Almost three years into Neal Huntington's tenure as general manager, the Pirates find themselves in last place in the N.L. Central, 18 games below .500 and with a ratio of runs scored to runs allowed that suggests they might be the worst team in all baseball. One of their top starting pitchers (Charlie Morton) was recently sent to the disabled list after compiling a 1-9 record and a 9.35 ERA; their second baseman (Akinori Iwamura) reported to camp out of shape and recently lost his job after posting a miserable .177 batting average in 53 games; their left fielder (Lastings Milledge) has yet to hit a home run.
All is not well for the Pirates, and Huntington deserves some of the blame. After all, it was he who acquired Morton, Iwamura and Milledge. And yet Huntington, whose contract expires after the season, should be signed to an extension.
The Pirates team Huntington inherited in 2007 was in far worse shape than most fans realize. True, there was a core of passable players in the majors, but that core repeatedly failed to top 70 wins in a season, and players who are passable, as opposed to truly good, are only so valuable. Worse, many of them (such as Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Adam LaRoche) were approaching free agency after the 2009 season, and most were entering their thirties, by which point most players are getting worse. And on top of that, the Bucs' farm system was among the worst of any club after years of neglect in the draft and Latin America. There simply was no chance that the Pirates could have had a good team in 2010; previous general manager Dave Littlefield sealed that deal years ago.
In the summer of 2009, Huntington began shipping off most of the Bucs' veterans in favor of younger players. This is where Huntington gets into trouble with a lot of the Pirates' fans, because these younger players have been underwhelming, to say the least. Milledge and Andy LaRoche have been disappointing, and Morton, Jeff Clement and Brandon Moss have been outright awful.
Focusing on these trades misses the point, however. Teams in the position the Pirates were in back in 2007 will rarely get overwhelming returns when trading their veterans, because the reason those teams were so bad in the first place is that those veterans weren't good enough. On top of that, in the past decade, more and more teams have gotten better at valuing their own prospects properly, and thus are unwilling to part with a top prospect for anything less than an elite major leaguer.
In fact, if we look at people who have been in Huntington's shoes--new general managers of horrible teams without big payrolls--we see that the successful ones usually have traded veteran players to make way for youngsters, just as Huntington did, and those trades have rarely amounted to much. For example, Andrew Friedman took over the Rays in 2005 and traded veterans like Danys Baez, Lance Carter, Julio Lugo, Toby Hall, Mark Hendrickson and Aubrey Huff. He scored a major coup by getting Ben Zobrist in return for Huff, but the other players brought back nothing that helped the franchise much. The Rays appeared to be in disarray in 2007, after those trades, but they regrouped nicely and won the American League pennant in 2008 thanks largely to talent they had accumulated through the draft.
The Brewers' story is much the same. They were dreadful in the early part of the last decade, and new GM Doug Melvin traded veterans like Ray King, Eric Young, and Mike DeJean for next to nothing. Instead, Melvin built the core of Milwaukee's 2007 playoff team (including stars like Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun) through the draft.
For any franchise, the path from misery to contention will be a winding one, and both the Rays and the Brewers did make trades of veterans that turned out to be important, like the aforementioned Huff-for-Zobrist deal and the Brewers trade that sent Richie Sexson to the Diamondbacks for a package that included Lyle Overbay. But the same will probably turn out to be true of Huntington as well, who has Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf and several interesting minor leaguers who could still make many of his trades look good even if Morton, Clement, Milledge and LaRoche don't turn it around.
And, more importantly, the fact remains that in most cases, most of the work of transforming a moribund franchise is done in the draft and in Latin America. Major league players are relatively cheap for their first six years before they are eligible to become free agents, and while the Pirates should certainly start to spend much more as soon as doing so will legitimately help them contend, they will never compete with the payrolls of large-market teams like the Yankees. So the only way a team like the Pirates, Rays or Brewers can reliably contend is with younger, cost-controlled players, who are mostly acquired in the draft and in Latin America.
In the draft, Huntington deserves excellent marks so far. Unfortunately, it will take several more years for those drafts to pay dividends at the big-league level. This is where Huntington's situation diverges from that of, for example, the Rays, who had a number of good young players even before Friedman arrived to build them into a team. Huntington has mostly had to build the Pirates' farm system from the ground up.
Yesterday, Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' top pick in the 2008 draft, was promoted to the big leagues. He is the first in what should be a slew of productive big leaguers drafted and developed by Huntington. The Pirates spent more in the 2008 and 2009 drafts combined than any other team, and many of the players drafted are now playing at Class A. Their high Class A team in Bradenton has already drawn plenty of attention this year thanks to the contributions of Huntington draftees like Tony Sanchez and Brock Holt (and Huntington trade acquisitions like Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke and Nathan Adcock). The Bucs' Class A rookie team in State College, which starts its season on Friday, should be particularly fun to follow, as it will likely feature a number of big-bonus pitchers, including Zack Von Rosenberg, Zack Dodson and Brooks Pounders.
The Pirates' 2010 draft continued in the same vein, and the Bucs might well end up setting a record for the most spent by a team on one draft if they end up signing their first two draft picks, fireballing high school pitchers Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, both of whom should command huge bonuses. A number of their later-round picks will want big money as well. Bucs Dugout writer Vlad has an excellent post on guys to keep your eye on. The Bucs won't sign all of them, but if they sign Taillon, Allie and a handful of their lower-tier draftees, they're going to pull off a high-upside draft that will cost a small fortune. For the fans, this is a great thing, even if we'll have to keep waiting to see results at the big-league level.
Huntington hasn't been nearly as splashy in Latin America, and this is one area where he needs to do more, even though he has taken the region far more seriously than his predecessor did. Last summer, the Pirates were serious players for Miguel Sano, perhaps the best Latin American prospect available, but they ultimately failed to sign him. That Sano ultimately signed with the Twins rather than the Pirates might say more about Sano's agent than it says about the Pirates' willingness to pay Sano, but nonetheless, the Pirates lost out, and they also didn't sign any of the numerous Latin American players who have won seven-figure bonuses in the past year. Instead, they have focused on signing lots of players to smaller bonuses. It remains to be seen how successful this strategy will be.
Nonetheless, drafting is such an incredibly critical component of small-market success that Huntington deserves more time. The results of Huntington's tenure with the Pirates have been mixed so far, but he deserves credit for stockpiling prospects. This isn't the sort of thing that will win over casual fans, who mostly just want to win now. But Huntington was in a difficult situation from the start, because there was no way to turn the 68-win team he inherited in 2007--with its aging core of players who could become free agents just two years later--into a winner by 2010. He was right to sell off his veterans while he could still get something for them, even if he couldn't get a whole lot. That so many of the players Huntington acquired in trades have struggled so far is unfortunate, but you get what you pay for, and the Pirates ultimately didn't pay much.
Clearly, some skepticism about Huntington is justified, but he shouldn't be judged solely, or even primarily, by the quality of his trades so far. The longer-term view shows that his plan of building from within is the only plan that can work for a team like the Pirates, and his strong drafting so far suggests that it actually might. It's far from certain, and there are many questions about Huntington that remain unanswered, but he has been a much better general manager than the current major-league results suggest.