Under the Microscope: Neal Huntington

December 11, 2007

Neal Huntington
New Pirates GM Neal Huntington’s resemblance to actor/director Ron Howard has Bucco fans wondering if he’s the man who can bring Happy Days back to the ‘Burgh

We’re almost three months into the Neal Huntington’s reign as Pirates General Manager, and despite some complaints about a lack of off-season activity, Huntington has been a busy man, and I think now would be a good time to stop and reflect on some of the team’s front offices moves since his hiring.

The first order of business for Huntington was the hiring of a new manager and coaching staff. While it is too early to really judge new skipper John Russell and his staff, we did find out a couple of things about Huntington’s philosophy.

Russell, who comes to Pittsburgh with 10 years of managerial experience under his belt, has been known to work wonders with young ballplayers, and is rumored to be a good motivator as well. While with Philadelphia’s triple-A club, Russell worked with former-MVP Ryan Howard and perennial all-star Chase Utley as they made their ascents to the big club.

Thus, we can assume that Huntington’s M.O. is to built towards the future with young, cheap ballplayers. Not a very uncommon approach in baseball these days among small-market clubs, and one that the Pirate faithful are more than familiar with by this point.

Huntington has made only a few moves with players on his roster, and only a couple of them should really come as a surprise to Bucco fans:

  • He claimed pitchers Phil Dumatrait and Ty Taubenheim, outfielder Kevin Thompson, and infielder Josh Wilson off waivers. Dumatrait and Taubenheim may be able to find a spot in the Bucco bullpen in the near future, and depending upon future personnel decisions — e.g. the potential signing of Chris Gomez (see below) — Wilson might be able to squeeze onto the 25 man roster as a utility infielder, but odds are none of these players will have any major effect on the team’s future.
  • Selecting pitcher Evan Meek in the Rule-V draft was an interesting decision by Huntington. Meek has some potential, as he is a pretty big guy (6-foot-1), and throws a heavy, sinking fastball. His control has been inconsistent at best, and he needs to develop his secondary stuff, problems that might not be solved if he is couped up in the Pirates bullpen all season long.
  • Huntington declined options on infielders Cesar Izturis and Josh Phelps. Neither player figured to have any role in the Pirates future plans, unless the Pirates had moved shortstop Jack Wilson, in which case the job would have been left available for Izturis, who won a gold-glove at shortstop with the Dodgers in 2004.
  • My favorite move so far this winter was the agreement reached with utility infielder Chis Gomez. While the deal hasn’t actually been signed yet (I’m a little curious as to what’s happening there), both sides agreed to terms on a one year, one million dollar contract. Gomez is a respectable fielder, and would serve as a more than suitable utility back-up for the Buccos. His .261 career average is fairly unimposing, but don’t sleep on his abilities with the bat. His season average hasn’t dipped below .279 since his hit .251 with the Twins in 2003, and since 2004 he’s hitting a solid .293 in just over 900 at-bats. We just have to hope that the postponing of Gomez’s signing won’t offend the 14-year veteran out of signing the deal when Huntington is ready to pull the trigger.
  • Rumors about potential Pirate deals were flying around the internet during the Winter Meetings last week. If the Pirates go into spring training without dealing at least one of their outfielders, Huntington should be fired on the spot. The team has five guys on the 25 man roster that can do something special, whether it be with the glove, the bat, or on the base-paths, and with 20-year old stud Andrew McCutchen looming at triple-A Indianapolis, there’s no reason for the Bucs to hold onto all these guys going into the season

    Jason Bay and Nate McLouth trade rumors have been particularly wide-spread, with teams reportedly being frustrated by Huntington’s absurdly high asking prices. Look for Huntington to lower his price at some point. Odds are one of those two guys will be dealt, with McLouth being the heavy favorite to end up in another uniform next season. See my views on the Jason Bay rumors here

  • Another one of Huntington’s priorities has been to dump the salaries of his aging bullpen pitchers, thus discussions with the Yankees, Braves, Phillies, Astros, and Mets about lefty specialists Damaso Marte and John Grabow.
  • Huntington’s only trade so far this season was nothing more than a salary dump, as he traded Salomon Torres to Milwaukee for a couple of minor league pitching prospects. Torres, who was set to make somewhere in the ballpark of $3.5 million next season, was the longest tenured Pirate, and you can see my thoughts on the trade here.

I have no complaints about any of the items mentioned above. Some of the moves below, however, are a little more questionable.

  • I understand Pirate’s fans frustrations with infielder Jose Castillo. His lackadaisical approach to the game is often aggravating, and it’s obvious to even the most casual fan that his swing is far too long. But he is only 26 years old, and still has room to improve, especially with some good, motivational coaching, which is supposedly Russell’s strength.
  • This is the one that really stumps me. As was reported by Detroit Free Press reporter Jon Paul Morosi earlier today:

    TIGERS, PIRATES TALKING: The Tigers and Pittsburgh Pirates discussed Detroit third baseman Brandon Inge over the last several days, but it’s not clear if the sides have made any progress toward a deal.

    Inge lost his job as the Tigers’ starting third baseman following the acquisition of Miguel Cabrera last week. He has informed Detroit officials that he would rather become another team’s starting third baseman than accept a reserve role with the Tigers.

    Of all the least sensible potential deals that I have ever come across, this one might just rank up there as the most ridiculous. If there is any truth to this rumor, Huntington shouldn’t even be fired, he should just walk out the door and quit. While Jose Bautista is no all-star, he has made tremendous strides as a good defensive third baseman. He is younger than Inge (Bautista is just 27 to Inge’s 30), and comes at a much cheaper price (Inge is set to make $4.9 million next season compared to Bautista’s $397,000).

    Inge is already on the decline of his career, having hit .236 with just 14 home runs in 2007 — Bautista hit .254 with 15 dingers last year — and unless Inge would be willing to make some spot starts as a back-up catcher, something he has already expressed serious dis-interest in doing, he would be completely worthless to the Bucs, especially for nearly $5 million per year.

    Also, Neil Walker will be spending the early part of this season preparing for his September cameo at PNC Park, and if he meets expectations, it won’t make a whole lot of difference if Inge or Bautista has been at third, because they will both be out of a job. Might as well save the cash, lord knows the Pirates need it.

There have been a lot of grumblings about Huntington early on, but honestly, its too early to judge his worth as a GM at this point. It will be interesting to see in what direction he decides to take this team.

There’s potential here for some big deals that could make or break Huntington very early on in his GM career, and its an Anthony Smith-guarantee that Bucco fans will be watching him closely.

Advertisements

Marlins Deal Cabrera, Willis to Detroit

December 6, 2007

Dontrelle Willis
Dontrelle Willis and his trademark leg kick will head to Detroit looking to return to 2005 form, when Willis won 22 games while posting a microscopic 2.63 ERA

The Florida Marlins, baseballs perennial fire-salers, have agreed to send 24-year old stud Miguel Cabrera and 25-year old fan favorite Dontrelle Willis to the Tigers in exchange for a plethora of talent. We can all agree that there isn’t a prospect alive that we wouldn’t send for Cabrera, but many believe that Willis could be a major bust.

Although many in the baseball world are pointing to Willis’s quickly declining numbers (note the yearly increase in ERA, WHIP, and HR along with decreases in W, CG, SHO, IP, and SO since 2005), I think there is reason to believe that we may see at least a brief resurgence in Dontrelle’s career.

It’s no secret that Dontrelle’s early success was tied to his funky delivery, which confused a lot of hitters. Scouts claim that the high leg kick and inconsistent arm slot were effectively deceptive early in his career, helping him post Cy Young-like numbers despite having just above average stuff. However, scouts are saying now that National League hitters have seen him for five years, they have figured him out, thus the declining numbers. Also, mechanical issues are making Dontrelle’s control and his stuff fairly inconsistent, although I doubt his stuff has gotten that much worse since ’05.

Moving to the American League might be an okay move for Willis, at least for a while. With catcher Ivan Rodriguez calling the game for him, Willis could very well make a strong comeback this year while American League hitters try to figure him out. Granted, hitters have scouting reports built already, which means it won’t take five years for guys to get around his deceptive delivery, but there is reason to believe Willis could be successful, especially with a monstrous line-up behind him.

As for the Fish, there’s reason to be excited about the crop of players that have been brought in. Cameron Maybin is an absolute stud talent-wise, and has the potential to be a top-notch, five-tool player in the near future. The real gem of this trade, however, is 6-foot-6 pitcher Andrew Miller. Though still decidedly raw, Miller has the potential to be a top of the rotation guy. His mid-90’s, ¾ fastball comes with a heavy sink, allowing him to induce an abundance of ground balls. He needs work on establishing some secondary stuff, but as ESPN’s Eric Karabell says, he might already be a better value pitcher than Willis.


Ramblings From an Un-happy Small-Market Baseball Fan

December 5, 2007

Jaromir JagrJaromir Jagr and his infamous mullet, once fan favorites in the ‘Burgh, are public enemy #1 after unsuccessful contract negotiations led to his exile in 2001

Stick with me on this one…

Alright so I was watching my Steelers wallow through the swamp that is Heinz Field against the Cincinnati Bungals – yes the Bungals (Myron Cope where are you in my life) when suddenly, I was inspired by the infamous babblings of NBC broadcaster John Madden.

(Bear with me, this isn’t a cheap set-up for a Brett Favre joke, I swear)

So good ole John was talking about Steelers’ offensive lineman Alan Faneca, who is set to become a free agent at the end of the year and has already stated that he will not be coming back to the Steelers, who simply can’t find room for him in the payroll.

Faneca, a perennial all-pro, is a Steeltown favorite who has played with the team since being drafted in 1999. In training camp this August, some dumb reporter asked Faneca about maybe giving the Steelers a hometown discount on his contract.

Faneca almost let loose in his pants, he was laughing so hard.

But this hometown discount stuff is a very, very intriguing idea to us small-market baseball fans. What if players had some financial incentive to stick around with the franchises that brought them up? What if fan favorites like Miguel Cabrera, Torii Hunter and Jason Bay weren’t un-signable by small-market teams who struck it big when they raised these guys in their own systems?

So here is my inspired idea:

Create a system that gives small-market franchises a little financial help in holding onto guys once they become free-agency eligible.

You know that luxury tax set in place to end the Yankee dynasty? Yes, the one George Steinbrenner and sons are capable of completely disregarding. Why not use it to help pay for new, long-term contracts of players who have been with one team their entire career and have earned a big-time contract.

Say you set a cap of $100 million – five major league teams had payrolls over the $100 million mark, with only the Yanks and Sox over by significant amounts – and you tax these teams a certain amount (I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t know the exact percentage teams are taxed, if somebody would be so kind as to help me out there). Either way, I would probably up the tax enough to make the Steinbrenner’s and Henry’s of the world sweat a little bit.

You offer this tax to teams, with the mandate that they have to put the money towards locking up homegrown favorites to long-term deals, weighting the system to help small-market teams such as the Marlins, Pirates, and (the no longer Devil-ish) Rays first.

So say for some unforeseen reason the Pirates decide not to trade Jason Bay at some point in the next year, and leave themselves the option of resigning him long-term after next season. (I realize this probably won’t happen, and actually would probably be a bad idea for the Bucco’s, but I’m just creating an example here).

For arguments sake, lets put Bay’s projected market value at $10 million per year (I don’t know what it really would be at this point, I’m just using a nice, round number since I am but a simple journalism student). If this tax can generate just $3 or $4 million for the lowly Buccos, bringing the Pirates contribution to Bay’s salary down to $6 or $7 million a year, they just might have a shot at resigning him, whereas a $10 million per year salary is just too much for the Pirates modest payroll.

Maybe I’m just an overzealous, small market fan, but wouldn’t it be better for the game to have more Cal Ripken Jr.’s, Tony Gwynn’s and Craig Biggio’s to help put fans in the seats.

The goal of every professional franchise is to keep the interest of the casual fan. Casual fans want two things: a winning franchise (obviously), and a franchise face. One of the easiest ways to do put a face on your franchise is to keep around the guys who have grown through the system, and who have taken their bumps and bruises right in front of the hometown fans. When those guys succeed, it does wonders for a team’s fan base, because the fans begin to identify with the player.

Personal example: Jaromir Jagr was a fan favorite for the Penguins in the 1990’s, and following the retirement of Mario Lemieux, Jagr became the face (and the hair) of the Penguins franchise. He was the team captain and was arguably the best offensive player in the NHL. Following bitter, unsuccessful contract disputes with Penguins personnel, Jagr was traded to the Washington Capitals, and has been a villain in Pittsburgh ever since, getting booed every time he touches the puck at the Igloo.

It is completely undeniable that fans feel a stronger bond with players who stick around for their entire careers. Think fans want to see their hometown favorites disappear? Ask Red Sox fans how they felt about fan-favorite Johnny Damon’s departure to the Evil Empire a couple years back.

So maybe my little system is a slightly extreme/improbable, and maybe there is no way to generate the funding to help implement it, but I think it’s a decent idea. If nothing else, it was a creative way for me to vent my hatred of the Steinbrenner family.

*By the way, I defy Al Michaels to come up with 900+ words based on anything that John Madden says.