Pirates GM Neal Huntington committed to his vision of how to build team

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CINCINNATI -- The visitor's clubhouse at Wrigley Field is about the size of a large college dorm room. A week ago, it smelled like one as well. One day after the Atlanta Braves celebrated clinching the National League East, with the carpet still damp from the Champagne showers, the Pirates came to town and that night secured a playoff spot.

Neal Huntington stood out of the way, or as out of the way as the small clubhouse allowed him. Minutes earlier, the Pirates general manager received his own dousing of Champagne at the hands of a player.

Asked what went through his head when the Washington Nationals lost that night, meaning the Pirates were on their way to the postseason for the first time in 21 years, Mr. Huntington said: "It's what we came here to do, is play meaningful games in September and playoff games in October. It's another step."

Mr. Huntington has spoken some variation of those words several times. They sound like a cliche. To Mr. Huntington, they represent a belief.

He has received heaps of abuse during his six years as Pirates GM. Some of it was deserved, some not. Through it, he has not wavered in his belief in what he was doing and what he was building. He is unassuming in public, driven and aggressive in private. He remains steadfast in his philosophies.

"I think it starts with, and obviously it comes from him, a vision for the organization, a vision for the club," assistant GM Greg Smith said. "I think taking that back to when we all came on here the fall of '07, the beginning of '08."

Less than a year ago, Pirates owner Bob Nutting said he considered firing Mr. Huntington and other members of the front office after the Pirates fell for the second consecutive year from playoff contention to a sub-.500 record. "We considered all kinds of alternatives," Mr. Nutting said in November.

Mr. Huntington has said he did not work differently to save his job. He acted aggressively this offseason because that is how he operates. "He is a relentless worker," manager Clint Hurdle said. First priority: catcher.

"We felt like the way to make up the most ground initially was to go find an available catcher who could cover both sides of the ball, who could add to what we already had in place from a pitching standpoint, who could help ramp up the control of the running game and still play a significant part on the offensive side of the ball," Mr. Hurdle said. "Those criteria fell right into the lap of how we identified Russell Martin."

After agreeing to a two-year, $17 million contract, Mr. Martin was a Pirate.

They did the same thing with left-hander Francisco Liriano, whom Mr. Hurdle identified as the Pirates' top pitching priority before this season. A supremely talented pitcher a few years removed from his best performances, he fit the type of player the Pirates often target.

Mr. Liriano made clear to his agent that he wanted a multi-year deal, and he said the Pirates were the only team to offer him one. They agreed to terms on two-year contract worth $12.75 million, but Mr. Liriano broke his non-pitching arm before taking his physical. The original deal fell apart.

"They were nice to me," said Mr. Liriano, who eventually signed a one-year deal containing a vesting option for 2014. "I know Neal had tough decisions to make when I broke my arm because he didn't know what was going to happen, whether I was going to pitch or not this year."

After the conclusion of the Ronny Cedeno era in Pittsburgh in 2011, the front office needed a new shortstop, quickly identified their target and went after him.

"I get a phone call from [Mr. Hurdle]," said Clint Barmes, who signed a two-year, $10.5 million contract before the 2012 season. "We want to bring a shortstop in, and you're our first pick."

The Pirates do not sign every player they set their minds to, but the two they added this season played a large role in their success. Despite not starting the season until May 11, Mr. Liriano struck out 163 batters in 161 innings and compiled a 3.02 ERA. Mr. Martin threw out more runners attempting to steal than anybody else in baseball and ranks ninth in the majors in defensive wins above replacement, a metric that quantifies overall defensive contribution.

The aggression filters down from Mr. Huntington throughout the organization.

"One of my goals is, I want to have the answers to the questions before he asks them," Mr. Smith said. "With him being aggressive and proactive, it even challenges [assistant GM] Kyle [Stark] and I to be more so, because I'm trying to be ahead of him."

As proactive as Mr. Huntington can be, he also stands his ground when he feels it necessary. Entering the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the Pirates were 64-42 and in first place. A third consecutive fade from contention after a promising first four months of the season would likely not be tolerated. It is hard to imagine a situation involving more pressure on a front office to make a move; opposing teams even seized on that narrative, using it to try to extract a higher return from the Pirates in trade negotiations.

Yet Mr. Huntington and the Pirates did nothing. "We were willing to do something stupid," Mr. Huntington said at the time. "We just didn't want to do something insane."

After the deadline, Mr. Huntington made two waiver trades, adding Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau for the stretch run.

When Mr. Huntington discusses decisions the Pirates make, he does so in terms of the short-term and long-term ramifications. That can frustrate some players, not to mention a fan base tired of waiting for competitive baseball, but he has not wavered. Mr. Huntington also defended his franchise, and his colleagues, from criticism regarding the Pirates' use of military-inspired training methods with players in the lower levels of the minor leagues.

"I've always believed in what we were doing, why we were doing it, how we were doing it and with whom I was doing it," Mr. Huntington said. "We knew that we were in for a challenge."

Not everything panned out for Mr. Huntington during his tenure. The experiments with Brandon Inge, Jose Contreras and Mike Zagurski did not work, nor did Jonathan Sanchez perform in the starting rotation. Some trades and acquisitions during the rebuilding years did not yield good results.

Most moves this season, including acquiring Mr. Liriano, Mr. Martin and setup man Mark Melancon, who came to the Pirates as part of a trade for Joel Hanrahan, worked. Mr. Huntington is quick to credit everyone else: his scouts, his player development staff, Mr. Hurdle.

Six years ago, before the free-agent signings that worked and the champagne shower and the playoff appearance, Mr. Huntington was a 38-year-old former special assistant to the GM for the Cleveland Indians who, for some reason, agreed to the task of trying to drag the Pirates out of baseball purgatory.

"I think there is a tremendous opportunity here with the Pittsburgh Pirates," Mr. Huntington said at his introductory news conference in 2007. "We're going to change the culture. We're going to change how we do things. Every one of our decisions will be a progressive process in bringing a winner back to Pittsburgh."

Six years later, the winner is back, and Mr. Huntington, as ever, has one eye turned toward the future.

"The sustaining is much harder than the building," he said Sunday. "Fasten your seatbelts."

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Bill Brink: bbrink@post-gazette.com. First Published September 30, 2013 4:00 AM


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