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|
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.