Ron Cook: Pirates contract extensions hardly seem like enough

Contract extensions for Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle over the weekend hardly seem like enough. They deserve something more significant after defying all odds to rebuild the Pirates and make them a championship-caliber team while working for maybe the least financially supportive owner in baseball.

Statues outside PNC Park?

I’m 90 percent serious.

General managers have come and gone for the Pirates during their dark days. Since the early 1990s, there have been Larry Doughty, Ted Simmons, Cam Bonifay, David Littlefield and, now, Huntington.

One manager after another tried and failed with the Pirates. The great Jim Leyland couldn’t win at the end here. He was followed by Gene Lamont, Lloyd McClendon, Pete Mackanin (on an interim basis), Jim Tracy, John Russell and, now, Hurdle.

The one constant in the 20 years of losing was poor ownership. The Pirates went from a consortium of prominent Pittsburgh businessmen, who had no interest in baseball, to Kevin McClatchy, who badly wanted to win but didn’t have the money to do it, to, now, Bob Nutting, who has plenty of money but isn’t all that eager to spend it.

Look no further for the reason for the embarrassing baseball.

That’s why it was hard to get excited when Huntington was hired after the 2007 season. He looked to be just another guy, trying to do his best with hands cuffed by his owner. It was hard to get excited about Hurdle when he came in after the 2010 season, although his enthusiasm was infectious. Compared to the dour Russell before him, he scored big points with the fan base merely by showing up with a pulse.

I remember writing and saying many times that the Pirates wouldn’t win again under the current ownership.

I’ve never been so happy to be wrong.

The 2013 season was wonderful. The Pirates won 94 games, beat the Cincinnati Reds in the wild-card playoff game and took the eventual National League champion St. Louis Cardinals to the limit in a divisional series. The atmosphere at PNC Park for the Reds game was the best, most surreal scene at a Pittsburgh sports event.

The Pirates are off to a nice start this season, taking two of three from the Cardinals over the weekend to finish the first homestand at 4-2. But a drop-off is expected. The team lost big-money players A.J.Burnett, Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd in the offseason and did little to replace them, although Edinson Volquez, signed over the winter for $5 million, did a pretty good Burnett imitation Sunday in his first start against the Cardinals. The good news is more talent is on the way. The minor league system, built so carefully and patiently by Huntington, is rated among the best in baseball. Can’t-miss outfield prospect Gregory Polanco should be here this summer. Pitcher Jameson Taillon was expected about the same time before news Sunday that he will have Tommy John elbow surgery. Plenty of other future big-league pitchers are in the system.

I don’t blame Huntington for the Pirates’ inactivity in the winter. He knew the team needed help at first base and/or in right field. He was interested in free-agent first baseman James Loney but wouldn’t commit to a third contract year. Loney signed with the Tampa Bay Rays for three years, $21 million. The guess here is Huntington didn’t have a choice. Remember, he works with those cuffed hands.

The Pirates did do a long-term extension with outfielder Starling Marte but got him at a bargain price. They also locked up National League MVP Andrew McCutchen for a steal a couple of years ago. Nutting will show me something if he signs third baseman Pedro Alvarez to a big, long deal. Now, that would be big money. Don’t hold your breath, of course. The Pirates’ opening-day payroll projected to be $78.1 million, according to the Associated Press, which ranked 27th out of the 30 major-league clubs. That hardly seems right, especially after management promised to spend more once the team was better and had better crowd support. Doing nothing to improve is how you thank your players for bringing winning baseball back to Pittsburgh? A low payroll is how you thank your fans for coming out 2,256,862 strong in 2013?

Huntington would rather get a severe skin rash than complain — even privately — about his situation. “All I’ve ever known is small markets,” he said this week. Huntington certainly won’t knock Nutting. He knows Nutting could have fired him after his fifth season, 2012, when the Pirates had one of the worst late-season collapses in baseball history and finished below .500 for the 20th consecutive year.

Is Nutting a visionary for keeping Huntington? Or was he just too cheap to pay him off? I have my thoughts. I’m sure you do, too.

“Every decision we made was with the belief that we would be here for a long time,” Huntington said. “We had the complete conviction that, if we took short cuts, it would result in long-term failure. We continued to try to make the right decisions for the right reasons. I know that isn’t necessarily conducive to being here for a long time. We realized that we might not be here long enough to reap the benefits, and, if they had made a change, we would have understood and wished the next guys well on our way out the door. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.”

It’s not just fortunate for Huntington.

It’s fortunate for the Pirates and their fans.

All things considered, Huntington and Hurdle have done one of the great jobs in Pittsburgh sports history.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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