The avalanche of criticism that regularly descends on Neal Huntington -- despite the fact the Pirates are contenders 130 games into the season and that they made the playoffs last year with 94 wins -- should surprise no one, least of all him. It comes with the territory.
But this comment, posted yesterday after the Pirates' 4-3 loss to Milwaukee, was well above and beyond:
''The Pirates in April: 9-16. That's where the season was lost. Thanks NH!
No mention of these on-the-field April performances: Francisco Liriano’s 4.82 ERA; Jason Grilli’s three blown saves; the batting averages of .175, .180, .225, .235 that belonged to Jordy Mercer, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte and Neil Walker, respectively.
Huntington has been widely criticized for his failure to add to the team both before the season, at first base and right field, and at the trade deadline. This criticism makes it sound as though Huntington merely had to snap his fingers and quality players would appear to upgrade the team.
In response to this criticism, let me ask this question:
Where is it written that every time a team makes a trade or signs a free agent those acquisitions are guaranteed to improve it?
The critics never consider the fact teams can get worse by adding players -- even the best. So to suggest Huntington was derelict in his duty by not making a deal or signing a free agent to play first base or right field is not necessarily correct.
James Loney was the offseason target of many to become the Pirates first baseman. You don’t hear much about Loney these days because as hard as this is to believe, he’s having a worse year than Ike Davis. He has a lower OPS than Davis and he has fewer home runs despite having close to 200 more at bats. For this kind of production, the Tampa Bay Rays will pay Loney $7 million annually through 2016.
Everyone’s favorite first baseman these days is Justin Morneau, although almost no one wanted him during the free-agent period because he had been such a washout with the Pirates. Hindsight is not something GMs can use in adding players.
Huntington’s failure to make a trade in July before the non-waiver deadline has been particularly aggravating for many fans. Not every trade works. Consider:
• On July 4, the Oakland A’s shocked the baseball world by acquiring two starting pitchers from the Cubs -- Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, at a steep cost in terms of prospects. The two pitchers have a combined ERA of 5.01 with the A’s and Hammel has lost his spot in the rotation. Before the trade, the A's were playing at a 100-win pace. Since the trade, they are playing at an 87-win pace.
• Giving more than lips service to the phrase, you can't have enough pitching, the A’s traded for
Boston ace Jon Lester on July 31. Since making that deal, the A’s are 10-12.
• The Detroit Tigers got the big deadline-day prize in David Price. When Price was acquired, the Tigers were four games in the lead in the AL Central. Since he was added -- and he’s pitched well -- they are 12-12 and two games off the lead.
• The St. Louis Cardinals dealt for two pitchers, John Lackey and Justin Masterson, on July 31. In four starts, Lackey has a 5.40 ERA. Masterson has made five starts and has a 7.43 ERA.
• The Atlanta Braves dealt one of their best catching prospects at the deadline for utilityman Emilio Bonifacio and left-handed reliever James Russell. Bonifacio, in particular, intrigued Pirates fans. He has a .543 OPS since the trade.
• In 2011 the Pirates made two good deadline acquisitions in Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick and got worse. In 2012, they acquired a quality starter, Wandy Rodriguez, and got worse.
None of this is to suggest all trades are bad. It is to suggest that doing nothing is not the worst thing in the world. Getting the bad end of a trade is doing something -- but it’s doing something wrong.
Every year most contenders make deals at the deadline. Some work, some don’t. Some that don’t have consequences in the years ahead -- as will the Oakland trades, which cost them not only elite prospect Addison Russell but power-hitting outfielder Yeonis Cespedes.
Huntington has been a good general manager for the past four seasons. Some feel he has to be perfect. As we’ve seen from Oakland’s Billy Beane, Detroit’s Dave Dombrowski, who gave up his starting center fielder to get Price, and St. Louis’ John Mozeliak -- three of the best -- making trades is a guarantee of nothing.
None of this is to fully excuse Huntington’s stand-pat approach. He failure to add to what for almost a month was a beyond-abysmal bench, is hard to figure. But to attempt to place the blame on him should this season fail is ridiculous. He deserves credit for getting the Pirates this far -- not blame.