Pirates owner Bob Nutting, left, general manager Neal Huntington and president Frank Coonelly, right, huddle behind home plate to watch the workouts in 2010 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Austin Meadows, the No. 9 pick in the 2013 draft, is introduced at PNC Park by Pirates general manager Neil Huntington.
By Joe Starkey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“I’m completely honored to be the Pirates’ general manager,” Neal Huntington said by phone Wednesday. “It’s amazing it’s entering year 10.”
Isn’t it, though?
For a while it didn’t look like Huntington would make it out of year five. He was fired in newspapers, websites and barrooms countless times before busting through in 2013. People will surely want him fired in October if the Pirates miss the playoffs again.
Oh, who am I kidding? They want him fired now. Which is insane when you consider that Huntington, while far from perfect, tore this rat-infested plague of a franchise to the ground, built it back up and fulfilled his promise to make it a winner again. And did so while working in handcuffs.
So spare me the “Huntington apologist” stuff. Sober up. Look at the fact that what this man does is navigate proficiently (not perfectly) within the margins of the Pirates’ economic constraints, some forced by the club’s market size, some forced by Bob Nutting’s corner cutting.
Huntington is, in fact, the best thing Bob Nutting has going for him, and the sane among you should want him extended, not upended.
Credit Nutting, by the way, for hiring Huntington in the first place.
The Pirates hold a 2018 option on Huntington’s contract. He was in the same position — one year, plus a club option left — when he signed an extension on April 5, 2014, four days into the season. Nutting is nuts if he doesn’t repeat that move, because the closer Huntington gets to unrestricted free agency, the more you wonder if he’d be tempted to leave.
I asked Huntington if he expects to be re-signed.
“I hope to be,” he said. “I certainly hope to be. From day one, I have said I believe if you do your job well, you will continue to have the opportunity to do your job, and I still believe that.”
I also wondered if he ever has a moment, maybe a morning when he wakes up and wonders how the other half lives.
What would it be like to live in a world where a team spends freely and doesn’t worry that one mistake will wreck the budget? (and where a GM wouldn’t feel compelled to shed salary and deal his star closer at the deadline with his team a couple of games out of a playoff spot, though I didn't include that part in the question).
If Huntington harbors such fantasies, he isn’t letting on.
“I don’t,” he said. “I’ve only lived in small markets. I thrive on that. I love the challenge of working with a group that has to be creative and innovative and more efficient. And while the margin for error is a challenge at times, I don’t wake up and think about (a big-market job) because that’s not energy spent on my family and spent on finding the best way to do the job here.”
I know the Huntington complaints by heart.
He hasn’t won a playoff series.
He hasn’t even won a division.
He hasn’t drafted great.
He holds on to prospects the way Nutting holds on to nickels.
They’re all true. But I still believe by far the bigger story is the GM fulfilling his promise when he was hired on Sept. 25, 2007. The one where he said, “We're going to change the culture. Every one of our decisions will be a progressive process in bringing a winner back to Pittsburgh.”
As for the second-place finishes and playoff failures, at some point, people need to look at the players. Huntington put together teams that were good enough to win it all. Most of his core players failed miserably in the postseason. A 98-win Pirates team two years ago handed the ball to Gerrit Cole, their ace, in a one-game playoff and watched him get lit up like a Zambelli Fireworks Show.
You want Huntington to pitch, too?
The awkward part of this is that Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle are tied at the contractual hip. The two have been a package deal. They were extended on the same day three years ago for the same tenure.
What if Nutting wants to extend one and not the other?
What if Hurdle isn’t as eager to stick around?
I asked Hurdle on the radio, just before spring training, if his mindset was to manage “multiple (more) years” here.
“I believe I’m in a very good place mentally,” he said. “I believe I’m in a very good place physically — the best physical condition I’ve been in in quite some time. I have an energy level and a hunger for the game as much anything to try to be a small part of people trying to bring a world championship to Pittsburgh.”
Did I miss the “yes” in that answer? Listen, I’m bullish on Hurdle, too, if he sees a long-term future here. It’ll be interesting to see how Nutting navigates the situation.
It’ll be interesting, too, to see if Huntington adds to his rotation, even if it means parting with prospects not named Austin Meadows. That is the one piece I would not have included in a deal for Jose Quintana, a player the Pirates say they seriously pursued.
“The cost was high, very high,” Huntington said.
Yes, I know. Huntington’s conservatism drives you crazy. He’s not perfect. On balance, though, he’s pretty darned good.
Imagine what he could do without the handcuffs.
Joe Starkey: email@example.com and Twitter @joestarkey1. Joe Starkey can be heard on the “Starkey and Mueller” show weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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