Buried in yesterday's election news, Bob Nutting made an appearance yesterday afternoon to give a vote of semi-confidence to Neal Huntington and his front office for 2013, basically saying that while he was upset by the collapse that he thinks that controversial military-style training needs to be toned down, that he thinks the front office deserves another year to build on the runs to almost-contention in 2011 and 2012.
This is not surprising. This is not really news, either. The World Series ended ten days ago. The general manager meetings are starting today and the winter meetings are in the offing. If Neal Huntington was going to be fired, it was going to be either during the season or at the very end of it to give the Pirates enough time to prepare for the off-season. If Kyle Stark was going to be fired for running military-style training during fall instructionals, it would've probably been before he was allowed to run military-style training during fall instructionals this year (it's not like this new). Letting Stark run the instructs and Huntington stay on through the World Series was an implicit vote of confidence and honestly, Nutting probably made his decision a while ago and tried to bury it on election day because he knew that his announcement was likely to bring histrionics from the people that have the most influence on how people think about the Pirates in Pittsburgh.
You certainly noticed that after powering through the end of a baseball season that almost broke me as a Pirate fan and declaring that I was back as a blogger, that I almost immediately disappeared again. It is not a coincidence that this happened when the Gregory Polanco/Kyle Stark story broke a few weeks ago.
Here's the reality as I see it: building a case for or against Neal Huntington and his staff is an incredibly complex thing. They were handed an impossible mess that was only going to get worse before it got better. All of their short-term attempts to fix it failed miserably and so everything bottomed out in 2010. Things have been getting better slowly since then, but no one honestly knows if they're going to get to a point where the Pirates are contenders. You can say that the team's slow recovery is due to strong work by the scouting team with their first round picks, or you can say that the reason that it's not happening quickly enough is that they haven't drafted well enough out of the first round. You can credit Kyle Stark and his development staff for molding Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson and Luis Heredia into real prospects while developing some useful players from the chaff that Dave Littlefield left lying around, or you can blame him for not developing the mid-round projects handed to him by the scouting team well enough.
All of that is to say this: if I were Frank Coonelly or Bob Nutting making a final decision on Huntington and his staff at the end of 2012, I probably would've fired them and cleaned house. Where I see the Pirates headed in the next five years with this front office is to exactly where Cleveland — the place that Huntington came from — has been mired for a while. There will be talent on the Pirates and when things break right, they'll have a chance. It won't always be a good chance, but it'll be a chance. They'll contend for the playoffs sometimes and less occasionally things will really come together and they'll make a serious run at a pennant, but the norm will be the fringe contention that we've seen the last two years. That's not bad. It's better than where the Pirates were five years ago. It's vaguely acceptable.
Who wants "vaguely acceptable" from their favorite sports teams, though? Not me. I don't want the Pirates to be the Indians, I want them to be the Rays. I want them to build a monster of a farm system that steamrolls the NL Central every year, no matter how much money the Cardinals or Cubs spend. I don't want to worry about the team only having until 2018 to contend, because they'll be screwed when Andrew McCutchen finally has to move on. I want a team that can make the playoffs and content for a pennant without everything having to go right. It's possible, even in Major League Baseball in 2012, but I think that sort of thing will take a better front office than the one the Pirates currently have in place. All of that being said, I can accept and acknowledge the accomplishments of Huntington's time as GM and I can respect Bob Nutting and Frank Coonelly's decision to give them another year. I don't think 2013 will be the year the Pirates get over the top, but I'm willing to give Huntington and Smith and Stark one more year to prove themselves. I can honestly understand the argument that they've earned that, even if I'm not certain that I agree with it myself.
In that vein, my concerns with Kyle Stark's were basically as follows:
1.) Does it work?
2.) Is anyone getting injured?
3.) Is the perception of injury scaring people away from the Pirates?
The answers to these questions are not at all apparent. Some of the best results that Stark and his team have gotten have been with very young ,very raw international players (Polanco, Hanson, Heredia, Marte), who are the players that are generally present at instructs at the end of the season. Stark's record is certainly not perfect, but I do think that he's generally got more positive hash marks in his column that Smith does. I don't know that military-style training is or isn't responsible for that. I don't think it's really something that's knowable.
The injury question is much more opaque than it appears, too. It's certainly true that Polanco aggravated an ankle injury this fall, but given that he was injured during the season and cleared to play before West Virginia's 2012 campaign ended, it's never been clear to be if the injury was a result of the training itself or of a player being cleared for something he shouldn't have been cleared for. That's a small but important distinction in this case. In any case, the injury may have been "more serious" the second time around, but it still didn't appear to be a hugely serious injury. The same thing goes for Jameson Taillon's knee injury after the 2010 season. It's not good that he got hurt, but how many young players get injured during regular team's conditioning drills? How bad was the injury, really? I don't really care that Taillon or his agent complained about the style of the training after that, because of course they're going to complain about something like that. Teams don't do any sort of conditioning because the players love doing it. In any case, it's possible that the Pirates' military training is injuring players, but it's impossible to draw that conclusion from the data we've been presented with.
The final question is nearly impossible to answer, but I'll simply say that it seems like Taillon's injury was something that was whispered about for a while and so my guess would be that Scott Boras knew all about it in 2011 and Josh Bell still signed with the Pirates when he absolutely did not have to. Neither Boras nor Mark Appel ever indicated that Appel's not signing with the Pirates had anything to do with anything except money in July, either. Again, it's possible that the Pirates' reputation with this training is scaring people off, but from the information available I think it's impossible to make that judgment.
This conversation got hijacked and twisted a long time ago, though, and I ceased to have any desire to participate in it. That's still the truth, but with the World Series over and the GM meetings starting and the winter meetings following, there are actual, important baseball issues to discuss, and so that's what I'm going to be doing.
The reality is this: I think that Nutting's statement yesterday tells us that he's giving Huntington one more year to prove himself. As I said above, I've already made up my mind and I think that he's a competent and unspectacular general manager in a market that needs a spectacular one to be a true competitor in Bud Selig's 21st Century Major League Baseball. I'm hoping I'm wrong, though. If Nutting is willing to give Huntington and his staff one more season, then I'm willing to plant a seed of doubt in my own conclusion and see how this winter and the coming season unfold objectively. As a Pirate fan, is there really any other choice?