling a talent like Cole.

This season has been plagued by injuries and poor performance from some of the key guys the team was relying on. It also featured one of their lowest payrolls in years, with the Pirates reacting to the lower attendance and sticking to a strict budget.

I’m not going to say that injuries and poor performance are the only reason the team has struggled. I think if this team stays healthy and productive, you might have a contender. But your chances of contending can’t be based on everyone staying healthy and productive.

The Pirates had these issues in 2016 when almost everyone played below their projections, and when there were a lot of key injuries. They had this issue in 2017 with players playing below projections. Maybe one year of injuries and poor performance derailing your plans is bad luck. But when it’s a recurring theme, you have to think that there’s something the front office, or even Clint Hurdle and his staff, could be doing better.

The Pirates aren’t in as bad of a situation as they were when Huntington took over. But their current situation isn’t much better. They’re back to competing for a top five draft pick, rather than a playoff spot. Their farm system ranks 19th in the majors, according to Baseball America. They’ve got a strong top of the system, with good talent in the top two levels. But they have had very few players live up to expectations in the majors, which dampens the promise of guys like Mitch Keller, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Cole Tucker, Oneil Cruz, and anyone else who could help this club.

No General Manager, manager, coach, or any other position will last over the long haul. The game changes, and eventually you need to get someone who changes with the game. This is a completely different league now from when Huntington took over in late 2007, and is even a different league since the Pirates won 98 games in 2015. Huntington has not adjusted to today’s successful contender strategies, and Hurdle and his staff have been slow or haven’t adopted at all the on-field strategies that work today.

I think you can easily make an argument that the time has come to replace Huntington, Hurdle, and continue that overhaul throughout the front office, development staff, and MLB coaching staff. Not everyone has to go, but things can’t continue in the same direction that they’ve been going for the last four years. I think the new staff would still have the massive problem of trying to contend under Bob Nutting, but that’s a different article.

I could stop this article right there, but instead, let’s take a different look. Let’s explore what Neal Huntington can do to save his job. I say that as if his job is in jeopardy, and I’m not sure that’s even true. But let’s say that his job actually is in question. What would make you feel like the Pirates were reversing course and heading back in the right direction?

The biggest impact could come at the trade deadline, or even in the offseason, by trading Felipe Vazquez for a big return. That requires another team giving up that big return, and so far the buyers have been stingy around the league.

I don’t care much about farm system rankings with those trades. I’m just focusing on how the team looks going forward. Right now, the team looks like they’ll be in the same position next year, and every year going forward, until they eventually bottom out completely when some of their current top players leave. They don’t have enough impact players, and they’ve been too inconsistent from month to month and year to year over the last four years.

I think that a big solution to that would be a clubhouse change. Clint Hurdle has been praised as a charismatic manager and a player’s manager, but when the team has this many inconsistency issues over a four-year stretch, and now you’ve got players and coaches getting suspensions from the team, you know things aren’t going well from a clubhouse management standpoint.

The Pirates made some changes to their offensive approach, and those have gone well, with improvements to some key players on the team. I wouldn’t reverse those changes, or make another change. But they do need to make a similar change on the pitching side. The offensive changes were needed because the team and the organization fell behind modern strategies. Ray Searage has been a great pitching coach, but he’s now fallen behind on modern strategies, and I have little faith that Mitch Keller, Chris Archer, Jameson Taillon when he’s healthy, and any other pitcher can reach their upside under the current approach.

The development issues with the team need to be addressed and a credible solution needs to be implemented. The Pirates have seen Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and a few other non-impact prospects and players go on to perform much better with other teams. Part of that is because their strategies were falling behind the league, but you also have to place blame on the player development side.

Guys like Kyle Stark, Larry Broadway, and everyone else involved in the development don’t act independently. Huntington would also have a say, or an approval in the overall strategy and operations. So the solution would be to implement a new system of development, addressing what went wrong with guys like Cole, Glasnow, Meadows, and others the past few years. That might be accomplished with guys like Stark and Broadway staying around and fixing mistakes. Or it could take some new guys and new ideas, just like the hitting coaches.

Of course, none of this is good for Huntington. When you’re saying that he needs to clean house with the major league coaching staff, and overhaul the development system, then you can’t make a good argument that Huntington should be sticking around. He’s said that everything in the organization falls on him, and with this many issues over many departments, it has to fall on him.

Perhaps things will look different tomorrow. Maybe the Pirates will have some fresh impact guys from a Vazquez trade. Maybe the future will look different from a talent perspective. Maybe the organization just needs to change the MLB clubhouse to combat the inconsistent performances lately, and the system-wide pitching approach to catch up to the rest of the league.

Right now things don’t look good from top to bottom in the organization. There needs to be some kind of overhaul in strategy and personnel. And it’s really difficult to argue that and not come to the conclusion that the whole organization needs an overhaul.

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.

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