Huntington Extended by Pirates

This weekend, the Pittsburgh Pirates reportedly extended General Manager Neal Huntington through 2014 with a club option for 2015. Huntington was nearing the end of his prior contract, but the length of the new contract shows that ownership has confidence in the direction in which he is taking things.

The Pirates are 19 games behind the National League Central-leading Brewers, but for the first part of the season they were surprisingly right in the middle of things, even leading the division at times. They inspired Joe Pawlikowski to have a Pirates Week. They have since fallen off rather dramatically, but with 66 wins so far, Pittsburgh has a decent chance to win 70 games for the first time since 2004.

It was fun while it lasted, but the Pirates’ major-league record this season isn’t much more relevant to an evaluation of Huntington than any of the other seasons since he took over near the end of 2007. The Pirates had been a mess on every level for a while before Huntington came aboard, and it was going to take a long time to fix, especially considering that the Pirates’ budget effectively rules out any sort of splashes on the free agent market and that their farm system at the time Huntington took over was pretty bad (although budding superstar Andrew McCutchen was drafted by the prior administration).

Huntington came to the Pirates from Cleveland, and hiring of respected internet saberist Dan Fox brought at least the appearance of the saber-friendliness of the Cleveland organization to Pittsburgh. I used the word “appearance” because it is difficult to see how much or little impact having a prominent analyst on staff really has on the workings of the organization. And really, it didn’t take a DIPS-level revolutionary insight to see what the Pirates needed to do given their situation and payroll: trade older, more expensive players, take chances on “buy low” players, and spend in the draft to build up the farm system.

Under Huntington’s watch, the Pirates have executed this plan with varying levels of success. They tried the “buy low” strategy with players like Lastings Milledge and Andy LaRoche, and neither worked out. That doesn’t mean it the Pirates should stop doing it if they have playing time available and nothing to lose, so while Brandon Wood hasn’t worked out either, Ronny Cedeno has had a decent season and didn’t cost the Pirates much of anything. The returns on Jason Bay and Nate McLouth haven’t really worked out for the Pirates, but promising outfielder Jose Tabata (recently extended long-term) came over in a trade with the Yankees for spare parts, and Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf are other useful pieces who came over the trade. Huntington did make some moves when the team was still sort of in contention this season, but while neither Derrek Lee nor Ryan Ludwick were enough to carry the team to the division championship, they were reasonable moves that cost the Pirates little or nothing in terms of talent.

The farm system also isn’t blowing anyone away quite yet. However, the system was mostly barren when Huntington came in, and the team’s extensive spending in the draft could pay off in the near future. After all, the Royals’ system wasn’t generally ranked among the top systems in baseball prior to being universally considered the #1 system in baseball (and perhaps the Best System in the History of Whatever) prior to the 2011 season. This is not to say that the Pirates system is or will be as good as the Royals’. The point is that these things can change quickly. By convincing ownership to invest in players like Cole, Taillon, and others, Huntington is giving the team the chance it needs given that they are unlikely to be able to compete on the free agent market any time soon.

On balance, it seems that Huntington has been good for the franchise. Still, it isn’t clear that he’s gone anything particularly exceptional. That being said, this extension appears to be the right thing to do. Huntington may have been on the hot seat a bit this season. While he got his extension for 2011 a year before his initial contract with Pittsburgh (for 2008-2010) was up, a one-year extension isn’t exactly a show of long-term confidence. Given the Pirates second-half collapse, it isn’t clear to me what about this season convinced ownership give Huntington three years and a club option now. Still, I think it is a good thing for the Pirates. One might argue, as Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout does, that three years is too long. Still, as Charlie also points out, general managers don’t get paid that much in the big scheme of things, so if the Pirates need to cut ties with Huntington before his contract is up, it won’t matter that much.

More importantly, the extension gives the organization a sense of continuity. Now, continuity for its own sake can be overrated in organization-speak. A continuity of failure is not desirable. But if Huntington hasn’t made the Pirates into the “next Rays” yet, he also hasn’t obviously failed, so it would be far too early to abandon his plan. While the Pirates have more challenges to face than most of the league in terms of payroll, Huntington doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect to overcome this. Although the payroll situation is dissimilar, Dan O’Dowd’s tenure in Colorado can be looked at as a good example of what continuity and patience with a front office can bring. O’Dowd has been the General Manager in Colorado for more than 10 seasons, and while he’s certainly made his mistakes (and big ones) and probably isn’t done doing so (here’s to your health, Tulo!), he’s learned and done well-enough to make the Rockies somewhat regular contenders for the playoffs the last few seasons with an organization that, if not a “model” MLB franchise, is rightfully well-respected.

That isn’t the same as being in it every single year, but I’m sure at this point Pirates fans would take respectability and a reasonable shot a contention on a somewhat regular basis. The jury is out on whether or not Huntington is the executive to make that happen for Pittsburgh, but he’s earned the chance to try.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

9 Responses to “Huntington Extended by Pirates”

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  1. Seth says:

    I would not exactly say the Mclouth trade did not work out for the Pirates. Morton has put up around 2 wins above replacement this year, and Locke is just making his debut in the big league rotation. Also Gorky’s Hernandez has had a decent AAA season and still has some bit of hope at a 4th OF job. Mclouth on the other hand has been down right terrible in Atlanta. The two glaring mistakes I can see with Huntington has been the bay trade, and the failure to sign Sano.

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  2. joser says:

    They’re not the “next Rays” but they may be the “next Royals” — and the sad thing is that, considering the Pirates’ last couple of decades, that’s a significant improvement.

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    • PiratesHurdles says:

      Next Royals eh? Team with a #1 ranked minor league system and young MLB talent that never put it together in the bigs. Sorry, we already did that in 1997. Not interested.

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      • Jump to Conclusion Mat says:

        It may be a bit early to say the Royal’s prospects “haven’t put it together in the bigs”

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  3. A guy from PA says:

    Personally, his signing of Tabata to a contract so ridiculous his agent LEFT him was really cool. I mean, the Clemente card really helped with him being Tabata’s favorite player growing up, but still that contract looks like an amazing bargain even if he only turns out to be an AVERAGE player, and a 22 year old who has already put up over 2.0 WAR in his FIRST 162 games, it looks like he could be an even bigger bargain. 2 years from now, we might be seeing him in the top 20 best contract list on fangraphs.

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  4. CircleChange11 says:

    The Pirates didn’t have anything to sell (and still don’t).

    They are basically required to build through the draft and the scrap heap.

    So, they basically have to be quite a bit smarter (and luckier) than most of the other teams.

    The GM of the Pirates has to be one of the worst jobs to have in MLB.

    It’s difficult to imagine many GMs having “success” in PIT.

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  5. The Fort says:

    Up till now Huntington has shown that he has a plan and that he can follow it. He’s done better than his predecessor (but so could my border collie) but hasn’t done anything of note. This off season should be different.

    This is going to be a big off season for the Pirates. With Overbay (5), Diaz(2), Maholm(6), and at least one catcher(3+) coming off a payroll of about 43M, the Bucs will be about 23 million under their 50 million target. Picking 10th in a weak draft instead of Cole and Bell should save millions more.

    In addition to the cap room the minor league system has provided the team with interesting if not particularly high end trade bait at SP (Maholm, Ohlendorf, Lincoln),, RP (everyone except for Hanrahan including minor leaguers like Wilson,Morris, Hughes) , and OF (Tabata, Presley, Hernandez, Marte)

    This is the year that Huntington should finally be aggressive. This isn’t the best FA class for the Bucs since Pujols, Fielder and Reyes are too expensive for the team, but there are a few B types (Cuddyer, Kubel) that would be good additions. However I think the real key to this off season will be made via the trade market. Young blocked players like Yonder Alonso and expensive veteran players like Andre Ethier will be available for the right package. For the first time in years the Pirates will be in a position to go after that talent. This is the offseason that the organization (and the fans) find out if Huntington is the right man for the job long term.

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  6. A guy from PA says:

    You do forget that players of note like Hanrahan, Charlie Morton, Evan Meek, Chris Resop, Garret Jones, and Andrew McCutchen are all eligible for arbitration. Now, obviously the Pirates want to keep most of those guys, as even with arbitration raises it looks like they will provide good value, but the Pirates are going to have much less than 23 million to work with. Also keep in mind Cedeno’s 3 million dollar option, if the Pirates see him as a 1 to 2 WAR people, (he’s been worth 2 WAR this year, but many expect him to be worth less next year) they could end up picking up his option as well.

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  7. Two-sided Fence says:

    It’s funny to see how both sides of the fence are being played amongst Pirates fans. On one side, you have the long time pro-management OBN website, where they trip over themselves, calling this a no-brainer.On the opposite side, the anti-management CIA (Change in Atmosphere), they all claim that Huntington should have been fired already. While both sites have extremely misinformed fanatics, it’s clear that Huntington, Coonely and Nutting are all polarizing characters. Huntington did state his long term plan in 2008 and he’s followed it. Giving him the opportunity to see it through seems far more justifiable than firing him does.

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