Huntington and his plan get pass until 2011

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On a stormy late July day and night, when Pirates general manager Neal Huntington moved the team's final two popular veteran players -- Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson -- in yet more painful, starters-for-prospects trades, wheel-and-deal Neal said two things that stood out from his typical rhetoric because they made such perfect sense.

"We don't feel like we've broken up the '27 Yankees ... It's not like we've taken something on the rise and tore it down."

And ...

"If it doesn't turn around [for the franchise], I get fired."

Please, don't even try to tell me that you will dispute either point.

There's a good reason Huntington has traded, sent to the minors or parted ways with all but five players on the 25-man roster he inherited late in the 2007 season. The Pirates stunk, both on the major and minor league levels. They had no future.

As for that firing business, well, of course Huntington will be fired if his moves don't work. That's as it should be. By the end of the 2011 season, it says here. We have to give him that long to see if he knew what he was doing when he traded, among others, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Adam LaRoche and, now, Sanchez and Wilson. But no longer than 2011.

I don't know if Huntington will go down or not. I have my doubts that he'll succeed, mostly because he works for maybe the worst owner in all of sports. But I do know this about the man: I love his commitment to the plan that he's convinced gives the Pirates their best and maybe only chance of winning. If he's going down, he's going down swinging.

You knew the Sanchez and Wilson deals were inevitable. Once you decide to start a rebuilding phase -- remember, this is the first that Huntington has directed -- you have to go all out. Sure, it hurts after 17 years of losing, but it's the path that must be taken.

Just as predictable were the silly screams of outrage about losing Sanchez and Wilson. Maybe you are among those who said, "I'll never go to another Pirates game. They keep giving away their best players. I've had enough!" Or, better yet, did you say, "Think about how good a team the Pirates would have if they had kept Bay, Nady, McLouth, Morgan, Sanchez and Wilson."?

Please.

I'll tell you what the Pirates would be if they had kept those guys: Losers with no hope for the future.

At least now they are losers with a slim shot at some success down the road because of the alleged young talent that Huntington has gathered.

Slim is better than none, I say.

"We didn't come in thinking we had to trade everybody," Huntington said. "We wanted to change the culture ...

"We know we traded guys the fans identify with. But our goal is to give them a lot of players to identify with and also a winning team. We feel the people of Pittsburgh are dying to have a winning team in PNC Park. We're closer to that than we have ever been."

To Huntington, that means reversing course soon because of the organizational depth he has accumulated and starting to trade prospects for proven players. It means using the money freed up by his deals to perhaps lure quality free agents after the season in what figures to be a buyers' market. And it means being able to keep many of the team's top players in the seasons ahead for the long haul.

I have serious doubts about parts two and three. It's hard to imagine any top free agent signing with the Pirates as long as he has an option elsewhere. It's also hard to believe owner Bob Nutting ever will agree to spend a little money on the team. He appears to have great interest in making a profit and little interest in fielding a winner.

But even if Nutting is willing to spend, who knows if Huntington will make sound decisions? This is the general manager who invested nearly $9 million in Ian Snell before the '08 season only to send him to the minors in June when Snell quit on the team and asked for the demotion, then traded him to Seattle yesterday in the Wilson trade. He's also the general manager who agreed to Sanchez's $8.1 vesting option for next season, a number he conceded is too high before he sent him to San Francisco last night. Shame on him for those deals.

It's too soon to evaluate Huntington as a talent evaluator and too soon to evaluate the minor league developmental staff he has put together. That's why we need to give him through the '11 season.

But what if Huntington and his people are right about the prospects they've brought into the organization? It looks as if Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton belong on a big league pitching staff. It appears Lastings Milledge, Jose Tabata and Gorkys Hernandez have a chance to be every-day outfielders. First baseman/catcher Jeff Clement, acquired in the Wilson trade, comes with impressive credentials. It's too early to write off Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss, although we'd surely like to see more. And maybe, just maybe, a few of the lower-level pitchers who came into the system -- including highly touted Tim Alderson in the Sanchez trade -- will develop into quality major-leaguers.

Then, there is 2008 No. 1 draft choice Pedro Alvarez, who looks like a real power hitter at Class AA Altoona. Down the road, there could be Dominican Republic super prospect Miguel Angel Sano, who would love to play for the Pirates.

Hey, slim hope is better than no hope, right?

If it all goes according to Huntington's plan, we'll soon forget the pain associated with the Sanchez, Wilson and McLouth trades.

And if not?

"I lose my job," Huntington repeated.

Man, I love that commitment.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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