Bob Smizik writes that Neal Huntington and John Russell will deserve to be fired this year. His evidence? The Pirates' Spring Training performances.
With that in mind, we should know better than to pay much attention to what the Pirates are doing in Florida. But their performance -- the magnitude of their ineptitude -- screams for our attention...
It’s pretty easy now to see why the Pirates have failed to extend the contracts of Russell and general manager Neal Huntington. Both are in the final year of their contracts and baseball protocol usually calls for an extension to prevent lame-duck status for such key employees.
But if Russell and Huntington escaped lame-duck status they would not permit them to fill the vitally important scapegoat status. Both men could fill that role nicely, and on merit, if the team plays as badly as their personnel indicates it will.
Nothing like a July firing to appease some of the fans,
I don't wish that on anyone. But the way this team is shaping up, someone is going to have to take the fall and Huntington and/or Russell fit that description almost perfectly.
I don't even think the Pirates' regular season record has much to say about Neal Huntington's job performance at this point, let alone their Spring Training record. It's funny, everyone seems to know that a team's Spring Training record is basically meaningless, until it happens to confirm what they already think. The 2010 Pirates aren't going to be good, but we hardly need to look at Spring Training performances to know that, and the '10 Pirates have had no chance of being good since several years before Huntington arrived.
As for John Russell, I know many of you have issues with his tactical managing and the fact that he's a zombie, but those are the sorts of problems that nearly every fan has with his or her team's manager. Unlike Lloyd McClendon, Russell mostly makes wise decisions about distributing playing time (perhaps on orders from his bosses); unlike Jim Tracy, he doesn't blame his players for the team's failures or attempt to save his job by abusing a young pitcher. Pirates fans have known bad managers. Tracy unquestionably was one; McClendon arguably was one. I'm not a huge fan of Russell's, but it's not really clear to me that he's a bad manager. And he has next to nothing to do with the Pirates' record the last two years, when they would have finished well below .500 if their manager was Chuck Tanner or Casey Stengel or Jesus Christ. Russell is a cipher. He's not a great leader, but he doesn't deserve to be fired after two years--not that anyone but Bob Smizik is really talking about that.
As for Huntington, seriously--the idea that he shouldn't be retained isn't just premature, it's ridiculous. Certainly Huntington is not unassailable; certainly he has done things wrong; and certainly there can be valid reasons, even at this early date, to be pessimistic about his performance going forward. And certainly Huntington's fortunes will be tied to the performances of guys like Andy LaRoche, Pedro Alvarez, Lastings Milledge, and Charlie Morton, and especially to other Pirates minor leaguers, who by now were mostly acquired by Huntington. If those guys fail, that won't make Huntington look very good. That's fine. As an employee of the team, Huntington should be held accountable for his decisions.
But again, without a gigantic (and, based on the Pirates' core of talent, probably dubious) infusion of cash, the 2008 and 2009 Pirates would have finished below .500 whether their general manager was Branch Rickey or Billy Beane or Je... well, you get the idea. Pirates fans love to go on about "accountability," but I'm really not sure why Huntington should be held accountable for problems that existed well before he got here.
Again, here's what Huntington inherited: an awful major league team with a pitiful team defense that was a very poor fit for its pitch-to-contact rotation; a core of big leaguers who almost all were to become free agents after 2009; and, most importantly, a thoroughly embarrassing farm system that was broken from Class AAA all the way down to rookie ball. With all due respect, anyone expecting the 2010 Pirates to be decent just doesn't understand how the system works. Back in 2006 and 2007, I was waving my hands furiously to get anyone to pay attention to what might happen to the Pirates in the specific year of 2010, because if you looked at what Littlefield was doing then, it was obvious that a disaster was imminent. It would, obviously, be ridiculous to say that Huntington averted the disaster, but the 2010 Pirates now look like about a 70-win team, and if you'd asked me in 2007 how many wins the Bucs would have in 2010, I'd have said about 55.
The point here is that, whatever you might think about Huntington right now, it's way, way too early to judge him. And the surest mark of a dysfunctional franchise is to make quick judgments and change course rather than sticking with a well-conceived plan. In baseball, rebuilding efforts take years to carry out, and it'll take an especially long time in the Pirates' case, because Huntington inherited so little talent anywhere in the organization. Smart organizations do what they believe is right regardless of the fans and reactionaries in the press who goad them. That the Pirates would have problems in 2010 has been certain for half a decade now. Huntington has little to do with it.