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.

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Bucco’s Trade Torres, Recchi Heading South

December 8, 2007

The Pirates have agreed to trade relief pitcher Salomon Torres to the Milwaukee Brewers for a couple of minor league prospects. Torres, the team’s longest tenured player, had been a mainstay in the Pirate bullpen since 2002.

Torres is a perfect fit for Milwaukee, where he will probably get a spot setting up games for new closer Derrick Turnbow. Since losing closer Francisco Cordero and set-up man Scott Linebrink to free-agency, the Brewers have been scrambling to find bullpen depth, and with Torres, it looks like they’ve plugged up one of those holes.

Torres’s disappointing ’07 campaign was a fluke. He spent the entire season very unhappy with management (a.k.a. ex-GM Dave Littlefield). Littlefield somehow “tricked” Torres into signing and undervalued contract, promising to help fund a baseball facility in the Dominican Republic. I don’t know exactly what happened, but for whatever reason Torres was not happy.

Torres’s ’07 is no indication of what Torres can still do. Injuries, alongside his growing feud with the front office, really hindered his performance last season. So long as the injury doesn’t linger, expect Torres to return to his ’06 form, when he was baseball’s most used reliever.

This is a deal the Pirates needed to make at some point, and as far as I’m concerned they did a pretty good job. They pick up a couple of guys who might be dependable bullpen guys in a couple years, and they managed to dump Torres’s 3.5 million dollar salary. Expect to see a few more moves in the coming months designed to simply cut back payroll as GM Neil Huntington keeps trying to clear out some of the garbage that Littlefield has left behind for him.

Mark Recchi
The Penguins waiving of Hall of Famer Mark Recchi signifies a sad day in the life of this Penguins’ fanatic

And now to the sentimental portion of today’s post. The Pen’s tried to waive my all-time favorite Penguin (sorry Alexi Kovalev) Mark Recchi to the minors this week, but the Atlanta Thrashers stepped in and claimed the future Hall of Famer.

Recchi, a part of the 1991 Stanley Cup champion Penguins’ squad, was traded near the end of the 1992 season to Phucking Filly. Two year old Jake balled his eyes out when mommy tried to explain to him why the team traded.

Anyways, its a sad day for Penguin hockey, although the Pens did make the right move in cutting him loose. Also, I was happy to see GM Ray Shero and company gave Recchi all the respect he deserved.

Doesn’t change the fact that I’m going to dearly miss the Recching Ball. I’ll be crying in my dorm for the next few days if anybody needs to find me.