Building Blocks: Huntington finds value in evaluation

Last in a series / Pirates' GM installs intricate system to analyze players

Neal Huntington's desk at PNC Park is swamped by scouting reports and statistics, bulging out of binders, all bouncing to the rhythm of a vibrating cell phone. Fidgeting outside the door for the attention of the Pirates' general manager are the commissioner of the Texas League and two employees. And still unchecked on the day's agenda is a string of meetings, e-mails to agents and -- if the clock allows -- a call to the wife and kids back in Cleveland.

Building blocks
The Post-Gazette's five-part series on the Pirates' bid to reshape the franchise:

  • Jan. 16: Dismantling
  • Jan. 23: Scouting
  • Jan. 30: Teaching
  • Feb. 6: Changing culture
  • Today: Evaluating
    Ultimately, the goal is contending at the major-league level. How long will it take general manager Neal Huntington to put together that type of team?

The scene seems very much out of sync with the image of someone who has done next to nothing this offseason.

Aside, of course, from those five waiver claims and that free-agent signing of a backup infielder.

"Yeah, I know about that," Huntington will offer with the customary soft smile.

He surely does. In print, online and in person at public functions, Huntington repeatedly has been reminded -- in a couple of cases reprimanded -- for the meager sum of his visible achievements.

How could he stand pat with a roster that lost 94 games last year?

How could he allow the bullpen and bench to weaken?

"I guess the easy answer is that it's not about me," Huntington will continue. "It's about us as an organization, about the direction we're headed, about doing this the right way and building a foundation for years to come."

He had trade talks involving outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady and relievers Damaso Marte and John Grabow. He also finished among the finalists for a handful of seven-figure free agents, including catcher Johnny Estrada and reliever Luis Vizcaino. None saw fruition, and utilityman Chris Gomez was the only major-league acquisition.

"We've been close on a number of things, but the bottom line is we can't make emotional decisions or make decisions to make splashes in December or January. The day we lose sight of that, when we want to make an impact because we feel like we need to pacify a fan base that feels like we're not doing anything, is the day we're in trouble."

He paused.

"It's almost like the analogy of the duck. On the surface, we haven't done as much as most people wanted us to. But beneath that, we've been building, growing, developing. Trust me: I do sleep well at night, because I believe in what we're doing."

The bulk of Huntington's initial work upon being hired to replace Dave Littlefield in September was spent analyzing the manager, coaches, scouts and others in the Pirates' employ, deciding which to keep or change, then finding replacements. From there, he turned toward philosophies and applications: He oversaw the planning of manager John Russell and his staff, the revamping of the scouting network to emphasize more eyes on more players, and the streamlining and modernization of player development.

Huntington got a head start with the players, too. He stayed apprised of how every key member of his roster was training this offseason and, in the cases of a few, phoned to issue firmly worded challenges. One was oft-injured outfielder Ryan Doumit, whom Huntington told he could hit 30-plus home runs if he could only stay healthy. Surely no coincidence, Doumit was among several who reported to minicamp slimmer and stronger.

Still, not much will matter unless Huntington succeeds at what must be any general manager's primary mission:

Evaluate players properly.

"We have to acquire championship-caliber talent," he said. "They're going to have to be players we draft, get out of Latin America, or trade for. And we're going to have take chances, maybe get an A-ball guy with quality upside instead of an older prospect with a lower ceiling. That's where the scouting model becomes so crucial. We have to analyze the talent we see and assign the proper value to it."

It is that last component that seems dominant in Huntington's thinking. And small wonder: He and his entire staff invested much of the early offseason in meetings aimed at finding a formula for assigning such a value.

Huntington will not divulge specifics of the formula, but he did reveal that:

• All analysis of players, from Latin American 16-year-olds to Alex Rodriguez, will involve the same numerical values. Prospects would be graded on a curve of potential, naturally, but the value assigned to an above-average player will have the same parameters regardless of level.

The reason: Professional and amateur scouts are being encouraged to cross paths, and Huntington wants all of them speaking the same language.

"All of us have to understand what we're saying about a player, whether he's 18 or 26," Huntington said.

• There will be a heavy emphasis on internal evaluations.

Doug Strange, one of Huntington's special assistants, will have the new task of studying every team in the Pirates' minor-league system twice for extended periods this summer, with an aim of ensuring that all players are being used to their fullest potential. Larry Corrigan, another special assistant who came from the Minnesota Twins' highly successful management, will assist.

"Every decision we make has to come from a foundation of knowing what we have," Huntington said.

• Valuation will be based more on baseball ability than athleticism, in line with the modern approaches of the Twins, Oakland Athletics and others.

"We need baseball players who have athleticism. We're not going to sign a bunch of crude athletes to teach them how to hit."

• Offense will take priority, also in line with modern statistical studies of a player's worth.

"We want to be strong defensively, especially up the middle. With our ballpark, for example, the center fielder has to be somebody who can flat-out run the ball down," Huntington said. "But the bat is the vital tool. We can have the best defensive players in the game up the middle, but they can't be outs. That's four outs we just can't afford."

• Offense will be weighed in large part by the hitter's ability to work the count and wait for his pitch. This, too, goes in the modern column, with on-base percentage -- rather than batting average -- the main measurement now for most teams.

"Our Nos. 1-8 in the lineup have to be tough outs, not the type of hitters a pitcher wants to face," Huntington said.

He stressed, though, that he is not always in harmony with the increasingly popular focus on walks.

"A walk is not the goal. It's an outcome. If we take that first-pitch fastball down and away on the black, it's a strike, but we've still got two more chances to hit my pitch. We're going to wait for our pitch, and we're going to hit it hard because we have a plan, we know the strike zone, and we know what our strengths are."

• When gauging a pitcher, strikes and the quality of his stuff will be ranked equally.

"A pitcher can have great stuff but, if he can't command the zone, he will struggle. We will seek a balance."

• Personality will count, too, difficult as that can be to quantify. For a prospect, it can mean, as Huntington described it, "intelligence and intensity, because those can project aptitudes to future ability." For a major-leaguer, it can mean leadership traits.

All of those facets are different, to varying degrees, from previous management's methods of player evaluation. For example, scouts under Littlefield frequently leaned toward raw athletes despite little success. Outfielder Nyjer Morgan, a late convert from hockey, was a rare positive.

It will take time, perhaps years, to determine if the new formula translates into superior player evaluation. But, to hear Huntington tell it, some of it already has been applied through decisions to not do something this winter.

"This was one of worst free-agent markets I've witnessed, in terms of salaries and length of contract, driven way beyond what any sound businessman would pay," he said. "We need to place an internal value on the impact a player can make. Sure, there are times we have to go past the comfort level, because the reality is someone else will overpay. But it has to be the right player. Not one of the players we went after was going to turn us into a championship club."

Simultaneously, he added, the Pirates' perceived values of their current players were not met in trade proposals.

"We know what we feel our players are worth. The way we saw it, a patient approach made the most sense."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at . First Published February 13, 2008 5:00 AM


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