Pirates fans celebrate on the top of the outfield rotunda in a June 28 game against the Brewers at PNC Park.
By Ron Cook Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington insists he isn't tempted. He swears he has no desire to grab a microphone, climb to the top of the PNC Park mound and scream to the world, "Look at me now!" It doesn't matter that Huntington's team, finally, looks as if it could be a big winner this season, his sixth on the job. So what if the Pirates are 56-37 heading into the second half? Huntington says he won't gloat. That goes beyond the obvious, that much baseball remains to be played, 69 games beginning with one tonight in Cincinnati against the Reds. "They don't celebrate half-seasons," Huntington said. But there is more to it than that. Huntington knows he can be regarded as an idiot again real soon. "No question. I know how quickly that can happen."
Huntington is under tremendous pressure as the trade deadline approaches at the end of the month. Does he do nothing and stick with a team that has been surprisingly successful? Does he try to make it better by adding a starting pitcher, a bat, even a bench player? Does he give up a big part of the franchise's future by trading a top prospect to make a major acquisition -- maybe a high-priced rental player -- and take an all-in shot at a championship this season?
Easy questions to ask.
Hard questions to answer.
"We've got to be open-minded to anything," Huntington said.
The guess here is Huntington will make a move or two but not a major trade. He acknowledged, "This is a club we believe in ... Today really means a lot." But he said he isn't inclined to "sell out for the present" unless a trade really makes sense. It seems unlikely he will deal any of his top prospects, notably pitcher Jameson Taillon, outfielder Gregory Polanco and shortstop Alen Hanson.
"The organizations that sustain success have three-quarters of their eye on the moderate-to-long-term future and one-quarter of their eye on the present," Huntington said. "There are no exact percentages for that and there is no perfect model, but successful organizations always are cognizant of the future. It's my job to make sure this isn't a one-and-done situation."
I've blamed Huntington for just about everything during the past five years, but I have a hard time blaming him for that strategy.
It makes perfect sense.
The team Huntington has built might be good enough -- as is -- to win the National League Central Division or at least get a wild-card spot. The pitching staff has been the best in baseball and shouldn't fold the way it did last season. Huntington's offseason moves to bring in Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazzaro have turned out to be wonderful, trumping his unsuccessful decisions to sign Jonathan Sanchez and Jose Contreras and give a new contract to Jeff Karstens. Pitching and defense can carry a team a long way, even a team that often is light on offense.
"It's not that we don't have any weaknesses, but we feel like we don't have any desperate weaknesses," Huntington said.
That won't stop Huntington from working the phones. There's no time to enjoy that terrific record, although he said he does try "to celebrate the small successes along the way." Certainly, there is no time to snipe back at his many critics, who have ripped him for everything from his trades and acquisitions to the way the organization develops its young players. Remember the hysteria over his use of Navy SEALs training last fall?
"I'm just thrilled for the fans and the people I work with," Huntington said.
Huntington signed a three-year contract extension in September 2011 with a club option for 2015. There was no guarantee he would last after the Pirates collapsed last season, finishing 16-36 after being 63-47 Aug. 9. General managers in a lot of cities don't get a sixth year. But owner Bob Nutting stuck with Huntington. Today, at least, Nutting looks pretty smart.
"Do I feel fortunate? I feel fortunate that they gave me this opportunity in the first place," Huntington said. "In terms of self-doubt, I believe in the people I work with and the way we do things. I'm a process-creates-results guy. I believe in our process ...
"We wanted to win in Year 3 and Year 4 and Year 5. But it's not easy turning a major league baseball team around. It's not easy turning a major league organization around. In baseball, it takes more players and takes more time."
The job isn't finished, of course. Huntington knows that. The Pirates are sitting in a nice spot, trailing the first-place St. Louis Cardinals by one game in the division and holding a four-game lead over the Reds for the first wild card and a nine-game lead over the Washington National for the second. But there's no trophy presentation scheduled yet.
"They don't celebrate half-seasons."
"It's a big challenge to get here, but it's an even bigger challenge to stay here," Huntington said.
"We want to put ourselves in position to celebrate a full season and, hopefully, a postseason."
Huntington has given the Pirates a chance. Even his toughest critics have to admit that.