After a disappointing split in a series with the St. Louis Cardinals and an already lost series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, it’s now fair to say that the Pirates postseason hopes are officially over. That means that it’s time to look forward to the 2018 season, one that will be absolutely crucial for the Pirates. 2018 will be the year where the Pirates will declare whether they are still competitors or if they are beginning another rebuilding mode. And whichever direction the Pirates decide to take, they should move in that direction without manager Clint Hurdle or GM Neal Huntington.
The argument to remove Hurdle seems to be an easier one than Huntington. Many fans have been calling for Hurdle to go over the past two seasons. While Clint has moved up to be one of the most winningest managers in Pittsburgh Pirates history, many of his decisions have been quite puzzling. One of the biggest knocks on Hurdle is his bullpen usage. There are many times, Monday night for example when Hurdle will leave in his starting pitcher for too long, causing the team to lose a lead or give up crucial runs. And there are other scenarios where Hurdle will stick with a struggling reliever, such as Tony Watson or Jason Grilli, when they are obviously not getting the job done. This also results in blown leads and missed opportunities each year. Outside of these terrible decisions with his pitchers, Hurdle’s roster management moves are also questionable. There are many examples over the years where Hurdle decided not to put his players on the DL when they were obviously too hurt to play in the near future. The example that sticks out in my mind is when he kept Cutch off of the DL a few seasons ago and the Pirates played with a short bench for over a week. The same happened this year with Francisco Cervelli, where the team left him off of the DL for a few days, wasting a roster spot only to add Cervelli to the DL anyway.
These are Hurdle’s biggest flaws. He’s simply a stubborn manager who simply isn’t as innovative as a manager needs to be in today’s MLB. To be fair, he was quick to implement the defensive shift and he is also a great player’s manager. But that even comes back to bite him. Because he is so loyal to some veterans players like Clint Barmes and Brandon Inge were kept on the Pirates roster for far longer than they should have been. It’s one thing to be a player’s manager but it’s a bit much when it starts to affect the quality of the team taking the field. Basically, Hurdle has done a good job to change the culture and attitude that exists in the Pirates clubhouse but that attitude is now instilled in all of the players. Removing him from the clubhouse won’t change that. And despite that change, the Pirates haven’t won under Hurdle. They’ve played one actual playoff series and lost multiple wild card games. That’s a failure with the talent that the past clubs have had. Simply put, Hurdle has become stale and the Pirates need new energy and something fresh in the clubhouse to push them to the playoffs or to lead them in their new direction.
When it comes to Neal Huntington, some people may feel that his job should be safe and he has done a great job with the Pirates. And he really has. Huntington took over a mess at the end of the 2007 season and was able to rebuild the team to a playoff contender. The Pirates also consistently have a top farm system in baseball. But the question is always there. What have you done for me lately? After rebuilding the club, Huntington promised that it was time to go all-in to win. But what have the Pirates fans seen? They have seen mediocre club improvements and a promise of building for a future that has never come. The way that I see it, Neal Huntington is a great general manager when you need to rebuild a team. He can get you prospects and controllable talent but he can’t seem to part with those pieces when it comes time to win. He’s not the type of guy that can captain a contending team because he clings to prospects. So if the Pirates want to contend and that is the direction that they choose for next year, why extend a general manager who has shown he is incapable of sustaining and improving a contender. To be honest, the most aggressive Huntington ever was to improve the Pirates was when he acquired Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez in 2012, a year where the Pirates weren’t even true contenders. So if the Pirates are serious about extending Andrew McCutchen and competing in 2018, it’s time to bring in a GM who can support that direction.
And even if the Pirates decide they do want to rebuild for a year or two, I’m still not sure Huntington is the man to follow. The Pirates are a small market team. Think about what they need to do to compete with the big markets that buy their talent. The Pirates need to draft well, sign international prospects and acquire young talent in trades. I would argue that Neal Huntington is good at only one aspect of this. Don’t agree? Let’s take a look at his draft record. Ever since he took over in 2008, Huntington hasn’t much significant talent at all. In 2008, Huntington took Pedro Alvarez 2nd overall. The other picks in that draft? Tanner Scheppers, Jordy Mercer, Chase d’Arnaud and Justin Wilson. In 2009, Huntington’s top five picks were Tony Sanchez (4th overall), Vic Black, Brooks Pounders, Evan Chambers and Zackry Dodson. The 2010 draft consisted of Jameson Taillon (2nd overall), Stetson Allie, Mel Rojas Jr., Nick Kingham and Tyler Waldron. 2011 featured Gerrit Cole (1st overall), Josh Bell, Alex Dickerson, Colten Brewer and Tyler Glasnow. The 2012 draft was marked by the Mark Appel pick (8th overall), Barrett Barnes, Wyatt Mathisen, Jonathan Standfort, and Brandon Thomas. And 2013 was when the team got Austin Meadows, Reese McGuire, Blake Taylor, JaCoby Jones and Cody Dickson. Any other draft is still to be evaluated because the players are still progressing. Looking at that list, however, who really jumps out as great? Mercer, Taillon, Cole and Bell are solid contributors for the Pirates and Wilson has looked good in the majors. Kingham, Glasnow, and Meadows look to live up to potential but that list is pretty depressing. You need to hit on more than 5 players over the course of 5 years to succeed in a small market, especially if most of these picks fall in the top five of the draft.
Now take a look at what Neal Huntington has done on the international market. Granted, it is hard to sign and develop a player on the international market but you’re bound to hit pay dirt eventually, right? Huntington did well signing Gregory Polanco but other than him, no other Huntington international signing has made a major impact in the MLB. In fact, his biggest signing, Luis Heredia, has been an absolute disappointment. The Pirates gave him a $2.8 million signing bonus years back to develop into an ace pitcher. Since then, he has struggled in the minors and has just been promoted to double-A Altoona without any of the prestige he was signed with. The Pirates also bungled the signing of Miguel Sano on the international market after he was seen as a lock to come to Pittsburgh. Now he’s bombing balls for the Minnesota Twins. The only other real success that Huntington has had internationally is Jung-Ho Kang, who may never play in Pittsburgh again.
The only place that Huntington has really succeeded in building up the team is on the trade market. He did steal A.J. Burnett from the Yankees, fleece the Red Sox for Mark Melancon and was able to dump Francisco Liriano on the Blue Jays. But he also has his fair share of bad moves, for example, trading Jason Bay for Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, and Craig Hanson and giving Jose Bautista to the Blue Jays for Robinzon Diaz. While Huntington is typically a master of the trade, a cloud over his head still remains. He can’t pull off a trade that would help the current club. He’s reportedly balked on opportunities to add David Price, Jon Lester and most recently, Jose Quintana. If Huntington can’t pull the trigger to send away a few prospects for one of the best left-handed pitchers in baseball, who is under a ridiculously good contract for several years, what will he ever pull the trigger on?
Overall, I know what many people will say to the idea of moving on from Hurdle and Huntington. Bob Nutting is the real problem and until he starts to spend more money it doesn’t matter who is running the team. I see this argument to an extent. Of course, I’d rather have a better owner than Nutting but as long as he is in charge of the Pirates, wouldn’t you want the best manager and GM possible working under his constraints? Obviously, Huntington and Hurdle are not doing that. The Huntington and Hurdle tenures can be viewed as good in the perspective of how bad the Pirates were before they arrived. But if you look at the scope of talent that the team has had in that same time and compare it to other franchises, they’ve failed in their jobs. And failure can’t be rewarded with extensions for either man. Hurdle is certainly more in jeopardy of losing his job than Huntington in my eyes but it’s probably more likely that both men stay in their positions. I hope to be wrong in that assessment but it seems Nutting and President Frank Coonelly value both men more than I do. Only time will tell if the Pirates will make any moves with management but all eyes will be on Pittsburgh as soon as the season ends. Hopefully, the Pirates will do what is best for the organization and move on with new leadership.