Ron Cook: Huntington was slick at trading deadline

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Pirates general manager Neal Huntington did fabulous work Wednesday, if not at baseball's trade deadline, which came and went without him making him move, then certainly afterward when he did a world-class job of covering his behind.

No baseball man has ever been slicker.

Huntington reached out to those who believe the Pirates needed to do something -- anything -- at the deadline to improve, whether it be add a bat for right field, first base or the bench, a relief pitcher to ease the loss of All-Star closer Jason Grilli or a starter as insurance in case injured Wandy Rodriguez doesn't make it back. Sure, the team has the best record in baseball after beating the St. Louis Cardinals Wednesday night, 5-4, its fourth win in three days in the series. But you remember what late, great NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle always said, right? "If it ain't broke, fix it, anyway. Make it better."

"We looked exhaustively to try to help this club," Huntington said. "There's no question we forced the issue. I made some offers that made me incredibly uncomfortable."

Huntington also spoke to those fans who didn't want him to risk ruining a good thing by making any trade. The Pirates are headed to their first winning season and first playoff appearance in 21 years. Things are so good that manager Clint Hurdle said he received a standing ovation when he walked into his neighborhood coffee shop Wednesday morning, the doubleheader sweep of the Cardinals Tuesday night still fresh in everyone's mind.

"We believe in this club," Huntington said. "We believe in how we've got to this point. We think we can continue to do it, if not get a little better."

Huntington even talked to the chemistry majors out there who still believe that trading Casey McGehee in 2012 somehow led to the Pirates' second-half collapse. I'm fairly certain Huntington is right there with Hurdle, who said, "The only time [trades] disrupt chemistry is when the people you bring in don't play well." But Huntington was generous, nonetheless, to those who think a touchy, feely clubhouse is necessary for a championship team.

"No question, it came into play," Huntington said. "This is as tight a group as I've seen. They play for each other and fight for each other."

I told you the man was slick.

Only the other general managers know for sure how serious Huntington was about making a trade. He probably was just as serious as they were, which is to say not very serious at all. Many teams, even in bigger markets, covet their prospects more than ever because of their low salaries and the years in which the clubs control them. That's why you didn't see many young players moved in exchange for immediate help. Veteran Alfonso Soriano was the only significant veteran bat to be traded. The hitters linked potentially to the Pirates -- Alex Rios, Nate Schierholtz, Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau -- were not dealt.

Huntington was right not to overpay in such a shallow market.

Huntington's belief in the Pirates -- as they are -- also is justified. It's not just because of that amazing 65-42 record. The team is good enough to win the National League Central Division, get to the World Series and maybe even win the world championship.

You know the reasons.

Pitching and defense still win titles.

It is not insignificant that the Pirates sent starter Brandon Cumpton back to Class AAA Indianapolis Wednesday after he pitched seven shutout innings against the Cardinals Tuesday night in Game 2. "It's a deep organization," Huntington said. "That's a good thing to have."

The depth is important, not to just to the rotation with Rodriguez no lock to make it back, but also to the bullpen because of Grilli's uncertain status. The Pirates are lucky to have Mark Melancon step into the closer's role. He went into the game Wednesday night with the lowest ERA (0.89) among National League relievers and pitched another one-two-three ninth inning for his third save in three chances since replacing Grilli.

Good defense is a big reason the Pirates easily have the best team ERA (3.02 before Wednesday) in baseball. They are strong up the middle with catcher Russell Martin, second baseman Neil Walker, shortstop Clint Barmes and center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Left fielder Starling Marte also is an outstanding defensive player.

"We're comfortable in our own skin," Hurdle said.

That isn't to say the Pirates' offense isn't short in many games. If you aren't thrilled with Alex Presley or Jose Tabata in right field, you are not alone. But Hurdle predicted the team will get more help from within than it could have found in a trade. "I believe in the skill sets out there," he said, pointing to his clubhouse. Hurdle mentioned Walker, Tabata, Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez as players "capable of more than they've done this season," before saying, quietly, "Even if two get going ... "

Walker hit a home run in the third inning Wednesday night and singled in the eighth inning before scoring the winning run with some great baserunning. Jones had two hits. What a difference those two could make for the Pirates in the final 55 games.

Of course, teams that are good enough to win a championship don't always do. The Penguins were good enough to win the Stanley Cup last season, but you know how their year ended. The Pirates still must go out and do it.

At least we know one thing for certain now that the trade deadline has passed:

If the Pirates do fall short, it won't be because of bad chemistry.

pirates - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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