Neal Huntington Rumors

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."

Nutting: Pirates Must Take Step Forward

The Pirates extended general manager Neal Huntington following the 2011 season and extended manager Clint Hurdle this week. Despite those moves, Huntington and Hurdle face pressure from above, Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com reports. Owner Bob Nutting said the organization’s decision makers expect to win and that the franchise “must take a step forward." 

"The idea that an extension is somehow a free pass is exactly the message I would not want to send, and not the message Clint heard,” Nutting said. “We've shown we're willing to make a change if we need to, irrespective of the contract terms."

Nutting said the Pirates aim to win the World Series, but declined to clarify what a step forward would look like in further detail. Ending the franchise’s 20-year streak of losing seasons isn’t a goal in itself and would be "an inappropriate target" in Nutting’s view.

The Pirates came close to ending their streak of losing seasons in 2012, but finished with a 79-83 record. Huntington added Russell Martin, Jeff Karstens, Jason Grilli, Francisco Liriano and Jonathan Sanchez this offseason.


Pirates Will Not Make Any Front Office Changes

Despite embarrassing reports of military-style training programs for the team's prospects, Pirates owner Bob Nutting told Dejan Kovacevic of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that the team will not make any front office changes. President Frank Coonelly, GM Neal Huntington, and assistant GMs Kyle Stark and Greg Smith will all return.

“What we have been doing and what we’ll continue to do is a comprehensive review,” said Nutting. “But that is not a two-week or a four-week process. That is one that is going to continue as we evaluate every aspect of the organization. Because we need to get better.”

Nutting conducted an internal investigation into the club's developmental practices and stressed that he was not done, but he did acknowledge that this was not the right time to make a change. “I believe that our primary responsibility is to develop baseball players to play baseball and win championships at PNC Park … We are not and we should not be a military organization," he added, while also saying the training methods will stop immediately.

The Pirates came under heavy scrutiny when Kovacevic published a pair of reports in recent weeks detailing the team's training regimens. Top prospects Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco reportedly suffered minor injuries during the incidents. The Pirates had their best record since 1997 under Huntington this year, but a second-half collapse prevented the team from breaking the .500 barrier. He was hired as GM following the 2007 season.


Coonelly: No Changes Coming For Pirates

Pirates GM Neal Huntington and his front office staff have come under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks, as his club is mired in a second straight second half collapse that has them poised for a 20th consecutive losing season. Despite that, team president Frank Coonelly issued a statement endorsing Huntington and his staff on Wednesday. Here is the text, courtesy of Karen Price of The Pittsburgh Tribune Review:

“As soon as we finish this season as well as we possibly can, we will turn our full and total attention to evaluating why were unable to finish the job and what we must do differently to take the next step to becoming a championship team. There will unquestionably be changes made to the way in which we operate as a result of this thorough critical self-evaluation, but we will not be making personnel changes at the very top of our baseball operations department. Neal, [assistant GM Kyle Stark], [assistant GM Greg Smith] and [manager Clint Hurdle] are dedicated and intelligent baseball men in whom I have great confidence.

“Confidence in and support of Neal, Kyle and Greg should not be misunderstood with acceptance of another poor finish at the Major League level. We must understand why the quality of our execution and play deteriorated so markedly in August. Finishing was the focus from spring training but it certainly was not achieved.”

Last week we learned about a military-style training program implemented by Huntington and Stark for the club's top prospects. Few around the game will be surprised if the front office is overhauled, but Coonelly's statement suggests that the current regime will be given a chance to reap the rewards of a strong farm system that includes top pitching prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon.

Huntington has been at the helm in Pittsburgh since the end of the 2007 season. The club has gone 330-561 under his watch with four last place finishes in five full years. Baseball America ranked the Pirates' farm system as the 26th best in baseball when Huntington was hired, and this past winter they had climbed to 11th. Five years is generally considered enough time to evaluate a rebuild though, and patience in the Steel City has certainly begun to wear thin.


Huntington Talks Front Office Changes, Pirates’ Slump

Before the Pirates broke their five-game losing streak in Houston this afternoon for only their eighth win in their previous 31 games, GM Neal Huntington sat down with reporters, including Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

  • Amid a growing clamor that Huntington's job is no longer secure, news broke this week about the Pirates holding military drills for their prospects. Huntington, however, downplayed the need for Owner Bob Nutting and/or President Frank Coonelly to make any changes to the front office, "If Bob or Frank decide to make a change and bring in a new general manager, that's their call. I sure hope they don't. I believe in the people I'm working with, I believe in what we're doing and how we're doing it. I don't see making a change at any leadership position at this point in time. I believe in their leadership, character and ability. Winning masks a lot of not-so-good things. Losing masks a lot of very good things."
  • Assistant GM Kyle Stark, the architect of the military drill idea, was defended by Huntington. "Kyle Stark is a tremendous front-office executive — intelligence, character, abilities. When you're a leader and you're willing to have a tough conversation, you tend to have people who may not always like you. That's what we're dealing with right now."
  • Huntington also tried to put Stark's email (full text provided by Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review) about the drills into context, "The impact Kyle has had on our overall development (of players) because of his desire to learn the whole person is remarkable. Out of context is a dangerously abused term in our industry. But when you take one email and try to paint the whole man or our development system, it's inaccurate. That terminology was used to connect with 18- to 25-year-olds. They don't want to hear about 'cohesiveness' or 'team-building' or 'preparation.' But when you use the terminology that grabs them … We're not trying to create Boy Scouts, native American warriors, Hell's Angels or hippies. We're trying to get (players) to think like that. We're using images and metaphors to connect a message.
  • The Pirates are also dealing with their second consecutive second-half slump that has seen them win as many games as the the 50-win Astros since August 15. Huntington gave his theory for this year's collapse, "As we've tried to evaluate metrically how we've gotten here, you look at the numbers and we weren't supposed to be 16 games over .500. We should have been closer to eight (games), which is still progress. What's happened since Aug. 1, batting averages on balls in play have plummeted for our hitters and increased for our pitchers, especially with runners in scoring position. It doesn't mean it's bad luck, but … yes, it means it's bad luck. There is a double-edged sword in that we've done some things to not play well and we've had some things go against us. Is the last six weeks the way we envisioned our season? Absolutely not. Every team has tough stretches; ours, unfortunately, has been longer and late (in the season)."
  • Huntington also blamed the team's struggles on players trying to do too much, according to MLB.com's Tom Singer. Said Huntington, "We define players in one of three categories, and one of them is 'survivor.' A survivor is someone who cares about surviving, about staying in the big leagues. We've had some guys fall back into survivor mode these last two months. It isn't a selfish mindset, so to speak. But you see men on first-and-second and nobody out, and instead of making sure to get the runner over, you try to hit a three-run homer. It's well-intended, but when you get outside of your game and try to do too much — the age-old excuse — you start to get yourself in trouble.

Pirates Notes: Huntington, Stark, Taillon

The Pirates fell below .500 when they lost to the Brewers last night, but that’s not why the team is making headlines today. Details surrounding some unusual player development practices have surfaced, generating surprise and criticism. Here are the details:

  • Pirates prospects spent this past weekend in Florida performing military drills directed by former Navy SEALS, Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports. General manager Neal Huntington and assistant GM Kyle Stark implemented the program, which started at 5 am daily and included running along the beach with a telephone pole, flipping truck tires, and diving into sand piles. Earlier in the year Stark emailed his players, encouraging them to “Dream and be creative like a Hippie. Have the discipline and perseverance of a Boy Scout. Be crazy and take risks like the Hells Angels.”
  • Kovacevic calls the Pirates' actions inexplicable and indefensible.
  • Players dreaded the activities and team officials feared them, Yahoo's Jeff Passan reports. MLB executives expressed skepticism about the program’s effectiveness. "I didn't like it,” one person told Passan. “Nobody did. They don't know what they're doing."
  • Top prospect Jameson Taillon once suffered a non-serious knee injury during the program’s hand-to-hand combat component, Passan reports.
  • “Whispers are becoming louder” that Huntington’s job status isn’t completely secure, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reports. However, an ownership source told Heyman the Pirates’ upper management really seems to like manager Clint Hurdle.

NL Notes: Strasburg, Carpenter, Pirates

The first Sunday of the new NFL season has not gone unnoticed by MLB players. The Cubs are celebrating by wearing a NFL jersey of their choice on their flight from Pittsburgh to Houston tonight, reports Doug Padilla of ESPNChicago.com. But, like their season, the idea wasn't without its pitfalls. While Floridian Anthony Rizzo (Dolphins), Baltimore native Steve Clevenger (Ravens), and Virginian Shawn Camp (Redskins) came prepared, others were left to the mercy of jersey shopping in Pittsburgh. So, newly acquired Jason Berken, a Packers season-ticker holder, had to settle for a Steelers jersey. Enough of the gridiron and back to the diamond:

  • The Stephen Strasburg shutdown will test all of Nationals' intangibles: its confidence, cohesion, and just plain stubbornness, writes Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post
  • Jake Westbrook will miss his next start for the Cardinals with a right oblique injury. MLB.com's Jennifer Langosch reports Chris Carpenter is a possibility to replace Westbrook on Thursday. Carpenter, who has yet to pitch this year after undergoing surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome in his right shoulder, is set to throw a simulatated game tomorrow, but Langosch says the team could switch the schedule should they want Carpenter to step in immediately.
  • The Pirates are still developing their offseason plans for Gerrit Cole, the first overall selection in the 2011 draft, according to Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (via Sulia). "We've got to spend some time with him and see where we can place him," Biertempfel quoted GM Neal Huntington as saying. Cole was roughed up in his final Triple-A start (eight runs in just two innings), but Huntingon was philosophical, "The biggest lesson is, Triple-A (batters) can hit 100 mph (pitches). If you keep coming with 100 mph, they're going to keep hitting it. You've got to use all your pitches. Things snowballed on him, things got a little quick for him. He's going to be better for it.