Frank Coonelly said this afternoon that Neal Huntington and his front office staff (plus Clint Hurdle, depending on how you read the statement, which mentions him with Huntington and Stark and Smith once and doesn't a second time) would be retained for the 2013 season, which puts most of the questions about Huntington's immediate future with the Pirates to bed. It's true that it's possible that Bob Nutting could make a different decision, but it seems wildly implausible that Coonelly would make the statement he made today without Nutting's approval and the fact remains that if the Pirates were planning on firing Huntington, they'd have to be doing it right now, so it's pretty likely that this is the team's decision as it relates to the front office.
I'm sure we'll spend plenty of time discussing this over the next ten days, but the initial reaction that I could judge (at least among Twitter-savvy Pirate fans) was that a lot of people were unhappy to see Huntington and his staff get a vote of confidence and another year after a second straight mammoth collapse. It's certainly true that Huntington bears some of the responsibility for these collapses, but I can't help but feel like that sentiment is basing a huge decision on a small sample size and that doing that isn't fair to Huntington. Imagine if the Pirates had announced an extension for Huntington on August 1st; the team was 60-44 and had won 40 of their last 60 games and everyone would've applauded and said it was well-deserved, and we'd all be LIVID now that the decision wasn't even made based on a full season's worth of data. You don't evaluate GMs on 60 games or even 162 games, you evaluate them on a body of work. The Pirates' collapses in 2011 and 2012 are part of Neal Huntington's body of work, sure, but they're not the whole thing.
When a team is faced with a decision like this one, I think everyone's inclination is to simplify it as much as possible. "The Pirates collapsed this year, so Neal Huntington deserves to be fired," or, "The Pirates are much better off than they were in 2007 or 2010, so Neal Huntington deserves another year." The reality is that neither of these things are necessarily wrong; it's that the question, "Should Neal Huntington and his staff come back for 2013" isn't one question, it's the sum of countless smaller questions. All of the smaller questions inform the final question, but it's not something that's easy or straightforward.
Allow me to make the case for Neal Huntington.
After the 2007 season, he was hired to take over a disaster of a franchise. The Pirates were going nowhere in 2007. They were built around Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay and Xavier Nady and Adam LaRoche and Ian Snell and Paul Maholm and Zach Duke. Those players were never destined for more than mediocrity together, and there was no help coming from the minor leagues. Worst of all, they had an expiration date of 2009. Bay, Sanchez, Wilson, LaRoche, and Nady were all going to be free agents after that season (or earlier) and the Pirates had almost no prospects except for Andrew McCutchen to take their place. Things were B-L-E-A-K when Huntington took over, and the Pirates were bad in 2008 and 2009 and they were awful in 2010. Since then, though, things are better. 57 wins to 73 wins to 77-79 wins, that's real improvement. The foundation is here with McCutchen and Alvarez and Walker and maybe even Snider and Marte. Cole and Taillon are coming, and no one's got a pitching calvary like that on the way. Huntington's nearly cobbled contenders together in 2011 and 2012, despite under-talented teams and despite a losing-induced stigma that prevents any free agent from coming anywhere near Pittsburgh over the winter. Really, though, the heavy lifting is done, so now we fill in the blanks. This is the easy part! Huntington's brought this team a long way from the Littlefield apocalypse, it's only fair to him that he be allowed one more season to see it through.
Now, allow me to make the case against Neal Huntington.
After five years on the job, what do the Pittsburgh Pirates have to show for the Neal Huntington era? Nothing. He dismantled Littlefield's mediocre Pirate teams in hopes of building a winner sooner, and instead his 2010 Pirates lost 105 games. Since then, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker have done a ton of heavy lifting on these near-contender Pirates, and he didn't draft either one of them. Almost all of his trades have been disasters. The Pirates have a better farm system, but it's not as good as you'd expect it to be based on the money spent on the draft since 2007 and it's not even good enough to ensure that it'll fill in the gaps with this flawed 2012 Pirate team. This team has the beginnings of a contender, but clearly needs more help to get over the top and Huntington can't sign a useful free agent to save his life! How good would the 2012 Pirates have been with real, living, breathing baseball players in the place of Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes and Erik Bedard? Would that kind of upgrade alone been enough for a playoff spot?
I'm being perfectly honest when I say that I've vacillated between both of these positions in 2012 and so I'm not lying when I say that I honestly think that you could make either case without being wrong. The Pirates farm system IS much better than it was when Huntington took over, but I'm also not sure that it's as good as it could be with the amount of money spent on it. The Pirates HAVE come a long way since that brutal 2010 season, but I'm not sure Huntington can use Dave Littlefield as an excuse in 2012. It IS awfully hard to convince good baseball players to come play for the Pirates, so who's fault is it for turning to the free agent market to fill key positions on the 2012 team? A big part of the Pirates' success in 2012 is due to scrap-heap guys like Garrett Jones and Mike McKenry and AJ Burnett. A big part of the Pirates' collapse in 2012 is due to a supporting cast that couldn't manage to support McCutchen and Alvarez and Walker over 162 games, which includes Barmes and Barajas and Bedard.
The Pirates have come a long way since 2007. Neal Huntington deserves credit for that. The Pirates have a long way to go to get somewhere meaningful. Neal Huntington might be the right general manager to get them there, but he also might not be. I'm not sure. Frank Coonelly seems to be. I hope he's right.