In the first full day of official workouts at Pirate City, Neal Huntington gazes at the product he has created and says he has never been more optimistic.
He does not seem to worry that cynics might have a field day with his remarks.
Going into his fourth season as the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager, Huntington’s record has dipped each year from 67-95 in 2008 to 62-99 and 57-105.
In his defense, things were bad long before his arrival. The Pirates enter 2011 with 18 straight losing seasons.
“We came in with one of the worst records in baseball and one of the worst farm systems in baseball, and that doesn’t turn-around overnight,” Huntington says. “I do feel for the fans in Pittsburgh, and I understand their frustration and that they wanted it to happen overnight, but that is impossible. It doesn’t happen in Major League Baseball. It takes time and it takes discipline and patience.”
He notes a lot of teams that went from worst to first needed seven years, but he is not promoting a similar length.
“Three years ago,” is the answer Huntington provides when asked about his timetable.
“We want to win championships and build a championship-caliber organization. Eighty-one wins will never be a goal. I said that three years ago. If it’s a step in the process, I guess so be it,” he says.
Huntington re-shaped the organization when he took over in September 2007, and if things don’t change, he is the person people will blame. The Amherst University graduate has never shied away from that responsibility and won’t use lack of money as an excuse.
He changed scouting philosophy, made some unpopular trades and is now into his second manager in Clint Hurdle.
“Major League Baseball turnarounds don’t happen overnight,” Huntington says. “It’s not the NBA where a LeBron James can come in and he makes you a great team. Baseball takes a lot of very good players to develop, and we are in the process of developing a lot of good young players and have added some veterans.
“We had to make some difficult decisions along the way, but every decision has been with the ultimate goal of putting us in a position to win.”
The winning hasn’t come, but Huntington has been steadfast that his way is the right way, and he is optimistic this year’s team could prove him right.
He has a nice core of young players led by outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and infielders Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, the Pirates feel-good story of 2010.
He has already talked to Tabata, Alvarez and Walker about sophomore jinxes, telling them they will have to work twice as hard this season to maintain their production from last year.
Though the quartet garners a lot of attention, Huntington is excited about others like pitchers Ross Ohlendorf, James McDonald, Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek and a wave of guys coming behind them.
“It’s guys like Lyle Overbay and Kevin Correia, who wanted come in and be part of this because they know what a special city Pittsburgh can be and what a tremendous turnaround this will be when it happens,” he says.
Pittsburgh had the lowest payroll in baseball last year at $34.9 million, which was 11 spots below Cincinnati ($72.3 million), the next closest team in its division in salary rankings.
However, Huntington, who is in the final year of his contract, says money is overrated in building an organization.
“Money gives you a larger margin for error, and it makes mistakes easier to accept,” he says. “The teams who have had success in the small- to medium-sized markets provide a model. You have to make good business decisions, and you can’t get emotionally attached to any player or any situation.
“But it is very feasible and very do-able as the last handful of seasons has shown. In 2007, three of the final four teams were in the bottom ten in payroll. It’s a challenge and a struggle, but we’ve got to learn from those who came before us. Money makes it a little easier, but that’s about it. It doesn’t mean its going to happen. It’s a game of human beings and human beings don’t always function consistently or as expected and that is what makes it so much fun and challenging.”