Neal Huntington has gotten his share of grief over the years.
The Pittsburgh Pirates’ general manager, now in his sixth full season, has swum upstream against the current of public perception since the day he took over for Dave Littlefield. While some Bucs fans understood that he had to tear the organization down in order to build something worthwhile, most didn’t realize just how far their favorite team was from true contention.
That sentiment was understandable. The 2008 Pirates had one of MLB’s better offenses and a host of serviceable position players: Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit. For a fanbase that hadn’t seen a winning season in 16 years, it seemed like real progress to get to that point.
But the team had no pitching to speak of – and only Andrew McCutchen as a true elite prospect in the minor-league system – so Huntington melted the Pirates down. After a true bottoming-out in 2010 (105 losses), the Bucs showed signs of life in 2011 and moreso in 2012, hanging in playoff races into the second half of both seasons.
As would be expected of a man in his position, Huntington added veterans in each of the last two seasons to try to bolster his contending ballclubs. Some (Derrek Lee, Wandy Rodriguez) were more effective than others (Ryan Ludwick), but the Pirates GM did what he was “supposed” to do, even if the last two seasons ended in slumps.
Somehow, Huntington’s efforts at augmentation were forgotten by some at this year’s July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, when he declined to make a deal in a difficult market. Somehow, Huntington was suddenly unwilling sacrifice some of the future for the present. Tuesday’s waiver trade for Mets outfielder Marlon Byrd (and backup catcher John Buck) might have changed a few minds, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
That’s fine, because ultimately Huntington won’t be judged by one trade, one season or popular opinion. If you’re seeking real season-altering transactions, look to the past two offseasons, when the Pirates have added A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin and Mark Melancon for minimal givebacks. No matter how Byrd performs over the next few weeks (or more), having a player for six months is better than one or two.
Midsummer moves get the headlines, but Huntington’s best work has always been in the winter. For what he’s done year round to put the Pirates on a playoff path, he is the clear favorite for MLB’s annual executive of the year award. He’s fought the stigma of 20 straight losing seasons and PR disasters like two late-season collapses and unorthodox minor-league team-building techniques, but Huntington has been consistently astute in doing his job.
By sheer force of competence, Huntington has established himself as one of MLB’s best GMs. The Pirates’ entire organization has been greatly strengthened under his leadership. His style isn’t terribly flashy, but his work is to be celebrated.