It’s the first day of baseball season in Pittsburgh -- the Pirates play the Cubs at PNC Park this afternoon -- and it’s been a long, long time since so much optimism surrounded the team. A year ago, fans were gearing up for a 21st straight losing season. Instead, they got a summer to remember, 94 wins and a trip to the playoffs, where the Pirates eliminated the Cincinnati Reds and came within a game of advancing to the NLCS.
That level of success didn’t happen by accident, as some would tell us. And it didn’t happen by some genius plan, as other would tell us.
Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly, now in their seventh season of running the Pirates, have adhered to a plan almost as old as the game itself. It’s a plan Branch Rickey instituted more than 60 years ago in Pittsburgh and which spawned, among other, Dick Groat, Bill Mazeroski, Bob Friend and Vernon Law. It’s a plan Joe Brown and Pete Peterson adhered to with great success and it’s a plan Dave Littlefield bungled to the extreme.
Here’s the thing about the plan of Huntington and Coonelly. They didn’t panic when the results were not there. That’s the easy thing to do. They did the hard thing. They stuck by their plan. That’s where they deserve credit. It’s easy to put trust in a farm system. It’s hard to maintain that trust when the farm system doesn’t immediately produce.
Huntington was a poor general manager for the first three-plus years of his tenure. He made bad trades. He made a batch of bad overslot signing of draft choices. He made bad free-agent signings and weak personnel moves in filling out the back end of his roster But somewhere before or during the 2010 season, as the Pirates were plunging to 105 losses, he gained his footing in his job, one, it should be noted, he never would have received with another organization.
Since 2010, he’s barely made a wrong move.
From trades to free-agent signings to draft choices, Huntington has bordered on being a freaking genius. And as someone who said later than 2010 than he should be fired, I must admit that. To not do so would risk credibility.
Trading for A.J. Burnett, signing Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano, drafting Jameson Taillon and Garrett Cole, developing Gregory Polanco are the high marks of what Huntington has done the past three years. He’s also added Jason Grilli, Jeanmar Gomez, Vin Mazzaro and Michael McKenry at little or no cost. He snookered the Boston Red Sox in the Joel Hanrahan trade, acquiring Mark Melancon and Stolmy Pimentel for a pitcher headed for major surgery.
Has he made mistakes? Absolutely! Name a general manager who hasn’t. Most notably, he failed to fill the hole the Pirates have at first base and the team is stuck with a glaring weak spot that might play a role in a declining win total this year. The Pirates made a pitch for James Loney and came in second to his old team, Tampa Bay, which offered -- foolishly, in my opinion -- a three-year deal. Beyond that, there were not a lot of options. Huntington has wisely stayed away from Kendrys Morales.
First base isn’t the only place where Huntington is open for criticism. His decision to spend $5 million on Edinson Volquez, a major reclamation project, is easy to ridicule. And those who do will be following a familiar pattern: Complain when the Pirates don’t spend enough; complain when they spend too much.
The Pirates have the look of a team that will enter each season of the foreseeable future as a contender. It’s hard to ask much more than that from a general manager.
The widely-ridiculed Coonelly has overseen the business side of the operation and probably ventured, at times, too far into baseball operations, where he has no business. But under his guidance, the Pirates are turning a nice profit, they drew the second highest attendance in team history last year and this year could well break the record set in 2001. They have signed Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte to long-term deals, which so many said would not happen.
Coonelly's best move, though, was not firing Huntington. That would have been the easy thing to do after 2010, 2011 or 2012. The plan wasn’t working, but Coonelly liked what he saw in Huntington, like what he saw of the future and made no change -- not even in Huntington's lieutenants.
As a low-revenue/low payroll team, the Pirates always will have more difficulty achieving success than the teams that can afford to spend away their mistakes. But on this special April day, which for too long was thick with false optimism, the Pirates are looking good.