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.