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The Pirates & Neal Huntington Should Part Ways After The Season…But Won’t

Has this relationship run its course?
Photo by Chris Mack/93.7 The Fan

I might be trying to thread too fine of a needle here, but here it goes. I really like Neal Huntington as a General Manager. He’s exceedingly smart, generous with his time, and well-respected throughout the game.

But he’s in his 10th season as GM of the Pirates and it appears as if his routine has grown stale. His fatal flaw has been laid bare for all to see — he’s a hoarder. Not of stuff, like on those reality shows, but of prospects. Once he didn’t trade for he-who-shall-not-be-named prior to the 2017 season, I realized that he’ll never do it. If you aren’t willing to move multiple prospects for a bonafide low-end #1/high-end #2, with 4 years of control at the time, and under contract for insanely affordable salaries, you’ve never going to do it. That was a unicorn.

The concept is sound. Small-revenue team needs to rely on homegrown talent to keep the team winning at a sustainable pace. That’s correct. But there’s two inherent problems with that:

1) Prospects fail a lot. And even if they don’t fail, many more don’t live up to their breathless billings they garnered as they were ascending through the minors. From our article on Prospect Values from 2016, here’s the chart again on the percentages of Top 100 prospects that don’t get to 0 WAR in their team controlled years and the percentage that don’t get to 3 WAR total in their team controlled years, the rough cutoff for a bullpen or bench contribution.

Tier Number of Players Avg. WAR Surplus Value % Less than 3 WAR % Zero WAR or less
Hitters #1-10 54 15.3 $73.5M 12.96% 7.41%
Hitters #11-25 42 13.0 $62.0M 26.19% 7.14%
Hitters #26-50 89 8.1 $38.2M 47.19% 29.21%
Hitters #51-75 102 4.9 $22.4M 56.86% 46.08%
Hitters #76-100 102 4.5 $20.6M 63.73% 39.22%
Pitchers #1-10 22 14.6 $69.9M 4.55% 0%
Pitchers #11-25 43 8.3 $39.0M 44.19% 27.91%
Pitchers #26-50 85 6.4 $29.8M 41.18% 23.53%
Pitchers #51-75 104 3.7 $16.5M 69.23% 44.23%
Pitchers #76-100 113 3.5 $15.6M 65.49% 43.36%

2) There’s not a lot of impact talent that has percolated through the minors under Huntington’s watch. Let’s set a parameter here on what I define as “impact talent”. For me, it’s a player who has compiled a 3 fWAR season. The cutoff is 2 for an average major leaguer, so 3 is the next step for someone who is a difference maker. 5 is considered All-Star caliber and 7 is usually MVP-caliber. As a point of reference, in 2016 there were 63 batters that were 3 WAR or greater and 33 starting pitchers that hit that same mark. If you want to include relievers as impact players and say 1.5 is their cutoff, then there were 22 of them in 2016. On average, each team in baseball should have right around 4 impact players per year. The 2016 season was a tire fire for the Pirates and they had just 1, but if you go back to 2013-15, the Pirates had 9 in 2013, 6 in 2014, and 7 in 2015.

During Neal Huntington’s tenure as GM (hired in 2007 offseason, first season was 2008), the Pirates have had 16 separate players achieve at least 3 WAR. Only 8 of them were products of the Pirates’ farm system, whether from the Rule 4 draft or the international market. And of those 8, only 2 were drafted/signed by Huntington’s regime (Gerrit Cole and Pedro Alvarez).

The Pirates have to draft well to succeed. The basic amount you need from each draft is 1 starter and 1 bench/bullpen guy. There have been only been 3 drafts where the Pirates have met that threshold:

  • 2008 — Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, and Justin Wilson were all successes to varying degrees. Kind of interesting that Jordy Mercer has had the best overall career of the three to date.
  • 2011 — Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell are established starters at this point. Tyler Glasnow will be given another chance to start, but is more likely to be a bullpen guy. Imagine if they could have signed Trea Turner, too.
  • 2013 — Adam Frazier and Chad Kuhl are technically a bench piece and a starter right now, but I think Kuhl goes to the bullpen sooner than later. This is still OK, not great, of a return if it turns into that.

And that’s it. Just three draft classes out of the seven from 2008 to 2014 (it’s too early to judge 2015-17, but signs are not encouraging for 2015 and 2016). It’s not unreasonable to expect some talent from 2014 to start to percolate up to the Majors, as we’ve seen 3rd rounder Jordan Luplow get a callup last week.

Some other draft picks have been moved in deals for established major leaguers, such as 2009 draftee Brock Holt in the Melancon deal. Robbie Grossman from 2008 was packaged up to get Wandy Rodriguez. This kind of leads into what Huntington does best…

…he makes really good little to medium impact trades, but fails at consummating the big deals. Mark Melancon for Felipe Rivero is a masterwork at this point, but that was a trade of an expiring asset and they probably didn’t expect Rivero to be this great. He got A.J. Burnett when the Yankees did a salary dump in exchange for two scrub players. One had an 80 grade name in Exicardo Cayones and the other was Diego Moreno, a reliever who’s had a few cups of coffee in the Majors with various teams but is nothing special. There have been plenty of other great little to medium moves, but he hasn’t swung a deal to get a truly upper-tier player, even if just as a rental, or to trade successfully an upper-tier player.

Neal Huntington can rebuild a team and acquire assets through trades with the best of them, but he just does not appear to be capable of doing whatever is necessary to push a team over that final hump to truly put them ‘all in’ to be a true contender. He’s not willing to sacrifice the future for the present, in any quantity, and sometimes that is what needs done. If the Pirates and Huntington were churning out this endless stream of high-end prospects that were the backbone of the team, I might agree with him. But in reality, his minor league production has been average, if you’re charitable, and sub-par if you’re realistic.

Again, I really like what he’s done and I’ve had the pleasure to interview and speak with him numerous times. My enduring memory of him, no matter how much longer he will be here, is when he took the time to talk with my wife as she was standing off to the side while I was interviewing Paul Maholm at a PirateFest. He could have been doing any number of other things, but he chatted her up for a few minutes.

Overall, Huntington has done a very good, but not great, job as the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. If he were to leave the Pirates, Neal Huntington would be out of work for probably one day. There are teams that would hire him as their GM, but he would be an assistant GM with any other large revenue franchise, as well. Neal Huntington definitely knows how to get a hold of Brian Cashman of the Yankees, we all know that by now.

Bob Nutting and Frank Coonelly are probably putting the finishing touches on Neal Huntington’s extension as I type this. Heck, knowing the Pirates, they probably already extended him months ago but will only casually mention it at the end of the season. He’ll be back with the Pirates, but I’m not sure that’s the best thing for either party at this juncture.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

19 Comments on The Pirates & Neal Huntington Should Part Ways After The Season…But Won’t

  1. I think huntington and hurdle are gone at the end of the season.Way to many bad contracts, hudson freese cervilli jaso and the kang thing will cost huntington his job and hurdle and his 1970’s managing style is getting old,I mean batting freese 4th or 5th with 29 rbi’s is insane.

    • BuccoMike // August 7, 2017 at 11:48 AM //

      Hudson, Cervelli and Jaso are 3 bad deals Huntington has made. Kang outperformed his deal in year 1- 32.1 mil value he gave the Pirates (4yr 11mil contract), Freeee has given the Pirates 25.1 mil in value in the 10 months he’s been a Pirate for just 10 mil in salary. I don’t think Nutting is ready to field more questions by media on the Pirates look for extensions for Hurdle and Huntington.

      • kang is a drunk and maybe a rapist so there’s that, freese is a second division 3rd baseman and I don’t under stand 25 million in value when no one wanted him at 2 million this year and 4 million next yr.

        • BuccoMike // August 7, 2017 at 1:42 PM //

          WAR , based on defense and offense its a dollars category what the player would make on free agent market- 2016 15.1mil for 3 mil , 10 mil for 2017 for 6.5 mil. Kang in 15 alone 31.2 mil in value, in 16 18 mil 49.2 mil total value for 11 mil. You knew kang had off the field issues rolling the dice the move paid off like the freese move. Freese might be a 2nd rate 3rd baseman not defensively , offensively yes much better then jaso, hudson and cervelli value they haven’t brought to the Pirates.

  2. Lee Young // August 2, 2017 at 6:34 PM //

    Great article!

    I agree with everything that you’ve written, except for the part about Glasnow going to the pen. If he can’t throw strikes, what good would he do coming out of the pen?

    • Kevin Creagh // August 2, 2017 at 10:12 PM //

      An untold number of starters have become effective relievers. By scrapping extra pitches and focusing on just 1-2 of their best, this allows more command at times. The parallel I’ve drawn to Glasnow’s potential future is Dellin Betances of the Yankees. He’s the same size of 6-8″, huge K numbers but big BB/9 numbers in minors. He converted from starter to reliever and he now regularly lays waste to opponents with good control now.

    • BuccoMike // August 7, 2017 at 11:48 AM //


  3. D Farinelli // August 4, 2017 at 7:39 PM //

    Neil Huntington never takes risk. Like gamblers that don’t take risk, they never win big. Same can be said in business, politics, and sports. The Pirates can win the division, but he is to scared to fail. He would rather be average and pray he gets lucky.

    • Kevin Creagh // August 4, 2017 at 9:27 PM //

      Yep. Spot on.

    • BuccoMike // August 7, 2017 at 11:40 AM //

      Only way Huntington can take a risk is buying prospects. Got a few bad deals that hamstrings him – Cervelli, Hudson, Nova (is borderline , cause he’s looking like yanks Nova). At some point Nutting will drop payroll dollars down cause of dropping attendance so when Huntington has a chance to buy some prospects like taking on Watson money for a better prospect you do it. He had 6.5 mil to spend on that which he has spent on Kontos and S-Rod instead of buying 3 or 4 prospects in trades , Watson, Nicasio, etc. Huntington stands nearly pat.

  4. Glad Wandy is back should have never been let go . Why we need a 40 year old relief pitcher ? It doesn’t make any sents at all to me ,

  5. Jake Pavlosky // August 6, 2017 at 11:04 AM //

    What a pleasant find this blog is. Happy to see at least one more site that can take objective look at the Pirates mode of operation.

  6. paul maggio // August 6, 2017 at 2:32 PM //

    While Quintana’s salary would be reasonable for most teams, you have to look at it from the Nutting point of view. Over $35 mil. for Quintana for 4 yrs. vs a Tallion or Glasnow rookie salary for 2 yrs and several more before arbitration. Bottom line Bob!

  7. Jeff Alberter // August 6, 2017 at 10:02 PM //

    The Pirates, for all of their history, have never had a true, bona-fide stud of a starter. Sure, they’ve had many good ones, and a few who were great for a season or two, but this club is long overdue for a starter in the mold of Steve Carlton, Jim Palmer or Pedro Martinez.

  8. BuccoMike // August 7, 2017 at 11:30 AM //

    Huntington is Nutting boy, Hurdle is Huntingtons guy. Huntington deflects the light slams at Nutting to himself so Nutting doesn’t have to answer questions about payroll over and over again. Nutting is left out of this cause Huntington has that hold over Pirates podcasters and media in Pittsburgh you take shots at Pirates i will shun you from access to the Pirates. So you will probably see extensions for both when its said and done.

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