By Wilbur Miller
With nothing going on in the Pirate baseball world, this seems like a good time to grade Neal Huntington on his first year as the team’s GM. I tried to break things down into logical portions of the baseball operations. I’ve made no attempt to distinguish Huntington from Frank Coonelly and John Russell, so if you think one of those two should get credit or blame for some of the things discussed below, feel free to assign responsibility as you see fit.
Without a doubt, the single most positive development for the Pirates at the major league level was the emergence of Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit as major league regulars. After years of being stereotyped by incompetents like Lloyd McClendon, Jim Tracy and Dave Littlefield, McLouth and Doumit emerged thanks to a management team that focused on the overall talents they offered rather than on the ways they failed to fit the template for their positions. Huntington’s analytical approach—the Pirates, for instance, broke down film of all of McLouth’s and Nyjer Morgan’s plays in centerfield, and determined that Morgan wasn’t really better than McLouth—was completely absent under Littlefield. It’s a huge step forward.
Otherwise, things were pretty much set in stone. Once McLouth and Doumit were in place, the lineup was a no-brainer. The one position potentially open to question was thirdbase. Huntington gave Jose Bautista a chance to hang himself, which he did. It should have worked out alright, but Neil Walker failed to take advantage of the opportunity. Of course, the lineup changed dramatically after four months, but that’s another subject.
Like the lineup, the rotation was mainly a no-brainer. Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm were obviously set, and it made little sense to give up on Zach Duke just yet. Nobody could have predicted, or did predict, the collapse of Snell and Gorzelanny. Huntington did make two good acquisitions in Phil Dumatrait and Jimmy Barthmaier, both of whom have the ability to serve as pieces of the puzzle long-term.
Huntington’s big mistake was sticking with Matt Morris. Given the steady, long-term decline in his velocity, strikeout rate and overall performance, Morris’ collapse was easily foreseeable. There was also an unintended consequence of Huntington’s decision to announce early in the off-season that the rotation was set. According to Huntington himself, he was unable to sign starters to minor league contracts due to the lack of openings. This left the Pirates with no AAA depth and condemned them to a string of disastrous starts from Morris, Yoslan Herrera and John Van Benschoten. Of course, the situation changed in the last two months, but that also is another topic.
This is the easiest area to grade. Huntington’s first significant move as GM was to open a hole in the bullpen by giving away Salomon Torres for nothing. He sold low in an apparent effort to remove a perceived clubhouse problem. (I’ve had trouble understanding why Huntington would care that Torres sued Littlefield. He should have given Torres a retroactive Employee of the Month Award.) Things went downhill from there. Huntington brought in a series of scatter-armed hard throwers, not one of whom ever discovered where the plate was. Their performance ranged from bad to horrific. Not one reliever that Huntington brought in was even passable. The team’s only three good relievers—Matt Capps, John Grabow and Damaso Marte—were all on board when Huntington took over. His only positive contributions to the bullpen were the Rule 5 acquisition of Evan Meek and the conversion of Sean Burnett to relief. These moves may turn out well in the long term.
The power arm fixation is a step up from Littlefield’s fascination with soft tossers, but Huntington is going to have to find some who can throw strikes and have useful offspeed pitches. Ultimately, the Pirates need to develop their own. One key to Huntington’s efforts to find relievers is whether he’ll be willing to cut bait on his failed experiments. His decision to stick so long with the horrible Franquelis Osoria doesn’t bode well, but we’ll have to see. I nominate Denny Bautista as the litmus test for Huntington’s willingness to move on. An arbitration-eligible pitcher with a 6.10 ERA for the Pirates and 6.34 lifetime is not somebody to cling to.
Huntington seems to have gotten credit in some circles—the Pirates’ broadcasters, to begin with— for building a good bench, but I don’t see it. This view seems to rest on Jason Michaels getting a few key hits and Doug Mientkiewicz getting wildly exaggerated credit for a veteran presence that didn’t keep the team from falling to pieces the last two months. The one bench player who actually performed well was Mientkiewicz, which is what he should be credited for, rather than bogus psychological contributions. Michaels put up a .680 OPS. In some other dimension, that may be OK for a corner outfielder, but in this one it's bad, even for a fourth outfielder. Backup catcher Raul Chavez was a useful pickup, but he is what he is: a good-field, no-hit catcher, a commodity that grows on trees. Huntington could possibly be credited with obtaining Chavez through a minor league contract, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Huntington made several attempts to sign free agents, none of them any better than Chavez, to guaranteed major league deals. Huntington did make a useful pickup late in the season, acquiring Robinzon Diaz for Bautista. Diaz gives the Pirates an option with a little bit of potential who can take over when Doumit inevitably gets hurt.
Huntington’s bumbling with middle infield backups was worse. He left the team without a viable shortstop backup, which was devastating when Jack Wilson went down at the beginning of the year. Chris Gomez hit just well enough to be a decent middle infield backup, but it turned out he can’t play the middle infield any more. Luis Rivas simply can’t play, something the Twins figured out a couple years ago. Huntington made another marginally useful pickup in Luis Cruz, who’s a good defensive player, but Cruz simply can’t hit. He’s likely to settle into the pointless, Abe Nunez role as a utility player who’s on the team for his glove but whose main role is to pinch hit. It might help if Huntington would look outside the AL Central for bench players.
The Deadline Trades
The whole issue of whether these trades should have been made is a big subject by itself. In my view, Huntington was faced with a situation where he could have held onto Jason Bay and Xavier Nady and made a big run at .500 in 2009, then watched the team sink into the abyss the next year after they left. If spending the decade of the 2010s watching the New Rickey Dinks would be worth it to you to have a 30-40% chance of one .500 season, then you undoubtedly hated the trades. To me, it’s not worth it.
As for the trades themselves, Huntington managed to meet his two priorities of adding both major league ready talent and high ceiling talent. The former came with the three Yankees pitchers and Brandon Moss, the latter with Jose Tabata and Bryan Morris. Andy LaRoche and Craig Hansen represent a little of both, but I have limited confidence in LaRoche and none in Hansen. Considering how difficult it is to get teams to part with top prospects now, Huntington did well. Obviously, he had to take players with some drawbacks, but that’s the only way he was going to get significant potential. Perhaps most significantly, though, he was able to make exactly the sort of difficult decision that the team was never able to make under Littlefield and Kevin McClatchy. That's a big step forward by itself.
I’m not going to rehash the Pedro Alvarez circus here. The fact is, Alvarez is now under contract to the Pirates at a reasonable cost. For what it’s worth, the last two college hitters the Pirates drafted, and didn’t convert to pitching, were Barry Bonds and Jeff King.
Otherwise, Huntington’s first draft was highly successful. By going well over slot, the Pirates were able to bring in several players with good ceilings in the later rounds. They also added some promising infielders, an impressive late-round find in Jarek Cunningham, an interesting high school lefty in Chris Aure, and a solid college pitcher in Justin Wilson. They made a good run at an early first round talent in Tanner Scheppers, but sensibly backed off when Scheppers proved to be well behind schedule in his recovery from shoulder problems. The one negative in the draft was the lack of any real pitching talent aside from late signees Wilson and Quinton Miller, as well as Aure. This, however, was partly a function of the draft pool being long on college hitters and short on pitching. The Pirates at least had the sense to focus where the talent was.
It’s impossible to assign a truly meaningful grade here, because the players Huntington has signed haven’t even played professionally yet and are far away from the majors. Still, the Pirates finally started giving out six-figure bonuses and made several signings significant enough to attract attention from Baseball America. They did not sign any of the most highly regarded players and did not give out any bonuses above $400,000, but their overall expenditure of $1.2M on bonuses of six figures and higher in Latin America ranked 12th among all teams, according to Baseball America. Their Latin American Scouting Coordinator, Rene Gayo, believes that it makes more sense to spread the bonus money around.
I was very skeptical of Gayo’s approach until recently, for two reasons. One is increasing criticism of the top bonuses from within the baseball hierarchy. The criticism sounds like more than just grumbling about expenses. The number of seven-figure bonuses being doled out strikes me as far too high given the extreme risks involved with 16-year-old Dominican kids, which are far higher than the risks involved with 18-year-old American high school kids. More than one baseball executive has claimed that the bonuses have been artificially inflated, and a recent Sports Illustrated article backs that up. Expanding investigations into bonuses in the Dominican have revealed that some scouts and front office executives have fraudulently inflated bonuses and then taken kickbacks from the players, meaning that they’ve been stealing from their own employers. The scandal is already regarded as widespread and could impact quite a few teams. Several of the teams that have been the most active in Latin America, including the Yankees and Red Sox, have already fired employees over it. The Pirates have not been connected to the scandal so far. It’s quite possible Gayo’s view that bonuses have gotten excessive will be vindicated.
This is another area that’ll take a long time to judge properly, partly due to the time it takes to see the results of coaching and partly due to the fact that Huntington is still revamping the minor league staffs, a process that takes time. Considering how little attention minor league coaching normally attracts, the Pirates’ approach this year has been relatively controversial, mainly due to strict limits on pitch counts and on which pitches the prospects can throw. The controversy has centered on State College, which had probably the worst pitching staff and worst team in organized baseball. The upset over the Spikes made little sense, though, as the team simply had no pitching talent due to the terrible state of the farm system that Huntington inherited and the lack of any pitchers of any note from the 2008 draft who reached State College. A better measure might be the Pirates’ GCL entry. While the Center Daily Times was whining about pitch counts, the rookie league team was leading its league in ERA.
There are some more concrete measures of the team’s progress in the development area. The Pirates did much better at keeping their pitchers healthy. As far as I know, there were no major arm surgeries. Brad Lincoln’s recovery from Tommy John surgery proceeded right on schedule—when’s the last time that happened? Several pitchers who’ve had persistent arm problems, including Jeff Sues, Blair Johnson and Eric Krebs, managed to stay healthy most or all of the year (excluding the time Krebs missed after being beaned with a line drive, an ugly incident from which he appears to be fully recovered). Huntington also abandoned Littlefield’s practice of loading the minor league rosters with overage players by signing large numbers of veteran minor leaguers and holding the team’s own prospects back year after year. This shift resulted in a decline in minor league won-loss records, but the point is to develop prospects. One possible benefit, for instance, was the turnaround by Kyle Bloom. He struggled for two years at high A, but took a significant step forward after a promotion to AA that he probably wouldn’t have received under Littlefield. It’s still early, but the system took some important steps forward in the development area.