Bob Smizik: Neal Huntington's good and bad


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As recently as last week, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was being criticized by some on this site regarding that ancient history known as the offseason. He didn’t do enough, the complaints went. But here’s the bottom line on Huntington’s failure to upgrade first base and right field in the offseason:

The 94-win Pirates of 2013 were ninth in runs. Through Monday the 2014 Pirates are fifth. They are a couple of high-scoring games away from being third. Colorado and Milwaukee are far out in front. Los Angeles, Washington, the Pirates and Miami are tightly bunched after that.

Whatever Huntington did or didn’t do in the offseason -- and he was criticized here for his failure to add a bat -- a lack of offense has not been a primary problem of the Pirates.

Here’s what Huntington did do in the offseason: He signed Edinson Volquez for $5 million -- cheap by today’s standards -- and he literally stole Vance Worley, making about the MLB minimum, from the Minnesota Twins.

That should be enough to silence the bellyaching about not making a qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett.

In seven starts with the Pirates, and excluding the two innings he pitched in relief two days before the All-Star game, Worley has a 2.27 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. How good is that?

Since Worley did not debut with the Pirates until June 15, he has only 47 2/3 innings as a starter. If all the pitchers who have thrown 40 or more innings as a starter this season were placed in order of their ERAs, Worley would be ranked fifth. Three of the pitchers in front of him are Clayton Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto. That’s pretty fancy company for a dumpster dive!

Worley, who is under Pirates control for three more seasons, would be ranked seventh in WHIP.

It was not by accident that Gerrit Cole threw a rehab start Monday night on the same day Worley was starting. The message was clear: Cole was going to take Worley’s spot in the rotation once he came off the disabled list. By pitching a four-hit shutout against the Giants, Worley might have altered some thinking in the Pirates’ hierarchy.

A lot can happen between now and when Cole is activated, which should come late next week, if all goes well in his next rehab start.

For the moment, Worley looks to have secured his rotation spot. But much will depend on what Jeff Locke does in his upcoming starts, the next of which is tomorrow night at Arizona. Not only does Locke have options, which means he can be sent to the minors, but he has been below average in his past two starts. If he continues to pitch on a similar level, he likely would be the pitcher losing his rotation spot.

In Locke’s past two starts, he has given up five home runs in 12 2/3 innings. Opponents are batting .333 with a 1.020 OPS against him. He has walked five. Obviously, that can’t continue.

In Locke’s previous seven starts, he allowed three home runs in 50 2/3 innings. Opponents batted .195 against him with a .586 OPS. He walked only six. He needs to return to that form.

On another matter -- roster building -- Huntington does not come off looking so good.

It’s hard to believe that somewhere in professional baseball there is not a better backup middle infielder than Michael Martinez and a better right-handed hitting third baseman than Brent Morel.

Here are their minor-league numbers: Martinez: .252/.302/.322 -- .625; Morel: .246/.318/.342 -- .661. They weren’t any good in the International League but Huntington seems content to have them on the roster of a MLB contender. How does that make any sense?

If Clint Barmes were out for a few days or a week or so, replacing him with Martinez might be understandable. But Barmes has been out for a month and still is several weeks away from being activated.

Bad enough Clint Hurdle has to work with what amounts to an 11-man pitching staff because he has little confidence in Stolmy Pimentel. The Pirates won’t send Pimentel to the minors, where he belongs, because he’d have to pass through waivers and they fear they’ll lose him. But now Huntington has weighted Hurdle down with what amounts to a four-man bench because Martinez is close to useless.

Morel’s promotion is inexplicable because Jose Tabata was available. There can’t be anyone on the planet who thinks Morel is a better option than Tabata. If Tabata had been recalled, Josh Harrison could have assumed Morel’s duties as a right-handed hitting third baseman and Tabata could have taken over Harrison’s outfield duties.

The notion that the Pirates were afraid to lose Tabata on waivers doesn’t make sense. They should welcome the chance to get out from under Tabata’s contract.

Well done, Neal, on Worley; not so well done on building that bench.

•••

There was another extremely encouraging performance last night by Francisco Liriano, who along with Russell Martin is Huntington’s best free-agent signing. Liriano limited the San Francisco to Giants to one run and four hits in seven innings, while striking out 11 and walking one.

After a sloppy performance in his first start after coming off the disabled list on July 13, Liriano has been masterful. In his past three starts, he has pitched 19 innings and allowed two runs on 11 hits while walking six and striking out 23.

If you’re counting, that an 0.95 ERA, an 0.89 WHIP and a 10.9 K/9. But most recent indications, Liriano is back!


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