I've been having trouble for a while now finding a way to articulate the fact that I'm not impressed with the way the Pirates have been run recently. It's a lot harder now than it was under the Dynamic Duo of Destruction, Dave Littlefield and Kevin McClatchy. That was easy: the team lacked any commitment whatsoever to trying to improve itself, whether through the farm system or through taking risks at the major league level in an effort to find higher ceiling players. That's not true now. The Pirates have invested as much as any other team in their farm system and the front office has taken extensive risks with the major league team, trading away players that fans have heard of for players who might have more long term potential. In fact, the team deserves credit, which it never gets, for its willingness to take chances in order to get better, instead of clinging to a losing roster in fear of adverse fan reaction, the way the McClatchy/Littlefield Pirates did. Unless you're a Nutting stalker obsessed with birther-type conspiracy theories, it's harder to put your finger on the current problems.
Still, the fact is they lost 299 games in Neal Huntington's first three years as GM and, in my opinion, will probably lose another 95+ this year (although that's not the point of this post). Huntington has been chronically unable to find talent at the major league level. After this much time, I don't think it's sufficient to point to Littlefield's barren farm system as an excuse. And you don't have to believe, as so many fans do in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the answer is adding payroll and signing expensive free agents in order to think the team should have made more progress by now. You also don't have to be obsessed with the veteran-for-prospect trades; apart from the fact that most Pirate fans seem to wildly overrate the veterans who were traded, those sort of trades generally don't work out that well, anyway.
The problem is, GMs are almost always judged by the trades and signings they make, but not by the ones they don't. It's like proving a negative, because you have no way of knowing what the GM could have done. It's easy, and foolish, to boil Huntington's tenure down to the Bay trade. No one trade or signing, or even a group of them, really tells the story. It wouldn't matter how the Bay trade came out if Huntington found talent somewhere else. What matters is the bottom line, in particular Huntington's inability to find starting pitchers, a shortstop and corner bats.
Other teams have shown an ability to find talent in ways apart from big trades and signings, and developing prospects. They do it by resurrecting down-on-their-luck veterans, giving chances to struggling or blocked prospects, or by finding the right overlooked minor league veterans. The Reds had a string of successes with struggling former top prospects in Brandon Phillips, Jose Guillen and Josh Hamilton. The Giants won a title in part due to waiver acquisitions Pat Burrell and Cody Ross, and minor-league veteran Andres Torres. Milwaukee has gotten excellent mileage out of Casey McGehee, Chris Narveson and John Axford. The Cardinals are renowned for their ability to reclaim veteran pitchers. They've had successes with hitters, too. While the Pirates were fiddling around with Jason Michaels and Craig Monroe, they hit it big with Ryan Ludwick. They even had their own version of Garrett Jones in Chris Duncan, a mediocre prospect who gave them a lot of production for a couple years. Of course, unlike the Pirates with Jones, they never mistook Duncan for something he wasn't. They platooned him until he turned back into a pumpkin, then moved on.
Unlike Littlefield, Huntington has tried these methods of acquiring talent, but he's shown little ability to identify it. His successes with "alternative energy sources" are largely limited to Jones, Evan Meek and maybe Chris Resop. This is in spite of the fact that the Pirates, as a rebuilding team, present more opportunities than other teams. In Huntington's first three years, they wasted 6,179 plate appearances on Doug Mientkiewicz, Jason Michaels, Luis Rivas, Chris Gomez, Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche, Raul Chavez, Brian Bixler, Luis Cruz, Robinzon Diaz, Delwyn Young, Lastings Milledge, Ramon Vazquez, Ronny Cedeno, Eric Hinske, Craig Monroe, Jeff Salazar, Aki Iwamura, Jeff Clement, Ryan Church, Bobby Crosby, Argenis Diaz, Erik Kratz and John Raynor. They've also blown 867 innings on Phil Dumatrait, Tyler Yates, Franquelis Osoria, T.J. Beam, Denny Bautista, Jason Davis, Matt Morris, John Van Benschoten, Yoslan Herrera, Marino Salas, Craig Hansen, Romulo Sanchez, Jimmy Barthmaier, Ty Taubenheim, Steve Jackson, Kevin Hart, Virgil Vasquez, Chris Bootcheck, Eric Hacker, Anthony Claggett, Brian Burres, Sean Gallagher, Brendan Donnelly, Chan Ho Park, Wil Ledezma, Jack Taschner, Justin Thomas, Dana Eveland, Joe Martinez, Brian Bass, Hayden Penn and Chris Jakabauskas. And that's not counting holdovers like Zach Duke and Ian Snell, who ultimately produced little of value.
Yes, I realize that every team in baseball employs marginal players to fill holes and others who simply don't pan out. My point is that there's been a wealth of available opportunity, but Huntington hasn't made good use of it. And I'm not saying all, or even a large number, of those players should have worked out. But more of them should have than did. I don't blame him for getting rid of Jose Bautista so much as for failing to find his own version, or mini-version to be more realistic, of Bautista. I'm not even saying all those guys were bad ideas. LaRoche, to take one example, was still highly regarded when the Pirates acquired him. But when almost nobody works out well, you have to doubt whether the GM has the judgment he needs. Even if the farm system is a lot better, ultimately he has to judge major league talent well. I don't see that happening.