In a recent blog post on ESPN.com, former Major League Baseball general manager Jim Bowden classified Pirates GM Neal Huntington among the “new school” when it comes to negotiating trades. While the post (subscription needed) served to illustrate the swap stalemate at this month’s winter meetings, I have a quibble with Bowden’s characterization of the Bucs’ baseball operations boss.
Perhaps chiefly by virtue of his relative youth, the 43-year-old Huntington is amenable to rapid-fire texts and emails instead of face-to-face or phone conversations with his GM peers. But this embrace of communication technology doesn’t put him among the more progressive personnel managers in MLB.
If it’s innovation and creativity you want, the Pirates front office isn’t the place to find it. At times, it seems like Huntington is following a paint-by-numbers routine in his attempt to construct the next winning baseball team in Pittsburgh.
Over the course of his five-plus years in command, Huntington has certainly followed the conventional wisdom of the rebuilding playbook. Trade older, expensive talent for young promise. When some of those prospects develop into viable MLB players, sign them to longer-term, team-friendly contracts. Make low-risk, high-reward moves in-season to augment a potentially-successful team.
All of those things aren’t without merit. In fact, in the correct doses, they have proven to be effective building blocks for cost-conscious franchises. However, if we accept that the Pirates will never approach an average payroll, more must be done to break this once-proud team out of its doldrums.
As Grantland’s Jonah Keri laid out in the aftermath of the recent Rays-Royals trade, Kansas City’s biggest offseason mistake isn’t trading elite prospect Wil Myers for a couple years of James Shields. Rather, the Royals are more guilty of a lack of organizational imagination. A willingness to ignore convention and roll with circumstances is valuable in any endeavor, especially roster construction.
For instance, the Rays are seemingly in a constant state of building and restructuring. It certainly hasn’t hurt their chances in the cutthroat AL East, where they have developed into consistent contenders. On the other coast, the Oakland A’s just dipped into the Japanese talent pool to sign shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima to a two-year, $6.5 million deal.
For the Rays, A’s and Pirates, it’s all about the employment of scarce resources. While Tampa Bay and Oakland battle their richer rivals with fresh thinking, Pittsburgh throws multi-year deals at tepid veterans like Clint Barmes and Russell Martin. Sure, Barmes and Martin could bounce back in 2013, but I can’t help thinking there’s got to be a better way to spend money.
The Pirates have a competitive core of players in varying stages of their athletic primes, along with a hard-earned prospect pool with some high-end potential. However, if Huntington and company are unwilling to take a chance and deviate from their blueprint, they’ll always be one step behind the innovators.
In the brutally capitalistic world of MLB, the Pirates can’t afford to be conventional. Unfortunately, they seem determined to operate that way.