Did Neal Huntington succeed this winter?

Way back in November, I spent quite a bit of time worrying about how Neal Huntington would handle the tall off-season task that he created for himself. By not picking up his (admittedly pricey) options on Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit, and Ronny Cedeno, Huntington gave himself a team that needed a shortstop, catcher, and quite a bit if rotation help to go with an iffy situation at first base and what we’ll call “The Pedro Alvarez Situation” at third base. Because the Pirates weren’t as good as their record in 2011, jettisoning useful players worried me quite a bit and I said more than a few times that without some kind of vision and creativity, that the off-season could be a disaster for Neal Huntington. Now that the off-season is mostly over, let’s look at Huntington did and what he accomplished. 

Before we really dig into this, I’d like to offer a bit of an opening caveat. Whenever I take a look at something that’s decidedly big picture, like the work of a GM over the course of an entire off-season, my first instinct is to look for a plan. If I can find a plan and understand it, I tend to be less critical. This happens for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s a left-over from the Littlefield era, when there never was any sort of discernible plan and chaos generally reigned. This is a bad habit, because it’s not 2006 anywhere anymore; not in Pittsburgh with Huntington’s front office, nor in the rest of baseball where guys like Littlefield can no longer hold down jobs long-term. The other reason is a bit more complicated, and it comes at the crossroads of trying to determine what it is I do and don’t know and what I don’t want to know because I want to be able to let myself be at least a little bit hopeful about baseball in Pittsburgh so that I can enjoy the season. This  “I don’t [understand, agree with, whatever] this, but I’m just a grad student with a baseball blog and while I certainly think that I know my stuff, I have increasingly less time to think about baseball and so perhaps I should defer to the smart people actually running a baseball team.” From a purely analytical standpoint, sometimes that’s the right thing to do and sometimes it’s the wrong thing to do. I’m always trying to find that middle point and to be honest with myself about it. 

With that out of the way, let’s ask ourselves two questions about the Pirates’ moves this off-season. The first is to simply figure out what Neal Huntington hopes the moves he’s made this winter will accomplish and the second is to ask whether or not these moves will actually accomplish those things. Or, more simply, what was the plan and what are the chances the plan will work? 

Really, there are three tiers to Huntington’s moves this winter. Going from most to least dramatic, we’ve got the rotation makeover, the Barmes and Barajas signings, and the corner infield tweaks. That we can rank those three sets of moves thusly gives us some insight into what Huntington’s plans this winter were. Huntington can claim that he didn’t need to add a second starter after Erik Bedard all he wants, the reality is that the Pirates apparently pressed hard on Edwin Jackson and were presumably willing to do the same for Roy Oswalt and then went out and did what they needed to do to get AJ Burnett into camp. The Pirates’ staff in 2011 was a strange pitching staff; some guys leaned heavily on groundballs and some guys didn’t, but they all managed to find some weird in-between success for a big chunk of the year. There wasn’t one unifying theme to the staff, I didn’t think. You could argue that groundballs were important, but really, only Charlie Morton got a ton of grounders. You could say they stressed control, but Morton and James McDonald walked a ton of guys. Something worked, though it’s not easy to pinpoint what. That’s a problem; the bubble burst late in the 2011 season and there’s no reason to think that the early-season success from last year would be replicable. To rectify that, the Pirates did the best they could to add strikeouts to the rotation. They got a bargain on Bedard because of his injury problems and they got Burnett because of his salary and his ugly numbers in New York. Both have risk associated with them, but now the Pirates (at their healthiest) have three strikeout pitchers in their rotation, plus one real groundball pitcher. That only leaves Karstens, who’s neither a groundballer nor a strikeout pitcher, as a tweener-style pitcher in the rotation. Last year, the Pirates hoped their pitching staff would keep them in games. This year, it’s fair for them to hope the pitchers will win some games for them. 

That leaves the two biggest holes on the field opened up by the declined options: catcher and shortstop. It seems to me that what the Pirates did here was ask themselves what their worst-case scenario at each position was, and then try to avoid it. The worst- case scenarios are obvious, because they’re the Pirates’ internal options; neither Chase d’Arnaud nor Mike McKenry can hit at all and they have dubious defensive value. They’re probably worse than replacement level players, and they’re much, much worse than the players the Pirates lost last year. I’m also not sure where the Pirates’ ceiling was at either of these positions this winter, because the shortstop market (at least for the Pirates) was relatively limited and they have several catching prospects that would preclude making a big free agent splash or trade. Essentially, they split the difference and settled for similar players at both positions in Barmes and Barajas. Their main value is defensive, but they both have a bit of pop in their bats that makes them better, at least, than the internal options. If you consider the time Doumit generally misses with injuries, you can probably guess that Huntington’s goal here was, “Find players that will, on the whole, bring us back to the same level the team was at in 2011 at these positions.”

Finally, we’ve got the corner infield strengthening. The Pirates were absolutely awful at first base and third base for most of 2011, between Lyle Overbay and Pedro Alvarez and Josh Harrison and Chase d’Arnaud they spent most of the season accomplishing almost nothing at the plate from either position. The immediate solutions are obvious: give Alex Presley the every day job in left field, move Garrett Jones to first base, and hope that something clicks for Pedro Alvarez. Going into the winter, what the Pirates needed here was both two-fold and obvious. We saw last year that Jones can be a productive player, but that he needs a platoon partner and it’s obvious that the Pirates need a better back-up plan in case Alvarez flounders. Casey McGehee should function in both roles, with Nick Evans also being signed to both platoon with Jones and add some defense at first base. 

If we look back and try to retroactively guess Neal Huntington’s plan for the winter, what I see is this: make a real improvement to the pitching staff, don’t get worse at the positions that lost players to free agency, and try to avoid having black holes in so many positions at the top of the defensive spectrum. None of this will put the Pirates over the top, but the goal, as I see it, was to build a decent enough supporting cast that the team can do something surprising if the important young players (McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, Tabata, and even Morton and McDonald to a lesser extent) evolve enough in 2012. That was the goal last year, too, and though it’s easy to say that it failed because Diaz and Overbay were so awful, the revamped pitching staff did keep the team in contention pretty late into the season. This is more or less a variation on that strategy, with more focus on pitching and defense and less focus on acquiring offensive players.

So, will it work? I’m more torn on this. It could work, but a whole lot of the success of this off-season is tied up in older guys and guys with injury histories. Barajas is 36, Burnett is 35, and Barmes and Bedard will be 33 in March. Given that we’re already making concessions with each player (Barajas and Barmes can’t get on base, Bedard has huge injury problems, Burnett has control problems and homer problems, Barmes’s defense is pretty good but his arm is weak, etc.), it’s easy to see how any one of these acquisitions could be a disaster. Barajas and Barmes could be so bad at the plate that their defense can’t cover. Barmes’s defense could lose some of its luster this year. Barajas, at his age, might only end up catching 80 games. Bedard might only throw 40 innings all year. Burnett could keep regressing to the point that he reproduces his Yankee Stadium numbers even in PNC Park in the NL Central. The real Casey McGehee could be the one we saw in 2011. That said, I think that Bedard and Burnett (and McGehee, with a lower risk/lower reward caveat) are risks that are very much worth taking for the Pirates in 2012 and that Barmes and Barajas both probably promise a baseline performance higher than McKenry or d’Arnaud do in the immediate future. 

For now, I think that the path Huntington took with the rotation this winter is admirable; he exposed himself to some serious risks to make a real upgrade in the pitching staff rather than simply sitting back and bringing in “safe” guys like Jeff Francis or Paul Maholm. Those two may end up being better pitchers than Bedard or Burnett in 2012, but they don’t offer the same upside. The Pirates’ rotation could be very good or very bad in 2012 as a result of Huntington’s winter, and honestly the result could cost him his job. I’m happy he elected to roll the dice, rather than to play it conservatively because that’s the only way the team will truly improve in 2012. Part of me wishes that he’d done the same thing at catcher and shortstop and part of me understands the need to play it a little safer in those positions, especially given the risk inherent in Burnett and Bedard. Getting defenders like Barmes and Barajas could be awfully important if Brad Lincoln or Jeff Locke or Rudy Owens end up logging serious inning totals in 2012. Huntington picked his spots and given the team’s needs and the market for pitching compared to the catcher and shortstop markets this winter, it seems to me that he chose wisely.

The reality, though, as you know it and I know it and the team knows it, is that if real improvement in 2012 is coming, it isn’t coming from any of these off-season additions. That burden lies squarely on the shoulders of McCutchen, Walker, Alvarez, and Tabata. It’s on Alvarez to bounce back from an awful year, on Tabata to stay healthy and evolve his game into a true leadoff hitter, on Walker to carry his April and May power surge into August and September, and on McCutchen to finally put his incredible skill-set together for 162 games. That’s what the Pirates really need to make the 2012 edition different. The other players are really just filling in the blanks; hopefully we can look back in October and say that they mattered. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.