The Herald sat down with Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington on Saturday to discuss a variety of subjects during the club's second day of full-squad workouts.
Among the topics covered were the team's two-decade losing streak, finishing poorly the past two seasons and how to get better production from the top of the lineup.
Q: How do you feel about the 20 straight losing seasons? Would it be a psychological boost to end that and finish over .500?
A: I respect that there is a big core of our fan base that shoot for that target. But 82-80 is mediocrity in our minds. We want to be playing playoff games in October. If 82-80 is a checkpoint we pass along the way, that is fine. We have much loftier sights. Our goal
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is to win it all. We want to get in the postseason and win a league championship and be in the World Series. Those are the progressive goals. While appreciating that our fans would love to break the streak, our focus is on much bigger things.
You were 15 games over .500 last season (July 28th) and finished 18-41. What caused the collapse?
There is no single answer. Our pitching wasn't as good as it was the first four months. Our offense wasn't as good as it was in June and July. Some of the young players we felt would step in right away didn't have the impact that we had hoped for and we had some injuries. Instead of doing what they did to get to the point where we were 15 games over .500, some guys began to press. We began to carry it all ourselves instead of trusting our teammate was going to pick us up.
What are some of the challenges you face this season?
We struck out too much as a team last year and didn't control the running game well enough. We've got to do better at grinding out at-bats and get starters out of the game earlier to get to the weakest part of an opponent, which is the middle relievers. The way to do that is have hitters who have some discipline. The guys we've brought here in the recent past have that. Hitters have to have ability, but need to have plate discipline on top of that.
Neither of your two biggest home run hitters -- Andrew McCutchen (31 homers) and Pedro Alvarez (30) -- were able to drive in 100 runs. Shouldn't you be getting more production out of that power?
We didn't have enough base runners on in front. We've got to get on base more at the top of our lineup, and we've got some guys we feel can do that.
Do you like Starling Marte hitting in the leadoff spot (.300 on-base percentage last year)?
Marte is going to be a guy who hits his way on. If he has a high batting average, he is going to have a high on-base percentage. You would like some separation there and see a guy where it's not batting average-based. We may go with a non-traditional lineup, and some people might look at Clint and scratch their heads. We've got to have some guys who get on more than last year.
What is a good on-base percentage for someone batting in the first and second spot?
In a perfect world, you are looking at the upper .300s, but there aren't very many of those. As you look at the 29 other teams, there are just not a lot of guys who are the prototypical leadoff hitter who can get on base, steal bases and have enough power to have defenses respect them. There are very few in the game today.
Who are some of the guys you think can get on base more?
A healthy Neil Walker, Marte, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley; those are guys who can hit at the top of the lineup, and Travis Snider when he is going well is an on-base guy, but can also hit with power. Those guys who bring strike zone discipline also tend to bring the ability to draw some walks.
It sounds like a lot of the problems during the second half last season were mental?
A lot of the things we are doing in development is based on helping our guys be mentally tougher. We want them to be able to block out distractions, be able to overcome adversity and to relax and just play. Baseball is a mental game, and sometimes our guys think too much. We've got to get them to the point where they trust their preparation and just play. That is mental, but it is also physical. We've got to be a little stronger and be a little more resilient and tougher physically as a group. And we've got to worker harder as a front office to put more talent on the field.
What do you like about this year's team?
We were in a good spot last summer. We didn't finish the way we had anticipated, but the core of the production is back. We like the candidates for our starting rotation and the arms we've got for the bullpen. We like some of our core position players and some of the guys behind them.
What do you expect the addition of Russell Martin to bring?
Russell can block and throw and do so some things with the bat that we like offensively. We identified catcher as the biggest opportunity to impact the club in a positive direction, and Russ in our minds was the best free-agent catcher available.
What are some of things you can do to improve the pitching?
We are going to make some adjustments to our pitching and how we control the running game, but it's not just being quicker to home plate. It's varying tempos, it's varying pickoffs. It's just paying attention to it. But we have to make sure we don't sacrifice quality pitches and quality location. It's balance we need.
Who are the new people besides Russell Martin that you are counting on a lot this year?
Most of our improvements are going to come from the inside. We brought Jason Grilli back, we brought Jeff Karstens back and once we get Francisco Liriano healthy, we feel good about what he can do. The acquisition of Mark Melancon adds to our bullpen to keep it talented and deep.
Is there any new guy who could break into the lineup or the starting rotation this spring?
Really not out of spring training. We've got competition where we got some guys in the mix whether it be for the five spot in the rotation or the last couple of spots in the bullpen or our bench.
Jeff Karstens looks like a guy who can really help you if he can stay healthy.
Every time Jeff has taken the baseball for us, he has given us a chance to win. The challenge has been physically and keeping him out there enough so he can keep the baseball enough. People unfortunately get injured, especially pitchers. It is a high-stress role, and Jeff has had his challenges. He feels great and we feel good we were able to bring him back.
Do you feel the same way about Francisco Liriano, who broke his arm in December?
Once we get him healthy, we expect a guy who is going to come to the National League and still has quality pitches and attributes to be successful. We felt a move to our ballpark, especially our division would enable him to be one of the core pieces of our rotation.