Cook: Commend Huntington for pitching acquisitions
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You want to blame Pirates general manager Neal Huntington for the team's offensive struggles? Feel free. He's not only an easy target, he's a fair one. Huntington brought in Casey McGehee, Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes and Nate McLouth in the offseason for a combined total of nearly $19 million. The return to the Pirates, before their game Monday night against the Marlins in Miami, was a combined .181 average, 3 home runs and 14 RBIs. Sure, it's only mid-May. One or all of the players could bust out at any time and salvage something from his season. But, to this point, Huntington's talent evaluation can be described as horrific. He has to be better even though it's nearly impossible to lure top free agents to Pittsburgh because of the franchise's well-earned reputation for being cheap and a loser.
But I'm here today not to bury Huntington, but to praise him. One reason is his offseason acquisitions of pitchers A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard, two-fifths of the starting rotation and big parts of the second-best pitching staff in the National League with a 3.15 ERA going into games Monday night. A bigger reason is the way he's handling the hitting woes. He's not panicking and trying to correct his offseason wrongs by making a big trade for a bat that likely would cost the Pirates one of their prized young pitchers. He says offensive improvement has to come from within. He's absolutely right.
For one thing, there are no trades out there. There never are in May. There probably won't be any in June. Trades will be made later than ever this summer because of the extra wild-card slot in each league. There will be more buyers than sellers.
"If you look back at the past five years, the most significant trade in baseball in June was made by us with Nate McLouth," Huntington said.
The Pirates traded McLouth -- an All-Star in 2008 -- June 3, 2009 to the Atlanta Braves for pitchers Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. It turned to be one of Huntington's better moves because Morton is in the rotation and McLouth did nothing in 2 1/2 seasons with the Braves, which is pretty much what he's doing now for the Pirates. But it wasn't a popular trade at the time.
"Our fan base was in an uproar because they felt like we waved the white flag way too early," Huntington said.
No team is going to wave that flag in May, not with that extra wild-card spot.
"That will make trades that much more challenging," Huntington said. "It's not that we're not out there trying. We would like to force the issue, but the only way to do that is by drastically overpaying. We're not going to do that. I hate to say it, but our improvement has to come internally."
The Pirates went into Monday night ranked last or next-to-last in the National League in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage.
Much improvement is needed.
"We are well below where we need to be," Huntington said, "and well below where we're going to be."
Huntington said he's confident his four offseason pickups will hit better. "There's going to be a recovery here." He expects Andrew McCutchen to continue to rake and Pedro Alvarez to continue to mature. He knows more is needed from Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, Garrett Jones and Alex Presley.
Huntington acknowledged he could make a trade today to "bring in a bat that could help us win a few more games." But at what cost? "I'd hate to do that and spend the next seven years watching one of our pitchers pitch well for another team."
Huntington is wise to covet his pitchers, not just the ones in the rotation now, but the so-called can't-miss guys in the minors -- Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. "You never have enough starting pitching," Huntington said. "Look at the Boston Red Sox last season. They thought they had eight starters at one point, then, all of a sudden, you hear they're looking to trade for a starter to come in and win just one game for them."
Huntington is no fool. He wants good pitching and good hitting. But if it's a choice of one, he's glad he has pitching.
"Despite our offensive struggles, how many games have we been out of this season?" Huntington asked.
One, by my count.
That was the game May 2 in St. Louis when Burnett allowed 12 earned runs in 22/3 innings.
"When you pitch well, you're always in the game," Huntington said. "When you hit well, you may or may not be in the game. In '08, we had one of the better hitting lineups in the National League, but we were out of a lot of games in the fourth or fifth inning."
The bottom line?
It's obvious, isn't it?
"We've got to find a balance," Huntington said.
Help from the outside isn't going to come before July. It probably won't come until the offseason -- if it comes at all -- when Huntington takes another crack at sifting through the leftover free-agent bats.
Until then, enjoy the pitching.
It's the best part of baseball.
First Published May 15, 2012 12:00 am