First Pitch: Who Gets the Credit For Development?

Neal Huntington would have never won from 2013-15 had it not been for Dave Littlefield.

At least, that’s what I heard over the years.

Huntington led the Pirates to the post-season three years in a row. However, the best players on the team were guys who were added to the system by Dave Littlefield. Thus, the argument was always made that Huntington couldn’t have won without Littlefield’s guys.

This is true, but it’s also a bad argument. Literally every General Manager inherits players from the previous GM. Every winning team has players who weren’t acquired by the GM in place (outside of places like Oakland, where the GM has been in place for a long time).

I bring all of this up because we’ll eventually have the same situation in Pittsburgh. If Ben Cherington wins over the next few years, it’s going to largely be due to a lot of guys acquired by Neal Huntington.

I’m not about to start the argument that Ben Cherington’s future wins are only a product of Huntington. I didn’t like the argument when it was Huntington/Littlefield, and don’t think it holds value now. Now that we’re removed from both Huntington and Littlefield, we can look at that situation objectively and see what it means for Cherington.

First of all, I think we only need to look at Huntington as proof that you can draft and develop a player in the lower levels, but this does not guarantee MLB success. Just look at some of his picks who went on to be top prospects, didn’t have success in Pittsburgh, then had success elsewhere.

Yes, Huntington inherited Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Neil Walker, and others in the system. But none of the guys who won from 2013-15 reached the majors under Littlefield. It’s not like Huntington knew in 2007 what those players and others would become.

All three of those guys provide different stories. McCutchen was in the upper levels when Huntington took over. Walker was also there, but starting to see his value drop. Marte had barely been in pro ball by the time Littlefield was fired, and his entire development was mostly under Huntington’s system.

So how do we determine who gets credit for developing these players?

The best answer is to ignore that question and focus on a different view: Who assembled the winning team?

Huntington had the help of Andrew McCutchen and his 6-8 WAR seasons. But one good player doesn’t make a championship team. Littlefield inherited Brian Giles, who was in the middle of four years with 5.5+ WAR before he was traded. Jason Bay was the primary return, who initially had a few 5+ WAR seasons.

Yet Littlefield never came close to the playoffs, while Huntington changed Pittsburgh’s expectations, to the point where a GM gets fired if he misses the playoffs four years in a row. I’ll note that this is a fair evaluation, and it took Huntington’s work to get the Pirates to a point where we evaluate the GM under normal measures, rather than the hopelessness that existed when Littlefield was in charge.

Huntington didn’t win because of Andrew McCutchen. He won because he paired McCutchen with the other players he inherited, and added good players to that mix. He made the decisions on which internal players to keep and which to part with. He found value on the outside, getting A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, Edinson Volquez, Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, and others. He also embraced new analytics and strategies for a time, which helped to boost the team even further.

The Pirates had winning seasons in 2013-15 not because of who Huntington inherited from Littlefield, but because of the team Huntington built — made up of a mixture of prospects added by Littlefield, Huntington, and some MLB help added for support.

Ben Cherington now inherits a lot of talented prospects from Huntington. He’s got Mitch Keller, Bryan Reynolds, and Kevin Newman in the majors. Ke’Bryan Hayes, Oneil Cruz, and Cole Tucker could join them this year. In the lower levels the Pirates have talented guys like Tahnaj Thomas and Quinn Priester, along with many other players who could be Cherington’s version of Marte.

Cherington’s job is the same as Huntington’s was. It’s to take the current system, figure out which players can contribute to the next winner, and add to that group over the years. It doesn’t matter if those players were added or developed — partially or in full — by Huntington. The only thing that matters now is what Cherington can get out of those players, and how he builds a future team around them.

SONG OF THE DAY

DAILY QUIZ


RANDOM STUFF OF THE DAY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81A8sTde_94

THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY

By John Dreker

There have been six former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date.

Elroy Face, pitcher for the 1953, 1955-68 Pirates. He joined the Pirates in December, 1952 after he was taken in the Rule 5 draft. He had played four seasons in the minors with the Phillies and Dodgers, winning at least 14 games every year. In his rookie season he pitched 40 games, getting 13 starts from June 17th until the end of the year. He was clearly not ready for the majors, but as a Rule 5 pick he had to stay. In 119 innings he posted a 6.58 ERA. He spent the entire 1954 season in the minors, where he developed his famous forkball and also worked on a slider. Prior to that he was throwing a fastball and curveball. Face returned to the majors for 1955 and cut his ERA to 3.58, down exactly three runs.

By 1956 he was being used strictly out of the pen. After making 23 starts his first two seasons, he started just four more games his entire career (none after 1957). In 1956 he threw 135.1 innings and led the league with 68 games pitched. In 1958 he posted a 2.89 ERA and recorded 20 saves, although it wasn’t official stat at the time. In 1959 Face compiled an amazing 18-1 record in his 57 appearances. He made his first of three straight All-Star appearances and finished seventh in the MVP voting. During the 1960 season, the Pirates won the World Series and he contributed with ten wins, 24 saves and a league leading 68 appearances. He also pitched 10.1 innings of relief in the series.

Face had perhaps his best season in 1962. He posted a career low 1.88 ERA and career high 28 saves. His numbers dropped down to a 5.20 ERA in 1964 at the age of 36, but he rebounded for four more strong seasons with an ERA between 2.42 and 2.70 each year. Before his sale to the Tigers in late August 1968, the Pirates kept him long enough so that he could tie Walter Johnson’s record for most games pitched with one team, getting his 802nd appearance on the same day he was shipped to Detroit. Among the Pirates all-time leaders he ranks first in games pitched and saves with 186. Face finished his major league career with the Expos in 1969 and even pitched briefly in the minors in 1970 before retiring.

Frankie Gustine, infielder for the 1939-48 Pirates. He played 1,176 games with the Pirates, the 21st highest total in franchise history. The Pirates signed him as a 17-year-old amateur and sent him to the low minors in 1937. He did well in 1938 after moving up a level, then even better in 1939 in class B ball, where he hit .300 in 137 games, earning a September call-up for the Pirates. By 1940, he was their everyday second baseman, hitting .281 in 133 games as a rookie. Gustine had a poor 1942 season, batting just .229, but turned it around the next year by hitting .290. That season he played more shortstop than second base. He was the regular shortstop in 1944-45 and he hit .280 with 66 RBIs in the latter season. Back to second base for 1946, he made his first All-Star team, then moved to third base for 1947 and made the All-Star team again while leading the league in games played with 156. That year he set career highs in batting average (.297), runs scored (102) and RBIs (67). He made his third straight All-Star appearance in 1948 before the Pirates shipped him to the Cubs in the off-season. Gustine has the dubious distinction of leading the league in errors at three different positions, second base in 1940, shortstop in 1945 and third base in 1947. While with the Pirates he hit .268, with 1,152 hits, 523 runs and 451 RBIs.

Tony Menendez, pitcher for the 1993 Pirates. He was originally a first round pick of the White Sox in the 1984 draft. It took him eight years and four organizations before he finally made the majors in 1992, pitching three games for the Reds that year. That November the Pirates signed him as a free agent and sent him to Triple-A, where he worked as the team’s closer. He was briefly called up in July, making his Pittsburgh debut in long relief against the Reds. After two games he was sent back to the minors, where he compiled a 2.42 ERA and 24 saves in 54 games. The Pirates recalled Menendez in September and used him often out of the pen, getting 12 appearances in the final month of the season. He left via free agency after the season and signed with the Giants, where he played two seasons (mostly in Triple-A) before retiring.

Jack Rafter, catcher for the Pirates on September 24, 1904. He played 13 seasons in the minors beginning in 1894, yet he managed to get into just one big league game. Rafter had played for the Troy Trojans of the New York State League for four seasons prior to playing for the Pirates. During all four of those seasons he was the catcher for Chick Robitaille, who also made his Major League debut in September 1904 for the Pirates. Not surprisingly, when Rafter played his only game in the majors, Robitaille was on the mound. During a 3-1 loss in New York to the Giants, Jack went 0-for-3 at the plate and was flawless in the field while throwing out one of the two runners who attempted to steal off him. He returned to the minors in 1905 and played three more seasons before retiring. Rafter is one of 56 players who attended Fordham University to make the majors, but only six have started their career since 1950.

Tom O’Brien, infielder for the Pirates in 1898 and 1900. He was a member of the Pirates three different times although he was traded before he played his first game for the team. In that trade the Pirates also gave up Jake Stenzel (their all time batting leader) in exchange for star outfielder Steve Brodie. O’Brien played one full season and part of 1898 before the Pirates purchased his contract back in June. He would hit .259 in 107 games with 45 RBIs and 53 runs scored to finish out the year. In 1899, the Pirates loaned him to the New York Giants, in a move that seems crazy to do now, but it occasionally happened back in the day. O’Brien would have his best season in the majors with the Giants, hitting .296 with 101 runs scored. When the season ended he was returned to the Pirates. In 1900 he would hit .290 with 61 runs scored and 61 RBIs in 102 games. O’Brien would’ve likely played a big role on the 1901 Pirates, the first team to win a pennant in franchise history, but in early February that year he died of pneumonia at the age of 27.

Harry Raymond, third baseman for the 1892 Pirates. He began his big league career as a September call-up for the Louisville Colonels of the American Association in 1888. He wasn’t much of a hitter in his four seasons in Louisville. Raymond hit .243 with two homers in 299 games during that time. His best season came when the talent in the league was watered down in 1890 due to the fact three Major Leagues were running at the time. He was a strong fielder at third base during an era when defense at the position was much more important than it is today. When the American Association folded after the 1891 season, it left the National League as the only Major League. Raymond would play just 12 games for the Pirates that season, hitting .082 in 49 ABs before being released. He signed with the Washington Senators who gave up on him after just four games and an .067 batting average. He finished the year in the minors, then would go on to play another seven seasons of minor league ball before retiring.

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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