Neal Huntington Rumors

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.


NL Notes: Mets, Manuel, Wilson, Choo, Abreu

The Pirates' failure to sign Mark Appel with the eighth overall selection in the 2012 draft created a ripple effect where the Mets passed on free agent Michael Bourn and eventually gave playing time to rookie Juan Lagares, writes Joel Sherman of the New York Post. As compensation for not coming to terms with Appel, the Pirates were awarded the ninth overall pick in this past June's draft, knocking the Mets' choice (11th) out of the protected Top Ten. This was an important considersation for the Mets in deciding to not bid on Bourn, explains Sherman, who cites this as a pefect example of "sometimes the best moves are the ones you don't make." Here's news from other NL teams who aren't neccessarily going to follow that old adage:

  • Ex-Phillies manager Charlie Manuel told Jim Bowden and Jim Duquette of MLB Network Radio (via Bowden on Twitter) he wants to continue managing and is open to all opportunities, including the Nationals
  • In that same interview (also from a Bowden tweet), Manuel says the Phillies' plan is to "reload," not "rebuild," needing regular players to fill holes, including adding a starter, and redoing the bullpen. 
  • Speaking of the Phillies, little has changed with the radio silence regarding their agreement with Cuban right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, according to MLB.com's Todd Zolecki, who reported earlier this month the two sides have hit a snag in finalizing their six-year, $48MM deal.
  • Dodgers manager Don Mattingly told reporters, including Ken Gurnick of MLB.com, they will have a better idea at the end of today when Brian Wilson will be activated. GM Ned Colletti was a guest of Bowden and Duquette on MLB Network Radio and said the call should be made in "another day or two" (as quoted by Gurnick's colleague, Andrew Simon). Colletti also explained he signed Wilson because he only cost money, not prospects, and there's a familiarity with him from his days as the Giants' closer. "We think it's a very low-risk, high-reward situation," said Colletti. "He wanted to be here. He has a home in L.A. Rivalry and all that aside — we all know what that's all about — he wanted to restart his career and we're going to give him that opportunity here in the near future."
  • Four years and $60MM is the guess as to the asking price of Reds centerfielder Shin-Soo Choo in free agency this winter, tweets the Cincinnati Enquirer's John Fay. Choo placed fifth in MLBTR's most recent 2014 Free Agent Power Rankings.
  • The Pirates have scouted Cuban first baseman Jose Dariel Abreu in three recent international tournaments and will be on hand for his expected September showcase, reports Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "We like him," GM Neal Huntington said. "It will be interesting to see where the bidding goes." That bidding could exceed $60MM.

Central Notes: Peavy, Gallardo, K-Rod, Tigers, Pirates

The three most prominent starting pitcher trade candidates reside in baseball's Central divisions: Matt Garza (Cubs), Jake Peavy (White Sox), and Yovani Gallardo (Brewers). The latest on the Garza rumors can be found here while Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune reports at least a half dozen scouts, including ex-Cub GMs Jim Hendry (Yankees) and Ed Lynch (Blue Jays) were on hand to see Peavy's outing against the Braves last night. "There are a lot of eyes on me, period," Peavy said after allowing two earned runs on seven hits during his six-inning stint (96 pitches). "I was trying to win for (27,294 fans) who came to support us. Whatever the scouts see, they see. I love to play and I love to compete. I want to win, that's the bottom line." The bottom line with Gallardo, according to a tweet from ESPN's Jayson Stark, is not a lot of enthusiasm for what two executives called a "4-5 starter" despite tossing six and 1/3 shutout innings against the Marlins last night. Here's more from the Central:

  • The Tigers have made initial inquiries with the Padres about their relievers, sources tell FOXSports.com's Jon Paul Morosi (Twitter link). Morosi lists Huston Street and Luke Gregerson as possibilities. 
  • Both the Tigers and Red Sox are scouting Brewers' closer Francisco Rodriguez, tweets Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com.
  • The Pirates' biggest need is another bat but they are also exploring the pitching market and seeking a bench upgrade, tweets Jim Bowden of ESPN.com.
  • Pirates GM Neal Huntington told reporters, including the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Rob Biertempfel (Twitter link), "We know players we want and we know what we're willing to give up. We're willing to stretch lot on some guys, not so much others."
  • Huntington acknowledges he has the flexibility to add payroll "within reason," but would not elaborate, per a Biertempfel tweet.
  • The Pirates had lost three in a row and Huntington blamed their struggles on BABIP, tweets Michael Sanserino of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Pirates have also scuffled with runners in scoring position breaking an 0-for-29 drought with a pair of RBI singles this afternoon.
  • Brandon Phillips addressed the reaction to his recent comments in a Cincinnati Magazine article, which quoted him as saying the six-year, $72.5MM contract extension he signed with the Reds in 2012 was a "slap in the face" and that GM Walt Jocketty and owner Bob Castellini lied to him during the process. "Do I feel like they lied to me? If someone tells me they don’t have no money and you find $200 million somewhere, what does that sound like?" Phillips told C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer, referencing the ten-year, $225MM deal first baseman Joey Votto completed with the Reds about a week before his own deal was announced. "I’m very happy for Joey, don’t get me wrong," the second baseman added. "It was basically, if you think about it, I was saying I thought I wasn’t going to be a Cincinnati Red … if y’all want to take that to the negative way, be my guest, that doesn’t bother me."
  • While there has been a great deal of speculation about Justin Morneau and other Twins, rival executives haven’t sensed a big push from Minnesota to make deals, according to Buster Olney of ESPN.com (via Twitter).

Edward Creech contributed to this post.


Huntington Talks Trade Deadline, First-Half Success

The Pirates have won three in a row entering play this afternoon and, at 56-36, are tied with the Cardinals for first place in the NL Central and the best winning percentage in all of baseball.  Before today's game with the Mets, GM Neal Huntington met with the media, including MLB.com's Tom Singer (all Twitter links).

  • "Experience of last two Julys won't affect what we do, or don't do, this Trade Deadline," Huntington said. The Pirates suffered second-half collaspes and finished with a losing record the past two seasons despite acquiring Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee before the July 31st deadline in 2011 and Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, and Chad Qualls prior to last year's deadline (per MLBTR's Transaction Tracker).
  • Given the post-All Star break failures of the last two years, Huntington isn't getting too excited by the Pirates being tied with the Cardinals for the most wins in the NL. "They don't give out half-season awards. You always stay hungry."
  • Entering Saturday, the Pirates ranked 25th in MLB with 3.84 runs per game and a big reason is they are batting only .232 with runners in scoring position, including a .219 mark with two outs. Huntington acknowledges, "we have weaknesses. What we don't have are desperate weaknesses."