The Pittsburgh Pirates need to recognize what they are
By Joe Smeltzer
It’s up to the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates to realize what they are
Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington is a lot of things, but dumb is not one of them.
No village idiot could be the architect of turning one of the great embarrassments of North American sports into a perennial playoff contender, which Huntington did in the early part of the 2010s.
While the Pirates GM has lost a step or 20 since the team’s last postseason appearance in 2015, he’s shown that the savvy mind that brought playoff baseball back to Pittsburgh is still in his skull, and, occasionally, comes out from behind the curtain to applause from Bucco fans.
Any general manager who can turn an aging Andrew McCutchen, an impending free agent in Mark Melancon and an ineffective Tony Watson into Bryan Reynolds, Felipe Vazquez and hot-shot prospect O’Neil Cruz still has something left in the tank. While Huntington has lost his fastball, he’s still capable of making deals that would warrant seven years in the Allegheny County clink for robbery. Thus, it’s fair to say that Huntington qualifies as an intelligent man.
So why does it appear that, amidst our fourth straight summer of discontent, one of the only people on the planet whose opinion matters can’t even correctly identify what’s wrong with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Bucs need to rebuild. Any team that loses 20 baseball games in 26 days probably isn’t going to be good in the near future, and the Pirates are no exception to the rule. For three years, the team floated down the river of purgatory. Now, it’s, to paraphrase Ellis Redding in The Shawshank Redemption, “crawling through 500-yards of s**** smelling foulness I can’t even imagine.”
We know the Pirates stink now, and we know the team will do little if anything to improve between November and February thanks to Bob Nutting. If Huntington is the smart man logic tells us he is, he knows it too. But at a time of year when the team is face down dead in Turtle Creek, any reasonable organization would be giving players who just might be on the roster when it doesn’t suck a chance to show what they can do at the big league level.
A chance to shine. A chance to fail. A chance to succeed, and a chance to overcome growing pains. Huntington doesn’t appear to be interested in seeing the future, or, for that matter, giving this fan base a reason to give a damn about what anybody does over the next two months.
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How else can we explain why Mitch Keller is in Triple-A? Huntington has given his reasoning as to why Keller is in Indianapolis. While he’s acknowledged that Keller might one day be able to hang with the big team, he also explained that the reason Keller isn’t here yet is because it’d just be too difficult to take somebody out of the starting rotation.
Maybe Huntington is engineering the 1995 Braves, and we plebeians are fools for thinking we’re watching the Pirates’ worst starting rotation since 2010. Apparently, it’s Huntington’s belief that the organization’s top pitching prospect, with an upper-90s fastball and an above average curve isn’t worthy of starting games over tomato cans such as Dario Agrazal and Alex McRae. The only conceivable explanation for that is that Keller, with a 10.50 ERA in three big league starts, hasn’t been good in 2019, and 2019 still matters to Huntington.
As rotten as Keller’s cup of coffee in the majors tasted, he’s a part of the Pirates future. Agrazal and McRae aren’t. Yet those two have gotten chances, while Keller still rides the buses in the International League.
Huntington’s blindness to the future of their franchise goes beyond Keller. If the Pirates were focused on building toward the future, Erik Gonzalez and Pablo Reyes’ names wouldn’t be written in black marker. Gonzalez, who isn’t good, is taking valuable playing time away from Kevin Newman who is. Meanwhile, Reyes with an OPS+ of 27, is somehow still playing baseball at the highest level in the world. Neither of these guys figure to be part of the Pirates’ future plans. So what purpose does penciling their names in the lineup card on a meaningless August night serve?
It’s also hard to justify the Pirates other middle infielder, Adam Frazier, starting every day. For this team to build toward the future, the best possible double play combination is Newman and Cole Tucker. Aside from one magical stretch in early July, Frazier has been awful (hey, a metaphor for the 2019 Pirates!), and doesn’t figure to be here when this team is a winner again. So, what’s his use? What’s the trouble with giving Tucker another chance at short and moving Newman to second, or vice versa?
As hard as it might be to believe, the Pirates aren’t the worst team in baseball. There are currently six major league teams with worse records. The difference between the Pirates and these six teams is that all six of them are in the process of a rebuild.
The Miami Marlins roster purge is well documented. The Toronto Blue Jays have pumped new blood through the Great White North, ready to lead them into the next decade. The Baltimore Orioles are a year into their rebuild. The Seattle Mariners raided their roster in the off season, while the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers know they need to sink before they can swim again in the AL Central.
I don’t know why Huntington is so reluctant to start a rebuild. Sure, Tucker, Keller and probably Ke’Bryan Hayes will get chances in September, but that’s not good enough. 2019 has been a nightmare, and 2020 doesn’t look much better. Maybe Huntington hasn’t lost his mind, but he sure seems like a man who is clutching to 2015 as if he’s trying to avoid falling off the UPMC building.
The Pirates can get to the top again if they recognize the need to rebuild. While all of this cannot be pinned on Huntington, as he works for a boss whose pride and joy is the bottom line, he hasn’t helped the problem.
Huntington resurrected this team once before, but he doesn’t deserve the chance to do it again.