PITTSBURGH - JULY 19: Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington talks to reporters prior to the game against the Cincinnati Reds on July 19, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
After Dejan Kovacevic's tweet this morning that Neal Huntington's next deal could be for three years, I wonder whether signing him for so long is a good idea.
The precise length of a GM's contract isn't something we discuss much, and there's a good reason for that: it's not that big a deal. GMs aren't paid much at all relative to players, so if a team has to eat a year of a GM's contract, that's usually not much to worry about. I'm going to spend 1,000-plus words discussing it here, but that's mostly because it's interesting, and not because it's a matter of grave importance. It isn't.
Basically, there doesn't appear to be any industry standard for GM contracts, even among GMs who are in roughly similar situations (like, say, Huntington, Moore and Zduriencik - emphasis on roughly there, and I think a case can be made that Huntington is the best GM of the three, but hopefully you get the idea).
I think Huntington should be extended. There is no good reason to change horses in midstream here. Huntington's plan of rebuilding the organization from the ground up was the right one, and he has executed it boldly. Some of the results he's gotten have been debatable, but the outline of what he's done has been right on, and he has earned the chance to show us whether or not that plan has worked.
I don't think, however, that we need three more years to figure that out. Two years from now, we should have a relatively clear perspective on most of Huntington's trades, and, more crucially, we'll know a great deal more about his 2008 and 2009 drafts than we do now. His draft strategy has always been decisive, and it's clearly astronomically better than that of Dave Littlefield, but it's not yet clear that it's been successful.
Also, we'll have two more offseasons to see whether he can be do better with free agents than he did with Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz, Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen last winter. The Pirates' lack of funds and poor reputation do make it difficult for Huntington to sign free agents. But that's no excuse for the money and playing time the Pirates have wasted this year on veterans who didn't perform, particularly when it was obvious when those players were signed that they weren't very good. (To be fair, the successful signing of Jose Veras, which was sort of a de facto major-league signing, mitigates the other signings to a degree, but only a little bit.)
The issue of good free-agent signings may, actually, be crucial, in that Huntington is entering a stage in his career that may require different skills than the ones upon which his Pirates career has so far been based. As JRoth pointed out in the comments to the last thread, different GMs have different strengths. When Huntington was hired, what was needed was for someone to clear the debris that the previous GM left. Huntington did that, and for the most part, he did it well. He didn't listen when a lot of folks around the team were jabbering frivolously about how that piece of rusty aluminum might actually be gold, or how that warped hubcap would actually fetch thousands at the antique auction.
So now the Pirates have a piece of usable land. That's to Huntington's credit. But now that he's cleared it, can he plant a garden on it? He has certainly been planting seeds, but it's too early to tell if they'll grow.
The core of Huntington's strategy has been the draft, which is as it should be. Those of us who follow the minors closely have some idea of how his drafts have gone, obviously, but it's still only been three years since his first one, and we'll have a better understanding of what he's done in a couple years. (Normally I advocate evaluating moves when they're made, and not after, but the draft is a partial exception, since there's no way for most of us to have access to the information the Pirates do at the time.)
Also, Huntington needs to do a good job identifying major-league talent. I'm more of a defender of his trades than most, because the talent Huntington was trading had less value than most fans realize. I think the results of the Xavier Nady, Octavio Dotel and Nate McLouth trades, in particular, are big points in Huntington's favor. But he needs to do a better job with major-league free agents, and he can't keep having offseasons like the one he had last winter. This will be especially important as the Pirates' improved farm system churns out more talent. If the team can build on the leap forward it took this year, but Huntington can't find players to complement his core, he may not be the right GM to help the Pirates get to the next level, regardless of his role in building the farm system.
If this all sounds really critical of Huntington, it shouldn't. I'm simply saying that it isn't yet clear that he's a top-flight GM, and until it is, a two-year contract seems fine to me. As Epoc pointed out in the last thread, a three-year deal suggests a high degree of confidence in Huntington, and I don't think Huntington has yet earned that confidence.
Two years from now, we should have a good idea of where Huntington has taken the franchise, and if he continues to be the right person to lead the Pirates, then the Bucs can extend him at that time. There isn't much downside to having him on a shorter contract, and the upside is that if things aren't working out, you don't have to pay for the extra year. (GM contracts are essentially guaranteed.) I like Huntington, but there's not yet enough evidence to suggest he's a great GM.
In the last thread, there was also a comment that suggested that one potential downside to not signing Huntington to a longer deal is that another team could "poach" him. I suppose anything's possible, but I don't think that's in the right universe as the things we should be worrying about right now. There are lots of incredibly talented people who want to be general managers. Huntington isn't yet anywhere near the upper echelon of GMs, and if he were to leave against the Pirates' wishes (which I think would be highly unlikely, anyway), there would be literally dozens of highly-intelligent, highly-qualified people lining up to replace him.
If it were 15 years ago, and Huntington had become the Pirates' GM and begun a plan similar to the one he's enacted so far, it would have made him one of the best general managers in baseball. Today, the competency level of the average GM is so much higher than it was then that the best word to describe Huntington's talents relative to his peers - based on what we know so far - is "average." And again, that's not an insult. I honestly think that today, over half the GMs in baseball are operating at a high enough level that even judging them against each other is pretty hard, given all the variables involved. That's one reason it takes time to evaluate them.
The next couple of years will tell us a lot. So far, Huntington's single-mindedness in pursuing his plan, and his complete disregard for the silly things the media says, have been his best attributes. But they will serve him less well in the coming years than they did in his first four.
The reason is that a lot of what Huntington has done so far has been relatively straightforward. Some Huntington critics, of course, think Nate McLouth is a god and that everything Huntington has done has been idiotic, but those people aren't even really worth talking about. But another group of Huntington critics acts like the trades Huntington made were matters of great complexity. And that viewpoint isn't without merit. Whenever you trade someone, you want to make sure that you're making the right decision and that you get as much as possible back in return. So nitpicking about the trades certainly is fair game. But from my perspective, the decisions regarding the trades really boil down to something very obvious: 'Hey, we've got a 67-win team here, and everybody is set to hit free agency in a year. Let's trade them. Hey, we can get some modestly useful players! Great!' The trades were a purging, and purges are fundamentally simple - you lean over the bowl, you do your thing, and when it's done, you feel better.
The series of steps required to get a franchise from abysmal shape to reasonable shape are arduous, but they're not that complex. You clear the debris, you double your draft budget, and you're a lot of the way there. But now Huntington is trying to turn a franchise that's in reasonable shape into a franchise in good shape, and that job is more nebulous and uncertain. We don't yet know how well he's going to do it. So let's wait on the longer-term deals until we do.
Thanks to Jeff Euston from Cot's Contracts, Dejan Kovacevic, and Wilbur Miller for answering some questions about GM contracts that helped as I was writing this article. Incidentally, Dejan wrote three months ago that Huntington should receive a two-year extension.