Real Progress: How to better evaluate Neal Huntington’s record as Pirates GM

Pedro Alvarez

Pedro Alvarez, a 30-home-run hitter drafted by Neal Huntington. (Keith Allison/Creative Commons)

Columnists come up with fun generalizations on occasion.

The won-loss record is the only way to judge any general manager.

– Ron Cook, noted baseball scholar. September 28, 2012

That’s right, Ron Cook. It’s the only way to judge a general manager if you don’t factor in payroll, market size, revenue, meddling owners, injuries, expiring contracts, bad managers you didn’t hire, strength of schedule or any number of other factors over which a Major League GM has little to no control.

Over the last few days, it has become fashionable to quote the Pittsburgh Pirates’ won-loss records under the last three general managers as a way of “proving” the Pirates have made no progress under Neal Huntington. I have even see writers I respect like Alan Robinson and Dejan Kovacevic repeat the records.

Doing so completely disregards the state of the Pirates franchise when Neal Huntington took the job on Sept. 25, 2007, as well as the strategy he took to fix it. Huntington had no control over how the team was built before he became GM, and yet some people want to categorize the sins of the past under his name (with regards to the 2008-10 Pirates teams).

While previous GM Dave Littlefield didn’t tear up the soil and salt the earth in his final years as general manager, he did leave the new management in a peculiar situation. The Major League club was passable, but not a contender, and the farm system was in the bottom half of MLB in terms of overall talent.

The first three years of Neal Huntington’s tenure as general manager saw a definitive strategy in mind: trade Major League players whose contracts are set to expire, and replenish the minor league teams with future players from top to bottom. The result of that strategy has produced thousands of words and arguments already, touting the successes (acquiring Jeff Karstens, Joel Hanrahan, James McDonald, etc.) as well as admonishing the failures (Tim Alderson, Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge, etc.). Jose Tabata, the jury is still out on you.

My point is not to evaluate whether Huntington’s thrash-and-burn strategy has worked or not. But one simply has to recognize that Huntington and Co. knew the immediate consequences of it: liquidating the Major League roster of players like Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche and Xavier Nady took a mediocre Major League roster and made it bad. So the Pirates surely wouldn’t win a lot of games from 2008 through 2010, but rather improve the farm system in an attempt to build a true playoff contender beyond those years.

When folks quote the Pirates’ won-loss record under Huntington, they are completely ignoring the one basic truth about his tenure: his goal was not to make the Major League team a winner by 2010. Quite the opposite, actually, as the 2010 team had the youngest offense in all of baseball. Again, I’m not here to draw a conclusion whether Huntington should keep his job. I’m simply stating the facts behind his strategy.

Since those fire sale years, the Major League product has improved. The 2009 and 2010 Pirates teams limped to a .367 winning percentage and a minus-411 run differential. But the 2011 and 2012 teams made the jump to a far more respectable .464 winning percentage and a minus-126 run differential.

Being under .500 and having a negative run differential is not the goal. But the Pirates have undoubtedly shown improvement under Neal Huntington, and there’s more talent on the way.

So fine, Ron Cook, et al. If you would like to keep quoting records, I would like to make a suggestion. Quote the won-loss records for the last three Pirates’ general managers in their fourth and fifth full seasons on the job. It is far from perfect, and certainly doesn’t eliminate the variables of which a GM cannot control. However, it draws from the notion that GMs of small-market teams should be evaluated on the performance of the team later in their tenure, not at the very beginning of a rebuilding project.

Charting the Pirates general managers in their 4th and 5th years on the job

Note that Littlefield took over in July 2001, so I took 2002 as his first season. And while Bonifay wasn’t able to improve on that 79-win product in 1997, he got almost four more seasons to do so. Littlefield? His time as GM only saw the transformation of a 62-win team into a 68-win team with little to speak of in the minors.

Huntington has built something from that 68-win team/shallow farm system left behind by Littlefield. It’s now a 77-win team (with possibly a couple more wins to go this season) featuring a far better farm system to create a sustainable product.

Yeah, I just played your game, Ron Cook. I judged the general managers based on win-loss record. And by doing so, Huntington actually looks better than all the anger about the Pirates’ 2012 collapse would have you believe. After all, he has substantially improved the Pirates’ win-loss record each of the last two seasons without shipping out any prospects better than Robbie Grossman or Rudy Owens.

A winning baseball team in Pittsburgh? It’s in progress.

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