Neal Huntington’s Breakout Season

It is rare to hear the term breakout season associated with a General Manager, but 2013 has been Huntington’s breakout season. Prior to the season, he was listed on our list of General Managers on the Hot Seat, but it seems that Huntington has certainly removed his name from that list. Huntington is in his 6th full season as a General Manager and is beginning to see many of his acquisitions performing well at the MLB level. When he took over near the end of the 2007 season, Huntington was tasked with turning around an organization that was in the midst of its 15th straight losing season. The difference this season has been Huntington’s ability to sign and trade for inexpensive players, as are a low-budget organization
While this is just Huntington’s first winning season, he has been laying the ground work for quite some time. Huntington has been effective in the draft, having acquired Pedro Alvarez, Gerrit Cole and other contributors to this season’s success. He has also made some very shrewd trade acquisitions, especially back in 2009 when he traded fan-favorite Nate McLouth to the Atlanta Braves for prospects Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton. Locke and Morton have made up 40% of the Pirates’ rotation this season and they have compiled a combined 3.30 ERA over the course of 270 innings this season. However, the Pirates didn’t fully commit to being contenders until just prior to the 2012 season. The Pirates sent a clear sign that they planned to contend in 2012 when they traded two fringe prospects to the Yankees for AJ Burnett with the Yankees covering most of Burnett’s remaining salary. With the Pirates still in contention, Huntington made a few bold moves at the Trade Deadline to bring in Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez. However, just as they did in 2011, the Pirates collapsed after the Trade Deadline, but they were still well positioned for this season because all his acquisitions were controllable players.
After two consecutive seasons of being contenders in the first half of the season before collapsing, Huntington decided this was the season to go all-in. Huntington began his fine off-season with the signing of catcher Russell Martin to a 2 year, $14 Million deal. For a small market club like the Pirates, giving out $7 Million a year to a defense-first catcher, whose offensive skills have been deteriorating for some time, was quite a risk. Huntington continued to spend money when he re-signed set-up man Jason Grilli for two more seasons at $S6.75 Million. This signing would prove to be even more important when 16 days later, Huntington traded his closer, Joel Hanrahan, to Boston for Mark Melancon, who was a reliever coming off a poor season in the AL East. This move freed up more money for the Pirates to spend and it also made Grilli’s contract into a bargain, as he would assume the role of closer. Behind only Sandy Alderson Jr.’s signing of Marlon Byrd, Huntington made one of the best signings of the off-season when he picked up Francisco Liriano. After Liriano broke his non-throwing arm the Pirates were able to sign Liriano to a 2 year deal in which he makes just $1 Million plus incentives in this first season and $8 Million in year 2. Liriano has dominated to a 16-7 record with a 2.92 ERA and 9.0 K/9 in his first season with Pittsburgh.
Throughout the season, Huntington’s additions have kept the Pirates near the front of the NL Central. However, Huntington has not been content with just contending as he had been the past two seasons. At the Trade Deadline this year Huntington shocked the baseball world when he stood pat and did not acquire any more players. However, prior to the August waiver deadline, he made two impressive acquisitions when he traded for Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. What differentiated these deadline deals from Huntington’s previous deadline deals is that he was willing to deal legitimate prospects for players that are not under contract for the next season. These trades demonstrated Huntington’s full commitment to this season. Byrd and Morneau have rewarded him with a .329 and .365 OBP, respectively.
Thanks to Huntington’s shrewd moves, the Pirates currently sit just a game back of the Cardinals for the NL Central Division lead. It seems a certainty that they will make the playoffs, at least as a Wild Card, but with 9 games left the Division is still within reach. No matter how this season ends, Huntington will be the GM that built the roster for the Pirates’ 1st winning season in 21 years.

Anthony Cacchione