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2012 Should Be A Crucial Season For Neal Huntington

Bucs Dugout once seemed to be a site that championed the Pirates' front office, but this offseason, the tone of the site seems to have changed. Here's why that's happening now, and why I think 2012 is a crucial season for Neal Huntington's future with the Bucs.

First, a look back. In the early years of the Neal Huntington era, criticisms of Huntington and of the Pirates' ownership rarely bore any relationship to reality. To point out that Huntington inherited a terrible situation has become an enormous cliche, but it's a cliche because it's true. It shouldn't have taken a rocket scientist to notice that, in late 2007, there was very little in the farm system, that the big-league team was going nowhere with a core of aging players who would soon become free agents, and that the only logical plan for a team in the Pirates' position was to trade off its big-league core for younger talent and rebuild through the farm system.

Ultimately, though, many fans and many in the media did not accept that this was the right plan, particularly the part about trading away big-league players. That led to a ton of criticism of Huntington's trades, which is interesting because, while they were far from perfect, most of them made sense at the time, and aside from a massive but almost-completely-unforeseeable gaffe with Jose Bautista, they mostly look pretty darn good now -- the Pirates gave up very little, in the grand scheme of things, and got a bunch of useful or potentially-useful players in Jose Tabata, James McDonald, Charlie Morton, Joel Hanrahan, Jeff Karstens and so on.

The broader issue here, though, was that the trades were just one part of a larger plan, and almost all commentators, certainly including me, probably paid a disproportionate amount of attention to them, because there were big-league players involved. The more important point was that Huntington's plan, such as it was, was dead-on right. Not only was it right, it was clearly right. So I and others argued in favor of Huntington's plan, which was the only plan that made any sense at all. And often, that involved defending Huntington's trades.

We pretty much had to argue in favor of Huntington's plan, because it was right, and because, at the time, it was very controversial, much moreso than it is now.

A related point: Fans in 2007 and 2008 generally did not appreciate the scale of the mess Dave Littlefield left behind, particularly where the farm system was concerned. Again, it's a cliche to point that out, but it's true. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, someone recently asked me how the internet had changed Pirate fandom. Part of the answer is that in 2012, there's a ton of information out there regarding prospects. In 2007, there really wasn't.

Well, that's not entirely true. There were Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, of course. I wrote about prospects, and Wilbur did a great job with his Pirate Player Profiles site even back then. But BA and BP didn't cover the Pirates minor league system as closely as various websites now do. Bucs Dugout had a small fraction of the readers it has now. And Pirate Player Profiles had even fewer. (Sorry, Wilbur.) If a site like Pirates Prospects had existed and been popular in 2007, a fairly large percentage of the fanbase probably would have been appalled at what was going on in the minor-league system. But that wasn't the case, because people just didn't read blogs that much back then. (Bucs Dugout, for example, will have over seven times more traffic in January 2012 than it had in January 2008, and Bucs Dugout and WHYGAVS were probably the two biggest Pirates blogs back then.)

Therefore, much of our energy was spent defending what should have been truisms. The trades made sense. The problem with the minor-league system was grave, and would take a very long time to fix. And so on. This wasn't really the same thing as thinking that Neal Huntington was a good GM. I and others expressed reservations about Huntington and about Bob Nutting, but at the time, there was nothing to do but let them pursue their plan, and hope it worked.

In 2012, we have a lot more information now than we had then. And, unfortunately, I have many of the same reservations about the Pirates' management that I had in 2008. I'm not sure Huntington is a bad GM, but I'm not sure he's a good one, either.

The Bucs have spent more in the past four drafts than any other team. That's excellent, but it really doesn't reflect on Huntington. It reflects on Nutting and Frank Coonelly, who presumably are the people who make the decisions about the draft budget. And the returns on those drafts have, thus far, been underwhelming in relation to the amount of money spent. In other words, we need to distinguish between spending a lot of money on the draft (for which Huntington doesn't deserve much credit) and actually doing good stuff with that buying power.

Yes, it's too early to judge Huntington's drafts conclusively. But the career of an average or struggling GM isn't long, and we need to try to be as clear as possible about what's going on here, because if Huntington's drafts aren't working, the Pirates need to act to correct what's wrong.

At least at this point, the 2008 draft looks rather weak. I can't blame the front office too much for Pedro Alvarez, who was widely considered the best player in the draft. But the rest of that draft boils down to Robbie Grossman (a possible outfield regular), Jarek Cunningham (a wild card), Wesley Freeman (a lottery ticket), and a few guys who might be role players. They dropped $900,000 on Quinton Miller, who currently looks like a bust. There's certainly time for the 2008 draft to be a good one, but right now, I'm not sure the chances look great that it will.

The 2009 draft might actually look worse. The risky choice to take Tony Sanchez in the first round and then load up on high-school arms later currently looks like a poor one -- Sanchez was awful last year, and really, the best you can say about the crop of high-school arms is that they've mostly stayed healthy. Again, there's time for one or more of them to blossom, but I'm not terribly excited about any of them right now.

That leaves the 2010 and 2011 drafts, and of course it's easy to get excited about those, but then it was pretty easy to get excited about the 2008 draft class in 2009, or the 2009 draft class in 2010, too. The Pirates will probably get a fair amount out of the 2010 and 2011 classes, but, you know, they should, because they picked second overall in 2010 and first overall in 2011, and because they spent almost $30 million between the two seasons.

And while it's too early to write off anyone from the 2010 draft class, it's worth pointing out that besides Jameson Taillon, the only player from that class who really stepped forward last year was Nick Kingham. The Pirates shelled out bonuses of $400,000 or more on five other players that year (Stetson Allie, Mel Rojas, Drew Maggi, Ryan Hafner and Jared Lakind), and none of them were much good in 2011. You can certainly make excuses for some of them if you like (FASTBALL COMMAND!), and again, it's way too early to write them off, but it's not too early to be concerned that, under Neal Huntington, the Pirates have a pattern of shelling out big money on players who don't even thrive in Class A, or even, sometimes, rookie ball. Most guys who succeed in the majors do perform well in Class A.

The end result here is that, after four years of heavy financial investment in the minors, the Pirates still have a farm system that most national analysts place in the middle of the pack, or slightly above. That's far better than it was, but it's not good enough. In fact, it's not close to being good enough. A lot could change this year. But it had better.

Then there's the offseason the Pirates are having. To some degree, Huntington deserves a mulligan on the seasons where the Pirates were trading off big-league talent, because there simply wasn't much talent in the organization, and not much he could do with what was there. But it's been four years. At this point, at the big-league level, the Pirates should be trying. Not "Hey look we just spent $200 million on Prince Fielder!" trying, but trying. And I just don't see a whole lot of evidence that they are.

Much of the dialogue this offseason has focused on the Pirates' decisions not to retain Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit and Ronny Cedeno. I wanted the Bucs to pick up their options on Maholm and Cedeno. As it turned out, the bottom fell out of the market on mid- or lower-tier players, and Maholm and Cedeno ended up signing with other teams for much less than the prices of their options. In that limited sense, the Pirates made the right calls on those players. But that only goes so far when all the Pirates did to replace them was to sign a very talented but incredibly injury-prone pitcher in Erik Bedard, and a good defensive shortstop who will probably struggle to hit in PNC in Clint Barmes. They also got a decent but aging catcher in Rod Barajas to replace Ryan Doumit, and they picked up Casey McGehee in case Alvarez is horrible again.

And really, that's it. They're back to where they started. Meanwhile, they don't really have a first baseman, and they seem bizarrely oblivious to the game of Russian Roulette they're playing with the rotation. (And let's please not act like this is part of a grand plan to clear a path for someone like Jeff Locke or Rudy Owens. Neither of those guys looked at all ready last season, and if either of them do pitch well in 2012, an extra major-league arm to keep the rotation together wouldn't have posed an obstacle.) Basically, the Pirates have Bedard (ridiculously fragile), Charlie Morton (might or might not be healthy), Jeff Karstens (a swingman until last season), James McDonald (good pitcher, but averages less than six innings per start), and Kevin Correia (about whom the less said, the better). And their backup plan is ... Brad Lincoln! And that's it. Good luck pitching 450 innings, Mr. Lincoln. Maybe the Pirates' faith in their current rotation will turn out to be justified, but if not, they could go from zero to Jo-Jo Reyes in about six weeks, which is a time that would make Bugatti jealous.

What's worse is that there's no real reason to trust that Huntington sees this much more clearly than we do. Last year, he spent $15 million on Lyle Overbay, Kevin Correia, Matt Diaz and Scott Olsen. That looked like a terrible idea at the time, and it turned out to be ... Well, what do you know? A terrible idea.

There's still some time left this offseason. The Bucs might still do something. But with only a couple weeks left until Spring Training and with nary a rumor to be heard anywhere, the best guess is that they're just doing what they typically do, which is to spend a few million dollars vaguely trying to fill holes without really going about the business of taking themselves seriously as a baseball team.

The reasons for this might be more complicated than we realize, and it's very likely that this particular problem has more to do with ownership than with Huntington. There's still the fact that PNC Park ticket prices, despite a recent price increase, are still ridiculously cheap, and it's hard to see where exactly the Pirates are supposed to get the revenues to build a real team, if they're not getting the pieces they need from their farm system. There's a serious question in here about what, exactly, Major League Baseball thinks the role of a small-market club should be, because the deck is stacked against the Pirates to an obscene degree. But other franchises in similar situations have managed to avoid such questions of unfairness, at least for a time. The Pirates haven't, and four years into Huntington's tenure, there are few signs that they will in the near future.

I'm still open to the idea that Neal Huntington is the right person to lead the Pirates, and I think that he's done many smart things in his four years in Pittsburgh. But I think 2012 will be a crucial year for him. I want to see more of his draft picks emerge as serious prospects, and I want to see the Pirates have a top-five farm system by the end of the season. I also want to see some glimmer of hope that Huntington and the Pirates have some sort of plan to win at the major-league level -- a surprising trade, an Andrew McCutchen extension, something -- that goes beyond shuffling deck chairs and praying for draft picks to work out. If those things don't happen, I think the Pirates should consider dismissing Huntington at season's end.