Neal Huntington on market value, A.J. Burnett, defensive shifts, free-agent contracts

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

Along with several other bloggers, I spoke with Neal Huntington for a short time this afternoon. These were his responses to my questions. I edited down an exchange that led to the last question, since I initially worded it badly, and it took Huntington a minute to figure out what I was asking.

Thanks to Terry Rodgers, Tom Smith and Dan Hart for facilitating this interview for us. We also spoke to Chris Stewart for a half hour earlier in the afternoon, and I'll post excerpts from that interview sometime tomorrow.

What did you mean [when you said that] if [A.J.] Burnett wants to be paid market value, or if anybody else wants to be paid market value, they're going to go elsewhere? Should we take you at face value on that?

I think what I said -- and I don't have the tape, I [can't] play it back, and I'm not saying he misquoted me, but -- what I certainly intended was that top-tier free agents, if they're looking for top-tier dollars, they're going to play somewhere else. And that's not just Pittsburgh. That's probably half to maybe two-thirds of the markets in baseball. We certainly paid market value for Russ Martin. Ask most, a year a go at this time, they thought we drastically overpaid Russ Martin. So it's not that we won't pay market value when it's appropriate. About half the markets in the industry, if they're expecting their team to pay top-tier dollars for top-tier free agents, they're going to be waiting for a long time.

And that was more the intent of that, and I hate that it came out the way it did. If I said it, I didn't mean to say it that way, and if I got misquoted, then I got misquoted. I don't really remember what happened, but I know I read it and went, 'I don't think I said that,' but I didn't have a tape to know that I didn't say it. That certainly wasn't what I meant to say.

Why haven't the Pirates been connected to more mid-level free agents this offseason? I know the free agent market is kind of crazy, but there have been a lot of guys -- Mike Napoli, Corey Hart, Scott Kazmir -- guys who have signed one- or two-year deals at somewhat reasonable prices, who you'd think could help the Pirates. And yet we hear so little about the Pirates being connected to them.

We don't promote what we're doing. I don't call this reporter and say, 'Can you get our name in this mix?' We don't want some people to know what we're doing. We like to work in the background. I like nothing more than to surprise some people with a move, because we don't need to announce what we're doing.

We're working hard. We have not been on the sidelines. We've been in, at various levels, on most every person that's come through. We haven't made huge splashes. We're probably never going to make a huge splash. Russ Martin -- last year, we had a huge need at catcher. We were aggressive with Russ. He was the guy we wanted. We targeted him as our number one priority, and number two on the depth chart was a ways down the depth chart. So we were aggressive. This year, we haven't felt this huge sense of urgency. The first base market is evolving. There's some guys that have gone off the board that we liked, but not for a cost that we felt was appropriate for us.

We're working to be as patient as we can with A.J. A.J. would be our biggest free-agent acquisition if he chooses to come back, so we've tried to keep that door open as long as we can. We've tried to be respectful of the decision he's having to work through. At the same time, Edinson Volquez was a nice Option B for us. If A.J. decides to come back and we can make it work, we'll figure something out. If A.J. doesn't come back, Edinson does some things we like that we've had some success based on that model in the past. It may not be 100 percent. It may not hit here. But our coaches think they can, our scouts think there's something there, our analysts think there's something there, and we thought, especially given this market, that the price was okay.

We didn't have the huge needs that we've had in the past. We're working through how we allocate our resources, and making the best decisions we can. The bottom like is, our core is what's going to carry us, and how do we supplement that core? Is it via trade, is it via free agency, and at what cost? And it's not only this year, but what cost next year, what cost two years from now, and how does it impact our ability to keep this young core together?

The Pirates' [defensive] shifts were a big part of their success last year. Just as an example, the Cardinals have said that they're going to be doing more shifts next year. I would imagine that's going to happen more and more throughout the league as other teams copy what you guys and what a few other teams are doing. Do you worry that advantage is going to dry up as a result of that or as a result of teams adjusting to the shifts somehow?

Yeah. We're always working to stay ahead of some. We're not going to be ahead of everybody. There's some really smart people running baseball teams now. ... We're constantly looking for, 'What can be the next edge?' Separating validity from noise is one of our biggest challenges. Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald [with] our analytics, and Kyle Stark and Greg Smith that oversee kind of the baseball deal, are really creative, really innovative guys, and we're working out what's next. What's next analytically for defense. What's next analytically for offense. What's next evaluation-wise. What's next for scout development, coach development, because we are going to always have to continue to push, and find a different opportunity to create some separation between us and the rest. Because if we go at it toe-to-toe, we're going to get beaten by resources a majority of the time. ...

How do hitters counteract the shifts? We're not quite sure. It's almost like, when you play the third baseman on the right-field side of second base, and one of those big left-handed boppers bunts for a hit, sometimes you say thank you, because it's so awkward. Now he gives you a strike, or he lays a bunt down and he drops it right back to the pitcher. So sometimes they play right into your hands when they try to adjust to the shift.

The biggest thing is, what's the next part of the shift? What's the next element to the shift? How individualistic does it become, or is there something else we can do to maximize the shift even more than we've already done?

You don't talk about internal value anymore in the media, or at least it doesn't seem like that comes up as much. How does [internal value] change as the amount of money available changes and as the prices of free agents change? ... Maybe you could talk about how things changed in the past couple years as salaries have escalated.

... We've had to kind of reevaluate our valuations [on] some fronts. It doesn't change our core [idea] of how we want to build a club. It makes it more challenging in how we divide out the money we do have available. And again, it's not just about this year. It's about next year and the year after that. Because instead of being a collection of all pre-arbitration players and a few veterans, we have guys -- which is great -- beginning to earn more money through the arbitration process. So we've got to be cognizant of what assigning [a value] on December 15, 2013 means to 2015 [or] 2016. As I said before, right player, right contract, we'll absolutely go three years. We can go to four years if we need to. But it's got to be the right player for the right contract. The best organizations in baseball, whether they have a $200-plus-million payroll or or a $40-million-plus payroll, they've got an eye on the future and an eye on the present, and there's that balance. It's just the margin for error is a little easier with some of the bigger-market clubs.

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