2015 Pittsburgh Pirates Gradeout – Neal Huntington

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The offseason is unfortunately here and so we are simultaneously tasked with reflecting on the 2015 season and looking forward to next spring. As part of Rumbunter’s off-season coverage, we will be grading out virtually every member of the Pittsburgh Pirates who spent substantial time on the team’s 25-man roster over the past season. We will look at their seasons as a whole, show you their relevant stats, and assign a final grade to each player. Today’s entry: Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington

There are very few general managers in baseball who are held to such high standards as Pirates GM Neal Huntington. For a team that only recently returned to winning, this in itself is remarkable.

As we look to grade Neal Huntington’s performance for the 2015 team he assembled, it’s important to remember the challenges he faced after the 2014 season wrapped. The question marks were many. Russell Martin was assuredly gone. Francisco Liriano was not yet signed and questions about the everyday lineup were plentiful.

Huntington moved quickly, trading for Francisco Cervelli even before Martin officially departed and signing Liriano to an extension before mid-December. The Cervelli acquisition for left-handed reliever Justin Wilson threw up many red flags for fans, yet Cervelli would end up leading the team in batting average and serving as an emotional leader. Huntington backfilled the loss of Wilson with Antonio Bastardo – a proven reliever who shook off some early rough outings to become a reliable matchup left-hander late in the year.

He theoretically improved the team’s bench – clearly one of its biggest flaws – in bringing in Corey Hart and Sean Rodriguez. He went the unorthodox route in pursuing Jung ho Kang. That deal alone could allow other GMs to relax, but not Huntington.

The Kang deal was interesting in many ways. Huntington and his staff are very good at exploiting market inefficiencies and staying one step ahead of the curve. Looking to the Korea Baseball Organization for a position player is a great example of this philosophy.

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He went dumpster diving with Arquimedes Caminero and Radhames Liz.  Although only one of those flyers worked out, these are the types of moves that can put a team on track for 98 wins. He traded Travis Snider for what ended up being two valuable prospects. The deal was widely criticized at the time, yet Huntington got the last laugh as Snider found his way back to Pittsburgh later in the year.

Huntington brought back A.J. Burnett. Putting aside the emotional side of the signing, Huntington and his staff deserve a heap of praise for recognizing the capacity for one last good year from the aging hurler. Huntington recognized that he did not need to acquire the 2012 version of Burnett, but rather someone capable of holding down a no. 3 rotation spot. Credit Huntington for recognizing that Burnett’s abysmal 2014 season in Philadelphia was the result of a sports hernia injury that lingered most of the year.

The Burnett and Liriano signings gave the Pirates a stable starting rotation that could withstand lackluster performances on the back end from Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton.

Right before the season, Huntington signed Josh Harrison to an extension.  The immediate returns weren’t great. Harrison spent some time on the disabled list, and afterwards began showing flashes of his dynamic 2014 self. The jury is still out on this move, but it’s another example of the Pirates’ philosophy to identify extension candidates and act quickly and decisively.

He went the unorthodox route in pursuing Jung ho Kang. That deal alone could allow other GMs to relax, but not Huntington.

In-season, Huntington recognized his team’s needs and did not get into a bidding war for big names. Rather, he was content to do the work to scout an under-the-radar starter in J.A. Happ, as well as bullpen help in Joakim Soria. The addition of bench bat Michael Morse was lauded more for the Pirates sending Jose Tabata out of town, but Morse made some nice contributions down the stretch.

The Happ acquisition alone may warrant an A grade for Huntington, but the Soria deal was one that deserves more attention. Huntington was able to acquire a proven and effective bullpen arm with a career SO/W ratio of 3.82 at the cost of a fringe prospect. This deal strengthened an already strong bullpen and guarded against fatigue from the other workhorses in the Pirates’ arsenal.

So why am I “only” giving Neal Huntington a B+ grade for the 2015 season?

Mainly because of Pedro Alvarez.

While it did not come as news to anyone that Alvarez’s name was floated to many teams, one has to wonder if the Pittsburgh Pirates waited too long to come to a decision point on the slugger. Many reports suggested that Alvarez’s trade value took a dive this year after the rocky move to first. Would the value have been higher if the Pirates had shopped him during the offseason, before he showed that he may not be able to handle first base? It’s a valid question, and one that may only be truly answered once it is seen what type of return Alvarez will bring in the inevitable trade.

Alvarez did hit 27 home runs in 2015, and served as the Pirates’ chief power threat, and that shouldn’t go unmentioned, but with both the manager and the front office wanting him gone, it should have been handled sooner rather than later.

B+. Neal Huntington had a huge challenge ahead of him entering the 2014-2015 offseason. With expected losses and huge question marks, Huntington found great value at several key positions in Burnett, Cervelli, and others. His scouting and signing of Kang was a masterstroke that can’t be ignored. With a slight ding due to the back of the rotation and the inability to find a taker for Alvarez, Huntington gets a B+ for one of his finest seasons as a GM.. General Manager. Pittsburgh Pirates. NEAL HUNTINGTON

You’ve heard our take. Now it’s your turn. Sound off in the comments below, OR let us know on twitter.

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