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Friday, December 9, 2022

First Pitch: The Five Players That Represent a Microcosm of Neal Huntington’s Abilities

At the end of the 2012 season I wrote that 2013 was the make or break year for Neal Huntington and the current management group. When the group arrived in the 2007-08 off-season, the system was a wreck. There were hardly any prospects in the system, and very few players at the major league level who could be dealt for good returns. The guy with the biggest trade value at the time — Jason Bay — brought back Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss. The two were supposed to help turn the team around, and were part of a group of prospects getting a chance in 2010. LaRoche and Moss didn’t work out, and the Pirates went on to be the worst team in the majors that year.

Heading into the 2013 season, I can’t help but notice some similarities to that 2010 team. In 2010 the Pirates had a ton of question marks. They had Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones returning after strong performances in the second half of the 2009 season. They had unproven players like LaRoche, Moss, Lastings Milledge, Charlie Morton, and Joel Hanrahan who they acquired through trades. By mid-season they were expecting Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and Brad Lincoln. Neil Walker ended up joining that list after a breakout in Triple-A in the first two months of the season.

The results from those question marks didn’t turn out well. Garrett Jones wasn’t an everyday player at first. The Bay trade didn’t work with LaRoche and Moss failing. Morton had a horrible season, but rebounded in 2011 with a new delivery. Milledge didn’t work out, but Hanrahan did. Alvarez and Tabata had strong starts to their careers, but Lincoln never made it as a starter.

The Pirates have some question marks and unproven players on their roster in 2013. I wrote about a lot of the players with question marks last week. Most of those players are options for either first base or the corner outfield positions. In looking at those players closer, I noticed that they conveniently represent a microcosm of Neal Huntington’s abilities as a General Manager. Whether it is the development system under him, the ability to spot talent, or the ability to recognize his own talent, the following five players and their performance in 2013 could end up making or breaking Huntington’s career with the Pirates.

Starling Marte will represent the current group's ability to develop a prospect.
Starling Marte will represent the current group’s ability to develop a prospect.

Starling Marte

Marte was signed under Dave Littlefield, although I credit Rene Gayo and his staff for this, and the majority of Latin American signings. Marte was signed for $85,000 in January 2007. He played one season under Littlefield’s system, and spent most of his development with Huntington in charge. That included his jump to the US and his eventual rise to the majors.

Pedro Alvarez was the first big prospect this group developed and sent to the majors, but Alvarez was not like Marte. Alvarez was a first round pick and the top prospect in the draft. It wouldn’t have been a surprise for him to make the majors when he was drafted. Back in 2008, Marte wasn’t even a “prospect”. This group did a good job developing him so far, but the big test will be that final step to the majors. I could see an outcome where he’s a star player, but I could also see an outcome where he’s a very toolsy player who never puts it all together.

The Pirates have been criticized for not being able to develop hitters. A lot of that has to do with their approach in the draft. They spent most of their top picks on pitchers, making it less likely that they would develop a hitter since those were usually picked in the lower rounds. Marte is the first big hitter they’ve fully developed, but that final important step is incomplete.

Gaby Sanchez

The Pirates traded their first round compensation pick and Gorkys Hernandez to the Miami Marlins for Gaby Sanchez and Kyle Kaminska (who was later flipped for Zach Stewart). The move was questionable considering the makeup of the team, and the value of draft picks to the Pirates. It didn’t seem like they were valuing the pick properly, which will probably end up in the mid-30s.

Sanchez is an interesting case. He had almost identical seasons in 2010 and 2011. He struggled in 2012 with Miami, then was dealt to the Pirates at the deadline. His numbers with the Pirates were decent, but they didn’t fully return to his 2010-11 numbers. Looking at his splits, he looks like a strong platoon player against left-handers. If he can bounce back to his 2010-11 days, he could be an option as a full-time first baseman. He’d be more of an average first baseman, but a good place holder until the Pirates found a better alternative. If the Pirates deal Garrett Jones this off-season, Sanchez could get that everyday player shot.

The trade looks questionable since Sanchez had a low value when dealt, and looks like a platoon player who would be limited to 200-250 plate appearances per year. The Pirates haven’t made many trades where they dealt notable prospects/picks for major league players. It’s pretty much this deal and the Wandy Rodriguez trade. They can’t afford to make mistakes with these types of trades. Whether he’s a platoon player or an everyday option, Sanchez is going to be graded against that first round compensation pick to see if Huntington made the right call.

You could also add him to the “bounce back” category. The Pirates have invested in a lot of prospects or major leaguers hoping for a bounce back season. They don’t need many to bounce back for the strategy to be successful. Just look at the impact A.J. Burnett made last year, and that was only one player. Huntington has acquired a lot of guys who have seen their values decline, and Sanchez is one of them. He’ll need to be more like Burnett, and less like Lastings Milledge.

Travis Snider/Jerry Sands

Snider and Sands could fit in the “bounce back” category, just like Sanchez. However, I’m focusing on something different here. If there’s one thing Neal Huntington has done well, it’s finding good, cheap relievers. That’s a great thing for a small market team. You can save your money and spend it on more important positions. There’s also a high value on established relievers and “proven closers” around baseball, which means that you can deal those established relievers for good returns, all without worrying about how you’ll replace them. In the ideal situation, the Pirates would turn into a relief pitching factory, constantly churning out established relievers and dealing them for players who could play a bigger impact.

That second part is the key. The Pirates dealt a top young reliever in Brad Lincoln, and got back Snider. They dealt their closer, Joel Hanrahan, and got back Sands as a piece in the deal. Lincoln could be a good reliever for years, and would have been under team control through the 2016 season. It would hurt to see that if Snider doesn’t work out. The Hanrahan deal looks like it could be a lateral move, with Mark Melancon having the potential to be a cheaper version of Hanrahan. But the Pirates can’t settle for lateral moves and saving money. They need to come out ahead in the long-run. Sands is a key to the Hanrahan deal. If he doesn’t work out, the best case is that the Pirates save some money and get some extra years of control out of the Hanrahan trade.

In both cases, the Pirates made the right moves dealing established relievers (although they should have dealt Hanrahan a year earlier). Whether this strategy can be effective depends on the returns. Huntington has largely failed in this area. LaRoche, Moss, and Milledge didn’t work as young, recently top prospects. The Pirates have had a few success stories here, and a few that are still up in the air. Snider and Sands are two big ones. They’ve got power potential, and the Pirates lack that in their system. If one of these two can carry his potential to the majors, it would be huge. It would show that Huntington has what it takes to deal from a strength and fill a weakness. If both go the way of LaRoche, Moss, and Milledge, it would be a crushing blow.

Jose Tabata

When the Pirates signed Tabata to an extension in 2011, the deal looked incredibly team friendly. Tabata signed for six years and $15 M, with three option years that could take the total deal to nine years and about $36 M. At best, Tabata would become a good outfielder at an extreme discount. At worst he’d become an expensive fourth outfielder.

After his 2012 performance, a lot of Pirates fans are leaning towards the latter. You don’t see a trade idea without mentioning getting rid of Tabata and his money. The irony here is that Tabata is younger than most of the above players, and only two months older than Marte. There’s still time for him to become a good player, although he would be option number three or four on the corner outfield depth chart for me heading into the season.

Whether it’s dealing prospects or extending their own players, Huntington has mentioned something several times. To paraphrase, he’s said the Pirates need to know their own players better than other teams.

In this case, the Pirates signed Tabata to a long-term deal, hoping it would eventually be a value. The Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the most successful teams when it comes to value signings. It seems like almost every good player on their roster is signed to a team-friendly deal. There are some who sign extensions and don’t work out, but the majority of players they extend outperform the money. Andrew McCutchen’s extension was easy. He was performing even without the breakout season. Tabata is a different story. He was signed when the Pirates didn’t have to worry about signing him for a few years. He was signed at a time when his future was unknown, meaning he could either be a value or be expensive. Therefore, his signing is a representation of the Pirates knowing their own players.

Make or Break Year

The thing about all of the players above is that one player doesn’t tell the whole story. That’s why I said these guys are a microcosm of Huntington’s abilities. If Starling Marte becomes a star player, that doesn’t mean every hitter they develop will also work out. If Gaby Sanchez doesn’t work out, that doesn’t mean every prospects for major league trade that they make will fail. I just found it interesting that the players who make up the competition for these spots come from some important avenues for talent — development, prospect for major leaguer trades, bounce back candidates, and strength for weakness trades.

This should be a make or break year for Huntington. Another sub-.500 finish would be unacceptable. The first base and corner outfield positions are all make or break positions. If a few of the guys above do play up to their potential, the Pirates would have a very real shot at contending in 2013. If all of the guys above struggle, then the Pirates will probably finish with another losing season, and that would be it for Huntington. I can’t really see a scenario where these guys work out and the team doesn’t contend, unless there are some major injuries to some key contributors at other positions. Likewise, I don’t think the current makeup of the team could seriously contend without a few of these guys playing up to their potential.

Links and Notes

**The 2013 Prospect Guide is now available. Order your copy today!

**Pirates Release Rick VandenHurk.

**Winter Leagues Recap: Johnson Continues Strong Winter.

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Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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thatboringdude92

Not to sound pessimistic, but even if everyone of the players you mentioned in your article have a break out season the team is probably still going to be in trouble.

They have an aging AJ Burnett who had his first good season since 2009. They have an aging/declining Wandy Rodriguez. They have JMAC who if he pitches anything like he did in the 2nd half of the season will become AAAA matierial, if he pitches like he historically has then he’s a #5 SP at best. They have Liriano, who although he has exciting stuff, can’t find the strikezone and hasn’t had a good season since 2010. Finally they have Morton/Locke/McPherson to round out the rotation. Morton has never had a season in which his ERA+ has been at/over 100 (100 means average pitcher). Locke has looked lost at the MLB level and hasn’t been able to get the hitters out thus far. McPherson looks to my eyes to be the best of the three guys battling for the # 5 slot, but he has just 13 games pitched above the AA level.

The Pirates and Huntington’s job are going to rely on the starting pitching staff that he assembled. I don’t see AJ being able to repeat last years performance. I can see Wandy continuing his decline. I can see JMAC pitching like a #4 -5 SP, and the #5 slot looks bad. It won’t matter how well the guys you mentioned in your article do because the starting pitching looks shaky at best. It’s probably one of the biggest reasons why Accuscore is projecting the Pirates to win 68 games this season.

beatembuccos21

Of course NH can’t know when players are going to get hurt. But claiming the timing of his being on the DL – the trading deadline – is a reason why he wasn’t dealt for more is misleading. It wasn’t like LaRoche had been out for six weeks with a serious injury. Huntington had the bulk of the month of July to work out a deal. He had the entire off season to work out a deal.

Among players dealt in August 2009 included Ivan Rodriguez, Aubrey Huff and Billy Wagner. So, waiver wire deals were being worked out with players who had name recognition.

There might be good reasons why he didn’t deal him ahead of time. But you aren’t exercising objectivity when you claim ‘what do you expect in return for a two month rental.’ He was a two month rental because Huntington waited to trade him.

I agree I’m looking at this in hindsight. But don’t you think it is reasonable to expect one impact player in return for a roster full of MLB players (even if they come from a last place team)? It’d be much easier to excuse some of these trades if one of them had delivered something of value (not a closer) to the major league team. Are you honestly happy with the returns that NH got in these deals collectively?

beatembuccos21

I’m looking at facts, just like you are:
1. Huntington traded LaRoche at the trading deadline in 2009.
2. Huntington could’ve traded LaRoche in the 2008-09 off season and didn’t
3. Huntington could’ve traded LaRoche in a waiver deal in August 2008 and didn’t
4. Huntington – who was active in the trade market in the weeks leading up to the 2008 trading deadline – didn’t trade LaRoche before he went on the DL just ahead of the actual deadline.

You look at the above and say “Huntington had good reason not to deal him until when he did. Therefore, LaRoche was a two month rental and you can’t expect a much in return for a two month rental.” I look at the above and say “the only reason he was a two month rental is because Huntington didn’t deal him earlier.”

Ecbucs

LaRoche didn’t have to be a two month rental but NH decided that was the time to deal him. He could have considered bringing LaRoche back or offering him arbitration. But the Bucs probably because of their own internal financial constraints felt the best return on LaRoche was trading him when his value had declined (sort of like Hanrahan although less excusable since the team was not close to competing).

beatembuccos21

‘very few players at the major league level who could be dealt for good returns’. I think that’s a cop out. I think that should read “Huntington was unable to turn the few solid players at the major league level into good returns.” Some GMs get good returns – actual impact players. I don’t blame the lack of return on the players that were dealt. I blame that on the GM doing the dealing.

whiteAngus

stop making so much sense, Tim. Sheeesh.

beatembuccos21

Why was LaRoche only a two month rental? Because Huntington decided to deal him then and not at the previous deadline or the previous off season. That’s on Huntington and his process.

beatembuccos21

That’s true about LaRoche being on the DL, but also a bit misleading. He left a game with a strain the day after Nady and Marte were traded . He was also on the roster from mid-August (a week before Bautista was dealt) to the rest of the year and perhaps could’ve been traded then.

The point is, Huntington had time to trade him. He didn’t. Apologizing for the lack of return on LaRoche by tossing out the ‘two month rental’ excuse doesn’t hold water.

At some point, Huntington has to be responsible for the lack of return that he got when he traded the players he inherited.

steve19981

I agree with the overall premise but not how the argument is framed. Neil Huntington’s job is on the line but it’s based on wins and losses not Sands and Sniders. just don’t see the same parallels between this year and 2010. The Pirates have more established options at the majors. This is a much better, much deeper team than that year. There is uncertainty at the corner outfield spots and 1B, but they have 8 options for 3 positions. You couldn’t say that in 2010. 3 of the 5 players you mention above could fail and the Pirates could still improve on last seasons record.

That 2010 team was miserable. This team is a piece or three from contending. NH’s job won’t be on the line because of what a individual players do but whether or not they collectively make progress. Snider, Tabata and Sands could bomb out but this team could still improve it’s record from last season. To me that is all that will matter, sustained progress. If the teams record improves, NH will keep his job. If it doesn’t he’ll be gone. Simple as that.

Ecbucs

i generally agree with this, although I think there are a lot of questions about players on this team. Will Barmes improve? Can Burnett pitch as well as 2012? Can McDonald be a good starter for a full season? Can Grilli close? Will Melacolon bounce back? Martin – can he improve offense and defense at catcher or did Yankees know something? GI Jones – can he come close to what he did last year? Can Pedro do better? What about Walker’s back?

Those are a lot of questions before even getting to Marte, Sands, Sanchez and Snider.

steve19981

There are a lot of questions for any team if you’re willing to reach on some. For example, Burnett may not match his 2012 numbers in 2013, but do you really envision him or McDonald pitching so badly that both fall out of the rotation entirely or fail to add value? I can’t.

The bottom line is that not all of those questions need to be answered to the affirmative for this team to be improved just like not all of the 5 players mentioned by Tim need to make it for NH to keep his job. Very rarely does a season go exactly the way the GM planned and it’s great to have multiple option. I think for the first time since I’ve followed the Pirates, they have depth that they can try another option if a player fails at virtually every position.

Thankfully the mainstream media has hockey to worry about again rather than nitpicking the Pirates and over analyzing them without any context to the rest of the league or any depth beyond the hypothetical.

Lee Young

“This should be a make or break year for Huntington. Another sub-.500 finish would be unacceptable. ”

I like the job NH has done, but I’ve long held the opinion that another GM is going to benefit from his work.

whiteAngus

i also agree with this. NH’s job was to rebuild the ENTIRE franchise and help get the team out of the red. he has done both.
sure, the MLB sqiad hasnt gotten over the losing streak just yet, but the entire franchise is so much better than it has been in decades.
.
that being said, NH will probably be gone if the team doesnt win this season. if the pirates turn the corner in a year or two, the new GM will get most of the credit even though NH planted the seeds for our now fertile farm.

Daryl Restly

I have to agree. GM Syd Thrift did most of the drafting and wheeling and dealing that built the three division championship teams from ’90-’92. I believe he was gone. He brought in an unknown Jim Leyland as the Pirates manager, picked up Bobby Bonilla from the White Sox, drafted Barry Bonds and Jeff King, traded established veterans Tony Pena, Johnny Ray, Rick Reuschel, Rick Rhoden and picked up Andy Van Slyke, Mike Lavalliere, Mike Dunne, Jim Gott, Jeff Robinson, and Doug Drabek, all key contributors to either the 1988 second place finish or the three division championship teams.

That said, I do believe that the Pirates are on the cusp of doing some great things. They just need a few more pieces in place. The ideal situation would be for Marte, Snider, Tabata, Presley, Jones and G. Sanchez, Sands to all play well in 2013 along with McCutchen, Walker, Alvarez, McKenry, Martin, Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, McDonald, Grilli, to the point where one of the current question marks could be a bargaining chip to fill a void elsewhere. I realize that isn’t likely given there probably aren’t enough at bats for all of them.

I personally think we see a scenario where one of them will do very well (I’m thinking Marte) while the others will battle it out between right field and first base, with Jones or Sands likely winning the 1B job and Tabata, Snider, Presley, and possibly Jones battling it out in RF. All this said, I’m not even considering 1B Clint Robinson into the equation.

beatembuccos21

When Huntington traded his vets, he didn’t get anything comparable to Bonilla, Drabek or Van Slyke. Worse yet, the second line of talent that those veterans from another last place, cashed strap team brought in return – Bream, Bell, LaValliere, etc – were better than what Huntington has brought in. As I’ve noted elsewhere in these comments – I don’t think it is too much to ask for one impact player in return for a major league roster.

Kerry Writtenhouse

Prospects weren’t valued as highly as they are today. The players being traded were better than the players Huntington was trading with the exception of Bay, who;s value was diminished somewhat because of injury. That being said, we will be facing the possibility of trading players coming up. I don’t see Alvarez signing any kind of extension, so I see him being dealt in the not so distant future. Hopefully, Huntington or whoever it may be, will have the guts to make those type of deals when the time comes.

Lee Young

Tim…”Sanchez is going to be graded against that first round compensation pick to see if Huntington made the right call.”

I agree, but I think someone up on BD did some research and the BEST player to come out of that slot was Brad Wilkerson.

It’s amazing how many of those comp pics wash out. Almost 80%!!

Maybe they thought it was worth the risk?

formerburgher

I believe that NH failures in trading established players is that he goes for quantity over quality. Instead of taking 1 or 2 top prospects he goes for 4 mediocre ones. This organization is loaded with mediocre mid 20s prospects. When you watch other small market teams ( Rays, Marlins) they move their stars and get back real prospects. NH has gotten praise for his drafting but really it is the owner finally paying for top choices. It could be argued their were better players drafted after Cole and Tallion. Tony Sanchez at number 4 looks real bad. I guess the only thing we know about him is that he has a glass jaw.

battlingbucs

I’m not seeing a deal that fits your description. Lets go through the deals. Adam LaRoche wasn’t going to net us a top prospect. Fredd Sanchez netter us Tim Alderson, a top prospect. Jack Wilson and Jose Bautista were not going to get us top prospects. Bay netted us Andy LaRoche, a top prospect. McLouth netted us Hernandez who was a fairly high ranking prospect. Nady netted us Tabata who was a high ranking prospect. Morgan netted us Milledge who was a failed top prospect and that is all he was going to bring.

Snell, Gorzelanny, Burnett, Chavez, Grabow, Lopez, Dotel, Carrasco and Hanrahan were not going to net top prospects at the time they were traded. *Hanrahan probably would of had he been traded earlier.

I’m also certain guys I left out like Hinske, Crosby, etc also weren’t going to net us much.

So in short the players who when dealt we could have reasonably expected a top prospect back for were Bay, Nady, McLouth and Sanchez. All 4 returns at least one high ranking prospect in LaRoche (#31 by BA), Tabata (#37 by BA), Hernandez (#62 by BA) and Alderson (#45 by BA).

Those rankings are where Baseball America had them at the beginning of the season in which they were dealt to the Pirates. Outside of those 4 players is there someone who NH dealt who should of netted us a top prospect? Because I can’t think of anyone.

Lee Young

Thank you Battling Bucs…at the time, pundits were in favor of the Bay deal. Don’t forget that B Morris was also a former #1 who was highly rated.

As for McLouth, Locke AND Morton were also highly rated. Morton was already pitching for the Braves. Locke was said to be the ‘key’ to the deal by many folks.

I’m tired of this argument that NH goes for quantity over quality. It doesn’t wash.

Foo

.

whiteAngus

i completely agree. not using the easy tool of hindsight, the Bay trade looked very nice on paper. alderson was briefly a top prospect as well.
.
when fans start spewing that NH never gets top dollar for the “stars” he traded, i usually groan and sigh loudly, basically because we really didnt have many real “stars” in the first place.

NorCal Buc

Three seasons ago, this team lost 107 games. The past two seasons have seen a remarkable turnaround. However, the improvement could be viewed as an expected trajectory of the budding talent in the system.

Anrew McCutchen grew into the talent everybody saw. Pedro Alvarez and Neal Walker made expected gains. Only Jose Tabata regressed last year. But as you said, Tabata is still younger than Starling Marte.

This year, I expect this trajectory to include Marte, Alvarez, Tabata, Gerrit Cole, and Travis Snyder. These guys are simply developing into their talent levels.

The value of early drafting a surplus of young pitching (pre round 12, say), can be seen in the acquisition of Wandy Rogriguez, a top three NL lefty of the past four years. A promising pitcher was dealt for Travis Snyder. There is much more young pitching available for further upgrades at PNC Park.

I see the improvement of the past two seasons as part of “The Plan” (remember that), that focussed on “The Young Core” (see above). 2013 ought to bring continual improvement, with greater than 82 wins.

Lee Young

NorCal…you need to bottle and sell your optimism…you could make a fortune…:)

NorCal Buc

107 losses; then contending the next July, and the following August?!
I’m merely looking at the players, the improvement, and expecting more of the same.
This ain’t molecular astro-dynamics.

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