The 2007 season ended with little fanfare and a lot of frustration as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ ended with another year under .500 (68-94), for the 15 consecutive year, well on their way to 20, and with a lot of frustration as to future of the ball club. Many barely noticed when Neil Huntington was hired as the Pirates’ new General Manager 5 days before the season ended on September 25, 2007. A relative unknown to even the most passionate baseball fans, Huntington had spent the previous 10 years with the Cleveland Indians in various roles. From the moment he stepped on the scenes it was clear that the philosophy of the organization, along with many of the former members of the baseball operations department, was going to be completely different; a complete organizational “rebuild” if you will. He started by firing Jim Tracy as the team’s manager on October 5, 2007 and, by November 2, made it clear that he, along with his new staff, were going to focus on utilizing sabermetric techniques in order to evaluate players, individually. Is any of this starting to sound familiar to everyone? Huntington then went about filling his staff, hiring a new manager (John Russell) and evaluating talent.
For the next year, Huntington barely made a move. Then the flood gates opened in July of 2008, at least for a little bit, as Jason Bay and Jose Bautista were traded away with in a month of each other. Almost a year later, he let the gates open again as he traded away Nate McClouth, Sean Burnett, Nyjer Morgan, Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Ian Snell, Jack Wilson, Tom Gorzelanny, and John Graybow all during the 2009 Season. The Pirates were officially in a “rebuild”, if this was ever in question.
In 2010 the Pirates began the season with one of the lowest payrolls in years (approximately $35 Million) and had the worst season I, and many others can remember, ending the year with a record of 57-105, all while making another rash of trades at the deadline. Even though Manager, John Russell had been extended through the 2011 season, he was relieved of his duties on October 4, 2010. And we all know what happens next; in comes Clint Hurdle.
The next year the Pirates’ started to turn things around. Slowly, but surely Neal Huntington’s plan was coming together as the Pirates improved to 72-90, most of this was due to a second half collapse. Then, prior to the 2012 season, Huntington made his move by trading for A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees. He had spent the previous 4 seasons and off-seasons building up a farm system with young, talented players and now was the time to strike. The Pirates flirted with .500 for the majority of the season, but ended with a 79-83 record.
After the season, the Pirates’ faithful were optimistic and this optimism was rewarded when they signed Russel Martin as the team’s starting catcher on November 30, 2012. The “rebuild’ was coming to an end and the Pirates were ready to compete. Over the next 3 years, magic came to PNC Park, as the Pirates made three straight playoff appearances, we had a homegrown MVP in Andrew McCutchen, a developing ace in the rotation in the form of Gerrit Cole and every move that Neil Huntington made seemed to turn into gold.
On an early October night in 2015 all of that magic and all of that gold went away as the Pirates fell to the Chicago Cubs 4-0, with their developing Ace on the mound; only managing 5 hits in the process. Only we didn’t know that magic was gone at the time. We were waiting for it to return the next year. And even if Neil Huntington was aware that window of opportunity was quickly closing, he didn’t let anyone know, or maybe he wasn’t ready to admit it. Maybe he thought he could keep the magic going a little longer. After the season ended A.J. Burnett, recently acquired J.A. Happ, the once promising Brad Lincoln and Pedro Alvarez were all granted free agency. The “Pittsburgh Kid” Neil Walker was traded to the Mets and Charlie Morton was sent packing to the Phillies. They were replaced by Jon Neise, John Jaso, Matt Joyce and David Freese. The season did not go as anyone would have thought or how I remember anyone predicting it to. The Pirates record fell by 20 games as they finished 78-83, good for third in the division, but not good enough for their 4 straight playoff appearance.
In July and August of that year, Neil Huntington, once again returned to his trading roots; maybe trying to strike gold again or maybe starting another “rebuild." Francisco Liriano was sent packing in a “salary dump” to the Blue Jays, Mark “the Shark” Melancon was sent to the Nationals, Jon Neise was traded back to the Mets, veteran Ivan Nova was acquired from the Yankees and once promising prospect, Arquimedes Caminero was traded to the Mariners for two new promising prospects.
The entire off-season between 2016 and 2017 was spent hearing rumor after rumor of Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates’ home grown MVP, being shopped all around Major League Baseball. When none of these rumors came to fruition and Huntington once again decreed to fans that the Pirates were going to “compete” again in 2017, everyone calmed down and maybe let themselves feel a little better about the season to come. However, 2017 would not be any better than 2016 as the Pirates struggled to a 75-87 record, good for fourth in the NL Central. At the trade deadline that year, set up man Tony Watson was sent to Dodgers for minor leaguers Oneil Cruz and Angel German. Then, on Janury 13, of 2018 the first shoe dropped as Gerrit Cole was traded to the Houston Astros and, before Pirates fans could catch their breath, Andrew McCutchen was traded to the San Francisco Giants.
You would have thought we were going into another “rebuild”, if we hadn’t been already after the moves made over the previous couple of seasons, but then Huntington did something very peculiar. A little over month after trading away our once developing ace and our home grown MVP, Huntington traded for 2017 All-Star outfielder, Corey Dickerson. Maybe the Pirates were going to “compete”. Maybe we weren’t in a “rebuild."
As the 2018 season progressed, the Pirates started to look like a team going into or being in a “rebuild." Then it happened. The Pirates caught fire and started to make up room in the race for at least a Wild Card. This is when Huntington either abandoned his original plan, which could have been in his mind since the 2015 Wild Card loss to the Cubs, or went along with his disillusionment that Pirates were ready to compete. On July 31, 2018 Huntington traded Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and the Pirates’ first round draft pick from the previous year, Shane Baz to the Tampa Bay Rays for Chris Archer. The Pirates ended the season over .500 (82-79), but once again in fourth place in the NL Central.
As the off-season progressed it became apparent that Huntington did not have a clear plan and/or direction for the team as he signed Melky Cabrera, Francisco Liriano and Lonnie Chisenhall. Two of these three turned out better than any of us could have expected, but the other one disappeared, never to be seen again. Luckily for Huntington, his clear lack of a vision was overshadowed by Josh Bell playing at a historic pace, the emergence of Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman and the team only being 2.5 games out of first place at the All-Star Break. What came next can only be described as a full on implosion.
As the season was coming to an end, it seemed as if nothing was going to change and the Pirates, along with Neil Huntington, would move forward as if they didn’t have a 69-93 record (one game better than their 2007 season), the team wasn’t fighting everyone, including themselves, with their closer in jail and questions about the future of the team completely unanswered. However, a change was coming; just maybe not in the “normal” order for organizational overhauls. After the dust had finally settled, president Frank Coonelly was replaced by Travis Williams, general manager Neil Huntington was succeeded by Ben Cherington, manager Clint Hurdle was supplanted by Derek Shelton and, Uncle Ray Searage was ousted and his pitching coach position taken over by Oscar Marin.
From the moment Ben Cherington opened his mouth I was reminded of Neil Huntington back in 2007, but not in a bad way. There was talk of a “player-centric” vision for development, a plan of identifying, acquiring, developing and deploying players, that there is a core group of players to “build” around, so there is no need for a “rebuild” and a belief that Nutting would open up his wallet when the team is ready to compete; which has become an awful word to Pirates' fans.
What most fans have seen while Cherington has been talking is less than hope inducing. With the acquisitions of Luke Maile, Guillermo Heredia and JT Riddle, along with many minor league signings, the trading of a home grown talent like Starling Marte for two high risk/high ceiling minor league prospects (this could have happened under Huntington as well) and a projected payroll that will be among the lowest in Major League Baseball.
However, I implore all of you to look back and remember the anger and despair that existed between 2007 and 2012. Then look at joy and magic that existed between 2013 and 2015. This can happen again. And luckily I do not believe it will take as long this time because the “rebuild” was already started as early as the off-season season between 2015 and 2016; Huntington just never fully committed to it. He tried to walk the line between “rebuild” and remaining “competitive”; maybe out of fear, delusion, arrogance or just plain foolishness. We may never know. What I do know is that there is a chance that Ben Cherington can follow through with the plans originally laid out 13 years ago by a young Neil Huntington and he won’t let whatever it was that prevented Neil from taking the team in the right direction after the 2015 season get in his way.
Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement