The Devil We Know – Should Huntington Walk the Plank?
“We’re all frustrated by and upset with the performance and seriously looking at what do we need to do both to finish the year appropriately and make sure this isn’t something we ever see again.”
“I don’t think it’s ever fair to speculate on people’s jobs… my approach has always been to fully support the team we have in place, and when it’s time to make a change, we make a change.”
Talk about your non-denial denial. When asked if he was pondering a change in the front office or at field level, Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting more or less threw everyone under the bus. I have written recently that the Pirates’ have been disturbingly mum during their second consecutive tailspin, and that the fans needed someone to step up and voice their frustrations. But this is not exactly what I had in mind; Nutting could have expressed his displeasure without setting off a maelstrom of speculation about the futures of Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle. But now that it is clear that the Pirates are administering some sort of litmus test over the next 18 games, what is it, and what will the results tell us about the state of this organization?
If we are to learn anything from the near hysteria swirling about lately, it is that we all need to step back from the ledge, including Nutting. I did not expect that the 2012 Pirates would be pennant contenders this year. In fact, 78 wins sounded about right back in March. Even when the Pirates woke up 16 games over .500 on July 28th, I saw enough cracks, and streaky play, to advocate a conservative approach to the trading deadline. Yet, as the season progressed I too fell victim to the recent sense of entitlement reflected in the media coverage of the team, and by the fans. I didn’t see any way that we would make the playoffs, but dammit, we were 16 games over .500 and I wanted that losing streak ended – surely this wasn’t too much to ask?
So, over the last few weeks I have been guilty of being a fan, and The Implosion – Part 2 has really worn me out. But Nutting’s comments effectively snapped me back to reality, and crystalized the situation for me. Like an amateur pilot flying at night, Nutting is about to make life or death decisions without the ability to differentiate between the sky and the ground – the Pirates’ fortunes are actually rising, while Nutting sees only a tailspin.
For the first two months of this season, the Pirates managed to stay within smelling distance of .500 despite a historically inept offense, due to the strength of their starting rotation and bullpen, outperforming their win expectancy during this period by about 4 games. In June and July, their starting pitching showed signs of cracking, but their offense rebounded to become the best in all of baseball, and they outperformed their win expectancy by the same number. In August and September, their offense settled somewhere in the middle, but their pitching deteriorated further, including a disastrous recent performance from the bullpen.
The end result of these three clearly delineated sections of the season is that the Pirates have ended up near .500, which is exactly where their run differential of -0.05 suggests they should be. So, if we may read between the lines of Nutting’s remarks, Huntington and Hurdle are on the hot seat because the team arrived at .500 via a circuitous route that raised everyone’s expectations, as opposed to arriving there in a linear fashion by just trading wins and losses throughout the season. This is, of course, absurd.
If there are to be changes made to the people running this team, they should be made in a calm, rational matter, not during a losing streak, and certainly not due to the wailings of a few shrill, uninformed columnists. In my opinion, the Pirates should take a long look at Clint Hurdle. He has many demonstrable skills, such as his ability to create goodwill in the city, and a positive attitude in the clubhouse. He has been a passionate advocate for the team, and by all accounts the players like him. But unfortunately, Hurdle is a dinosaur when it comes to in-game management; his smallball gaffes have become legendary, culminating in a series of inexplicable decisions involving the in-game management of the pitching staff that cost the Pirates a chance at 4-5 additional wins at a crucial point in the season.
But all managers are guilty of this type of thing to varying degrees; the insular focus of most fans just doesn’t permit for much objectivity on the subject. What is really more worrisome about Hurdle is that he is beginning to reflect the same attitudes towards his young players that ultimately cost him his job in Colorado. He has trotted out Rod Barajas instead of Michael McKenry despite the latter’s breakout season. He stuck with the replacement-level Kevin Correia for the better part of the year despite the presence of viable alternatives such as Kyle McPherson and Jeff Locke. He refused to give Jordy Mercer more starts at SS to improve the offensive black hole at the bottom of the lineup. He was apparently the driving force behind the trade of top-ten prospect Robbie Grossman for 33-year old Wandy Rodriguez. Worse yet, Hurdle is intransigent – he doesn’t believe in modern baseball analytics, or anyone’s opinion other than his own. While Earl Weaver’s autobiography is titled “It’s What You Learn After You Know It All That Counts”, Hurdle’s will be called “It’s What You Learn From This Know It All That Counts”.
As far as Neal Huntington is concerned, I am conflicted. The Pirates are still paying for some of the poor hiring decisions Huntington made early in his tenure, such as his selection of Greg Smith as Scouting Director. As a result, the Pirates have not drafted well; the presence of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell have more to do with the good fortune of having the first or second pick in the draft than to any particular acumen on the part of Smith or Huntington.
But Huntington has come on lately – he has put together an impressive stretch of work that resulted in the arrival of Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Jeff Karstens, Jose Tabata, James McDonald, Michael McKenry, A.J. Burnett, Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez and Yamaico Navarro at very little cost. The Latin-American program under Rene Gayo has produced Starling Marte as well as top-100 prospects Alen Hanson, Gregory Polanco and Luis Heredia. With the exception of the Grossman/Rodriguez deal, which I abhorred, Huntington has been a dedicated steward of the farm system, holding on to his top prospects despite enormous pressure from the media and fans to sell the farm for a slim chance at a playoff spot.
Herein lies the irony of the last two seasons; the Pirates premature launch may actually set back their overall development. Joel Hanrahan would have been a very nice chip at the last two trade deadlines, but Huntington had no choice but to hold onto him or face evisceration from a stirred-up fan base desperate for a winner. My concern is that Nutting will give in to the alternative reality being promulgated by some people who should know better, that the Pirates are genuine contenders and should have gone all-in to win now, come hell or high water.
Neal Huntington may not be perfect; he may not even be the right man to execute his own plan for the Pirates. But he is the devil that we know – regime change, if done in a needlessly hasty manner, can have deleterious effects for a baseball organization for a long, long time. Pirates’ fans who clamored for Cam Bonifay’s firing, only to be rewarded with five years of Dave Littlefield, know this better than anyone – things can always be worse than they are.
It is difficult for a team in the Pirates’ position to have one eye on 2014 while trying to manage expectations raised by immediate, unexpected success. We all need to take a deep breath and realize that we are swimming with the current; making Huntington walk the plank without a definitive backup plan may sink all of us.