I was one of the biggest approvers of Neal Huntington during his run as the General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I feel that approval was warranted, as Huntington took the Pirates from perennial losers to one of the best teams in MLB’s regular season over a short, multi-year stretch.
Prior to Huntington, the Pirates were a joke. There was no hope for the playoffs, and little hope for a winning season. The irony is that by the end of Huntington’s tenure, a winning season alone wasn’t enough, and the expectations placed on new General Manager Ben Cherington are for a return to the playoffs, and a longer stay this time around.
Huntington did an amazing job overhauling the amateur scouting department, among other parts of the organization that were overhauled. He increased the focus on the amateur international market almost 100-percent. The Pirates had surprisingly good comparative results from their international ranks, mostly due to developing Starling Marte.
Unfortunately, the player development was lacking, which led to a lot of great prospects who turned into average-or-worse performers in Pittsburgh.
Cherington has addressed this, bringing in John Baker to head up player development with a new approach that isn’t exactly new in other successful small markets. Other than Baker’s approach, a lot of what Cherington has done is similar to the end of Huntington’s tenure. The trades are more for upside than Huntington’s career work. However, Huntington landed Bryan Reynolds and Tahnaj Thomas as lower-level returns in some of his final deals. A lot of what we’re praising Cherington for is adding players who could hopefully develop into a Reynolds, or at least still be a promising prospect like Thomas several years after being acquired.
The last two drafts have helped to restock the Pirates system, and paired with the trade returns, makes the system one of the best in the game. Those drafts were overseen largely by the same scouting department that Huntington set in place. Likewise, the biggest international signings thus far have been a scouting process that was started under Huntington.
Cherington has done an outstanding job of maintaining the approaches that worked under Huntington, while aggressively focusing on areas that were weak under Huntington.
One of the biggest things I’ve learned on this site covering the Pirates over the years is that you can’t win just from one avenue of talent. You can’t trade your way to a winner. You can’t sign a bunch of free agents and build a winner. You can’t draft and sign amateur talent all over the world and build a winner through player development either.
You need all of that.
The player development aspect is more important for small market teams like the Pirates, as it’s their best opportunity to produce impact talent. That level of free agent is beyond Bob Nutting’s budget, and a trade comes with the risk of Chris Archer disastrous results.
The impressive thing is that Huntington was able to build a contender and a very strong regular season team over a three-year stretch (and arguably longer than that when you consider around .500 finishes) without great results from the farm system.
It makes you wonder what if Huntington had a better player development system?
Seeing as how Cherington is keeping the things that worked, and overhauling what didn’t work — including specifically the player development system — I think we might end up finding out the answer to that hypothetical question.
I think the results for the Pirates will be even better than last time. I’ll dive more into that in a future article, but everything I’ve seen and heard so far has been overwhelmingly positive.
I’ll add the quick disclaimer that I wasn’t against the old player development system. In general, I have a philosophy that there’s no one way to do things. I obviously have no control or say in how the Pirates are going to do things under either General Manager. My job becomes understanding as best I can what they’re doing, and trying to give my opinion on whether it could work and whether it is working.
We’re not going to know if Cherington’s approach is working for a few years, but my early thought on whether it could work is favorable. Under Huntington and Kyle Stark, the farm system was more militaristic, including the Navy SEALs drills and strict dress codes. Cherington and Baker have brought a more relaxed farm system, almost to be confused with a Major League camp if you didn’t know any better from the freedom given to the players.
As Baker has said to me many times, they’re treating the players like human beings. One thing they realize is that humans don’t excel through a cookie cutter military mentality, or through a small amount of development choices. They’re almost turning the farm system into a video game, where players can take control of themselves and choose what part of their game they want to improve. Once the choice is made, they’ve got an assortment of upgrade options to choose from, along with numerous coaches from across the different parts of the system to help them out.
We don’t know if this will work yet. What we do know is that it’s far more advanced than what the Pirates had before.
I’m optimistic about the part where the minor league players are built up as human beings, rather than being constantly reminded in so many ways that they’re less because they’re not in the major leagues.
Perhaps that will remove the invisible hurdle that has existed between Triple-A and Pittsburgh for so many years.
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