Neal Huntington Rumors

Huntington On Snider Trade, Pitching Market

Here are the highlights of Pirates GM Neal Huntington’s long conversation today with Ken Laird and Guy Junker of TribLIVE Radio (podcast link):

  • The Pirates traded Travis Snider to the Orioles in part because they didn’t envision a likely role for him beyond 2015, Huntington says. Also, because Snider was out of options, removing him from their roster gives them more flexibility.
  • In the past, the Bucs had gotten great results with down-on-their-luck pitchers like Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez, but they found those types of pitchers difficult to acquire this offseason, because they now require “$10MM to $12MM to $14MM annually” to sign. Huntington is presumably referring to pitchers like Brett Anderson and Justin Masterson, who looked, heading into the offseason, like they might be good fits for the Pirates. Instead, the Bucs went way under the radar to sign Radhames Liz (who’s pitched in the minors, in Korea, and in the Dominican Winter League in recent years) to a one-year, $1MM big-league deal.
  • The development of the free-agent pitching market this winter demonstrates another reason the Pirates traded Snider, Huntington says — they acquired two pitchers in that deal, Stephen Tarpley and Steven Brault, who could one day be big-league starters.
  • Huntington speaks of the challenges of making decisions based on input from various voices within his front office and scouting staff. “I’m the first to realize that I don’t have the best evaluation skills within our organization,” he says. “I don’t necessarily always have to see it with my own eyes. It helps when I see what they’re seeing, and if I don’t see what they’re seeing, I can ask questions.”

Pirates GM Neal Huntington On Signing Jung-ho Kang

Earlier today, the Pirates announced that they have officially signed Korean infielder Jung-ho Kang to a four-year deal.  The appeal to Kang is clear.  He slashed .356/.459/.739 for the Nexen Heroes of the (admittedly hitter-friendly) Korea Baseball Organization with 40 homers across 117 total games in 2014.  What wasn’t so clear about the signing is where Kang will fit in with the Pirates.  Earlier today, I asked General Manager Neal Huntington about how he anticipates that Kang will be used in Pittsburgh.

We like the player a lot but we also understand and respect that there’s going to be a significant transition period here, not just on the field, but off the field as well.  We want him to transition culturally as well as professionally and as he comes into camp he’ll very much complement our major league team,” Huntington said on the conference call.  “We’re looking forward to confirming our belief about his ability at shortstop, he has played some third, and we know he can play some second but right now he’ll come in as a complementary player as he adjusts to major league baseball and the United States in general.”

While there will be an adjustment period for Kang, the Pirates want the infielder to get acclimated to life in the majors right away.  That means that Huntington & Co. have no intention of sending Kang down to the minor leagues for seasoning.

Huntington says that Kang is on board with serving in a complementary role in 2015, despite recent comments that he made which suggested that he wanted to start immediately.  The Bucs GM chalked that up to something of a miscommunication: any major leaguer, he says, will assert that they are starting caliber if asked.  By the same token, Huntington says that Kang respects the hard work that Bucs teammates like Josh Harrison have put in to earn their leading roles.

The Pirates are excited about welcoming Kang into the fold but not everyone in the baseball world is a believer.  The KBO boasts notoriously boosted batting lines and many equate the league’s level of competition with Double-A baseball.  In Huntington’s mind, that’s not necessarily a fair comparison nor is it an accurate predictor of how well a Korean player can fare in the big leagues.  Japan’s NPB has a stronger level of competition but Huntington notes that many Japanese players haven’t been able to hack it in the States, and vice versa.

That skepticism over his level of competition led to a more tepid market than some anticipated at the outset of the offseason.  I asked Huntington if he had a sense of how many teams were ultimately in on the bidding process.

It’s a blind process and on one hand its a bit disconcerting to not know, but on the other hand we don’t really care.  We got the player wanted for what we feel is a fair dollar amount that works for him and for us,” Huntington said.

If things work out with Kang, it certainly seems possible that he could displace someone in Pittsburgh’s current infield.  Huntington isn’t thinking that far ahead, however.

This move was made to make us a better team. You can never have enough good players, You can never have enough quality major league players, especially ones that have versatility and can do it from the left side.  There’s no set script [that says] if he becomes a good player, we’re going to trade player X or player Y. If things go well, we’re going to have a very talented and deep position player group,” the GM explained.

In an interesting twist, Kang’s Nexen team will be training in Arizona this spring.  The Bucs will allow the infielder to work out with his former squad before flying across the country to meet them in Florida.


NL Central Notes: Martin, Huntington, Brewers, Cubs

As a former player, Dodgers manager Don Mattingly can relate to what Cubs prospects Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara are going through, writes David Just of the Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s just a time factor with the young guys,” Mattingly said. “They can look good right away, and the next year they come out and it doesn’t look good. Or they can look kind of shaky and figure a lot of it out. So time is going to tell.” As a youngster, Mattingly got off to a slow start with the Yankees, hitting .278 with a .326 on-base percentage in his first 98 games during the 1982 and ’83 seasons. He then led the American League in hits, doubles, and batting average in 1984.

Here’s the latest from the NL Central:

  • Pirates GM Neal Huntington says re-signing catcher Russell Martin is a priority for the franchise, tweets Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We are going to try to do everything we can to keep Russ,” said Huntington. “We’d love nothing more than to have (Martin) in a Pirates uniform.
  • Huntington, however, reiterated the Pirates will not veer from their financial philosophy. “We’re going to continue to have to pay guys for what we believe they’re going to do, and not what they’ve done,” said Huntington (as quoted by MLB.com’s Stephen Pianovich). “The bigger markets certainly have luxury to be able to extend much beyond comfort levels to pay an extra year or two, to pave over prior mistakes with more money.
  • Brewers GM Doug Melvin does not “think there’s a need to go out and try to get another starter” and will instead focus on offense this offseason, reports MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy. The Brewers are all but certain to pick up the $13MM option on Yovani Gallardo, McCalvy opines.
  • The Brewers‘ biggest offseason decisions will be the infield corners and whether to exercise Gallardo’s option, according to Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in a recent chat. The Brewers will consider both internal and external options at first base, but Haudricourt notes finding productive first basemen is easier said than done.
  • In a separate piece, Haudricourt writes Rickie Weeks is nearing the end of his tenure with the Brewers (his $11.5MM option isn’t expected to be exercised), but the team’s senior member in terms of service time is not thinking about 2015. “I’ll worry about that when the time comes,” Weeks said. “I’m still with the Brewers right now. That’s the way I look at it.
  • What we’d really like is to have a bunch of really good baserunners,” is what Cubs manager Rick Renteria told reporters, including MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat, when asked about the club’s 2015 wish list.


NL Central Notes: Lackey, Brewers, Huntington

Here’s what’s happening around the NL Central…

  • John Lackey told reporters (including MLB.com’s Jen Langosch) that he will honor his contract and pitch in 2015 despite the fact that he’ll only earn a minimum salary.  The fact that Lackey was traded to the contending Cardinals played a factor in his decision: “Obviously, it was case by case.  It would have been a harder decision other places, for sure, but this is definitely somewhere I wanted to be, and I’m excited about it.”
  • The Brewers checked in on such names as the PadresJoaquin Benoit, the RockiesLaTroy Hawkins and the DiamondbacksAddison Reed and Brad Ziegler yet came up short in their hunt for a right-handed reliever, Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports (Twitter link).  Earlier today, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported that the Crew were one of the finalists to obtain a notable lefty reliever in Andrew Miller.
  • Pirates GM Neal Huntington discussed his team’s lack of trade activity, telling reporters (including MLB.com’s Tom Singer) that “we identified potential fits, wanted to add and worked hard to. At the end of the day, we weren’t able to push anything across the line….It was interesting, in that the majority of impact players went for Major League talent instead of teams trying to grab the best prospects they can, as has been the case in recent years.”  Since Pittsburgh was connected to Jon Lester and David Price, Singer speculates that Huntington was perhaps willing to move young prospects for these aces but couldn’t outbid the A’s and Tigers’ respective offers, both of which included established players.

NL Central Notes: Reds, Cardinals, Brewers, Pirates

The National League Central saw a change atop its leaderboard as the Brewers fell out of first place for the first time since April 5 after a 5-4 walk-off loss to the Nationals. It could be temporary pending the outcome of the Cardinals’ game with the Dodgers tonight. Here’s the latest from the NL Central:

  • Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty has several of his inner-circle baseball operations people on the road with him and is eyeing some additions, but that doesn’t mean anything will happen this month. “I’d like to add a bat,” Jocketty said, according to MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon. “We just haven’t found anything that attracts us yet. It may not happen before the 31st.”  Jocketty went on to say if the Reds acquire a bat, the preference would be for the player to play multiple positions.
  • With Brandon Phillips on the disabled list, the Reds GM was asked about pursuing the recently released Dan Uggla. “We haven’t discussed that yet,” Jocketty said (as quoted by John Fay of the Cincinnati Enquirer). “I haven’t talked to our scouts that saw him. I don’t know. We’re going to meet tomorrow and go over some stuff.
  • In a chat with Jim Bowden of SiriusXM (via Twitter), Jocketty made it clear he’d like to acquire a middle of the order bat he could put into the Reds‘ lineup right away, not an injury risk type player.  When asked about Rays‘ second baseman Ben Zobrist (link), Jocketty said, “That’s a good name. That’s all I’ll say.”
  • The Reds have interest in the Phillies‘ Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo, reports CSNPhilly.com’s Jim Salisbury.
  • The Cardinals‘ top Trade Deadline priority should be starting pitching and not a replacement for the injured Yadier Molina, according to Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
  • The Cardinals‘ due diligence with David Price is reminiscent of their pursuit of Matt Holliday in 2009, tweets Strauss’ colleague at the P-D, Derrick Goold (Twitter links).
  • Brewers GM Doug Melvin has downplayed the prospects of making a major deal before the Trade Deadline citing the lack of playing time for a bat and the limited impact a reliever can have because of the few innings they pitch, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Haudricourt.
  • Pirates GM Neal Huntington told reporters, including Karen Price of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the ask is still high on the trade market, but the club has the payroll flexibility to make a move. “It’s the basic law of supply and demand,” Huntington said. “There’s not a lot of teams that are looking to sell, and there are a lot of teams looking to buy. There’s not a ton of players out there who are significant upgrades. There are some guys you think can be, so as a result asking prices higher than you’d like. It’s a balance of what do you give up for projected current wins for projected future wins.

Zach Links contributed to this post.


Draft Notes: Astros, Huntington, Rodon

We’re under two weeks away from the first round of the 2014 amateur draft, which kicks off on June 5.  Here’s a collection of draft-related info…

  • No one knows what the Astros are going to do with the first pick,” an executive from a team with a top-six draft pick tells Peter Gammons.  Another rival executive feels Houston may not take Carlos Rodon first since “many of the Astros people believe that picking a pitcher at the top is a gamble because of the historical predictability of pitchers.” (Though of course, the ‘Stros took Mark Appel last year).  The exec feels the Astros are “looking…closely” at high school outfielder Alex Jackson, and if Houston passes on Jackson, the Marlins also like him a lot as the potential second overall pick.  Miami is favored to draft a hitter due to the number of pitching prospects in their system but “they love [Tyler] Kolek and it would be hard to pass on Rodon,” Gammons writes.
  • Also from Gammons’ wide-ranging column, he polls executives about which teams had the best drafts of the last decade, and also muses about there would be much more casual fan interest in the draft if picks could be traded.
  • Pirates GM Neal Huntington feels that a deep selection of talent is available, write Charlie Wilmoth and David Manel of Bucs Dugout. Huntington also addresses the pressure to select local players and how the Bucs are adjusting to picking near the end of the first round rather than with an early selection.
  • If Rodon does go first overall, it doesn’t seem like the Astros would give him a record bonus simply because of how the draft’s rules have changed, Baseball America’s John Manuel writes.  Scott Boras (Rodon’s adviser) argues that MLB should alter the draft format since the current rules hurt teams at the Major League level; the agent suggests such changes as not subjecting first-round contracts to the salary allotment cap or not taking away a team’s first round pick for signing free agents.

Pirates Extend Neal Huntington, Clint Hurdle

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The Pirates have announced that they've extended the contracts of general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle for three years each through 2017, with club options for 2018. Huntington and Hurdle had both been under contract through 2014, with team options for 2015. With Huntington and Hurdle's deals done, the Pirates are currently working on contracts for assistant GMs and coaches, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tweets.

"Neal and Clint have led a team of baseball professionals, in the front office and on the field, that has transformed the Pittsburgh Pirates into a club that again must be reckoned with in the National League," says team president Frank Coonelly. "We are extremely pleased that they will continue to lead this team in Pittsburgh."

Prior to 2013, the Pirates had five straight losing seasons under Huntington and two straight under Hurdle, who was hired prior to the 2011 season. (Huntington inherited a poor big-league team and farm system upon taking the Pirates' GM job in 2007, so the losing in the first several seasons was not primarily his fault.) The team endured second-half collapses in both the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

In 2013, however, Huntington and Hurdle led the Pirates to their first winning season and playoff berth since 1992, as the team won 94 games and beat the Reds in the NL Wild Card game before falling to the Cardinals in the NLCS. Huntington's offseason acquisitions of Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano and Mark Melancon were crucial to the Pirates' success. Hurdle led a shift-heavy defensive strategy that was a key component of the Pirates' surprising season, and he took the 2013 National League Manager of the Year award for his efforts.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.


NL Notes: Niese, D’backs, Pirates, Marlins, Dodgers

Mets left-hander Jon Niese was removed from his start today after only two innings and 35 pitches with what the club calls left elbow discomfort. Niese had been wearing a neoprene sleve on his left arm the past few days, tweets Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News. "It's the Spring Training from hell," Niese told reporters (as quoted by ESPNNewYork.com's Adam Rubin). Niese also said he hyperextended the elbow, which first flared up during an intrasquad game 10 days ago, and has been taking anti-inflammatory medication and undergoing rehab since. Niese added the discomfort is in the back of the elbow, not in the ligament area (the focus of Tommy John surgery). The Mets are flying the 27-year-old to New York tonight with a MRI, his second in less than three weeks, scheduled for tomorrow, tweets Marc Carig of Newsday

Elsewhere in the National League:


Huntington On Free Agency, Burnett, First Base

In a Q&A yesterday with several bloggers, including Charlie Wilmoth of Bucs Dugout (and, of course, MLBTR), Pirates GM Neal Huntington tackled a series of transactional issues. You'll want to give a read to Charlie's writeup to get the full picture, but here are some key takeaways:

  • Huntington addressed previous comments in which he reportedly said if A.J. Burnett "or others want a market-value deal, they'll sign elsewhere." He did not deny the quote, but said it did not capture what he meant to convey. "What I certainly intended was that top-tier free agents, if they're looking for top-tier dollars, they're going to play somewhere else," said Huntington. "And that's not just Pittsburgh. That's probably half to maybe two-thirds of the markets in baseball." Huntington pointed to last year's signing of Russell Martin as an instance of the franchise topping the market for a player it valued highly; "so, it's not that we won't pay market value when it's appropriate."
  • Huntington added for the "right player, right contract, we'll absolutely go three years. We can go to four years if we need to. But it's got to be the right player for the right contract. It's just the margin for error is a little easier with some of the bigger-market clubs."
  • Burnett is still an option for the Pirates. "We're working to be as patient as we can with A.J.," Huntington said. "A.J. would be our biggest free-agent acquisition if he chooses to come back, so we've tried to keep that door open as long as we can."
  • Huntington denied the signing of Edinson Volquez will affect the team's pursuit of Burnett. "If A.J. decides to come back and we can make it work, we'll figure something out."
  • Huntington said there is a reason why the Pirates haven't been linked to many free agents. "We don't promote what we're doing. I don't call this reporter and say, 'Can you get our name in this mix?' We don't want some people to know what we're doing. We like to work in the background. I like nothing more than to surprise some people with a move, because we don't need to announce what we're doing."
  • Huntington said the front office hasn't been on the sidelines and is working hard, but admits, as compared to last offseason, he hasn't "felt this huge sense of urgency." Filling the Pirates' need at first base is a prime example. "The first base market is evolving. There's some guys that have gone off the board that we liked, but not for a cost that we felt was appropriate for us."

Edward Creech contributed to this post.


Pirates Succeeding Through Calculated Risks

After 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates' record now sits at 84-61 — one game out of first place in the NL Central and a near lock to make the postseason. Their drastic turnaround can be attributed to a number of different factors; Starling Marte's breakout season and the continued development of former first-round picks Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez have certainly played large roles. There may be no bigger factor, however, than the shrewd moves and calculated offseason risks made by general manager Neal Huntington and his staff.Liriano-Martin

The Pirates opened the season with a payroll just north of $66MM, making the franchise-record $17MM they gave to Russell Martin on a two-year deal a greater risk than it would be to most other teams, Huntington told MLBTR:

"As a small market team, any time those type of dollars are to be committed, there is some hesitation as our margin for error is much smaller than that of the large markets. That said, we felt catcher was the spot we could make the biggest impact on our club. We aggressively targeted Martin because of his defensive package, his attitude and energy and we believed he would have a better offensive season as well. We believed Russ could have the largest impact on the Pirates of any realistically attainable player on the free agent market."

Indeed, Martin's impact has been tremendous on both sides of the game. The 30-year-old is hitting .236/.340/.387 with 13 homers, nine steals and a robust 42 percent success rate in throwing out potential base stealers. He's earning just $6.5MM in 2013 but has already been worth more than four wins above replacement due to his on-base skills, solid pop and strong defense.

Martin was paired with a familiar face upon coming to Pittsburgh — that of his former Yankee teammate A.J. Burnett. Following a pair of disappointing seasons in New York in 2010-11, the Pirates acquired Burnett in exchange for a pair of marginal prospects (Exicardo Cayones and Diego Moreno). The Yankees agreed to pay $20MM of his remaining $33MM salary to faciliate that deal.

One year later, Huntington and his team made another buy-low move by bringing in Francisco Liriano on what was originally a two-year, $12.75MM deal. A broken right (non-throwing) arm stalled that deal, but Huntington and Liriano's agent Greg Genske worked out a new contract that gave Liriano the opportunity to earn the entire $12.75MM via incentives but protected the Pirates in the event that he had to miss significant time due to the injury (Liriano has since had an option vest at $6MM for 2014).

"Despite their relative struggles, our scouts saw a plus pitch package in [Liriano and Burnett]," Huntington explained. "Metrically there were positive indicators for both. Anecdotally we felt there were some factors that would also lead to improved production in Pittsburgh. Overall we liked the upside of both pitchers if all things came together and still felt the risk of the downside was worth the investment."

The reward has been outstanding for both. In 371 1/3 innings as a Pirate, Burnett has a 3.49 ERA with 8.8 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9. He's been worth more than five WAR in his tenure with the Bucs — a significant upgrade from his time with the Yankees despite the fact that he's thrown 200 fewer innings.

As for Liriano, in 142 innings since joining the Bucs, he's posted a 2.92 ERA with 9.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9 and a 50.8 perecent ground-ball rate. His contract was perhaps the biggest bargain of any free agent signing by any team this offseason, as he's on pace for about four WAR but will likely end up earning just $3.125MM this season, most of which has come via incentives. "Each pitcher deserves a ton of credit for their respective bounce backs but our pitching coaches, catchers and other staff have helped each guy as well," said Huntington regarding his hurlers.

However, the Pirates may never have been able to realistically pursue Liriano were it not for another series of moves. Firstly, they were able to re-sign Jason Grilli to a below-market two-year, $6.75MM contract. Grilli has missed some time on the disabled list this season, but when healthy, he's been one of baseball's best relievers. Grilli ranks third among relievers in K/9 and second in FIP. He also ranks seventh in xFIP, K/BB ratio and swinging-strike rate.

Grilli's signing gave them another power arm at the back of the bullpen to pair with former closer Joel Hanrahan. Or so it seemed. "After we were able to re-sign Grilli, we were prepared to have Hanrahan and Grilli at the backend of our bullpen for 2014," Huntington explained. "We also recognized that we may be able to trade Joel for a package that we felt had a positive impact on the organization and re-allocate dollars to other areas of our Major League club."

In the end, that's precisely what happened. The Pirates traded Hanrahan and his $7MM salary to the Red Sox along with Brock Holt in exchange for Mark Melancon, Jerry Sands, Ivan De Jesus and Stolmy Pimentel.

"We had liked Melancon since his days with the Yankees and felt like he was a quality bounce-back candidate with multiple years of control," said Huntington. "When we felt we had a chance to get Melancon as part of the Hanrahan package, it allowed us to focus on where we could re-allocate the available dollars, and we began pursue starting pitching options which led us to Liriano."

Huntington went on to add that while Liriano's injury ultimately changed the situation, the team likely wouldn't have been able to pursue him in the first place without the additional funds from the Hanrahan trade. Bringing Liriano into the fold makes that trade a winning move on its own, but Melancon himself has been nothing short of a revelation. The man pegged by the Pirates as a bounce-back candidate ranks third in the Majors with a 1.12 ERA and fourth with a 1.71 FIP.

The Pirates sit with one of the best records in baseball despite opening the season with just a $66.8MM payroll. Only the Rays, Marlins, Athletics and Astros opened the season with a smaller financial commitment. Huntington and his staff successfully identified rebound candidates and bit the bullet on the largest free agent contract in franchise history for Martin, and in doing so they built a World Series contender. The 2013 Pirates are an excellent example for fans that lament their favorite teams' limited payrolls, and they serve as proof that there are many ways to build a winning roster.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.