Last weekend, the Pirates extended the contracts of Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle through 2017, with club options for 2018. As David Manel noted, this wasn't necessarily a big deal. Compared to players, GMs and managers don't make much money, so if the Pirates feel inclined to fire Huntington or Hurdle in, say, 2015, this won't stop them. (Not that I think that's likely.) What the extensions do suggest is that, for now, the Pirates have at least some confidence in Huntington and Hurdle, which obviously is reasonable after an extremely successful season.
Right now, Bucs Dugout readers seem to like Huntington and Hurdle a lot. But much can change in a year. Huntington didn't have many fans following the 2012 season. The Pirates had fallen apart down the stretch. Free agent acquisitions like Erik Bedard, Rod Barajas and Nate McLouth had been wastes of time and money, just like the previous year's crop of Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz, Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen.
It hadn't been a great season in the minor leagues, either, at least not relative to expectations. Gerrit Cole had been making his way through the minors, and Gregory Polanco and Alen Hanson had broken out. But Tony Sanchez had struggled, Josh Bell had lost most of the season to injury, none of the pitchers from the 2009 draft class had done much, and Mark Appel's decision to go back to Stanford had left the Pirates with a thin 2012 class.
In 2013 all that turned around. Huntington had an amazing offseason, acquiring Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin and Mark Melancon for pennies on the dollar, and those three players joined A.J. Burnett (acquired before the 2012 season) as key veteran contributors. Joel Hanrahan headed to Boston in the trade that landed Melancon and got hurt almost immediately after he left -- awful for Hanrahan, but typical of how things went for Huntington that year.
Meanwhile, at the minor-league level, Cole and Polanco kept chugging along. Tyler Glasnow became one of the best pitching prospects in the low minors. Sanchez and Andrew Lambo emerged from oblivion to post good seasons in the high minors. The short-season teams were filled with breakout candidates, including Austin Meadows, who the Pirates acquired with the compensation pick they got for missing out on Appel. The Pirates finished the season with 94 wins at the big-league level, to go with one of the best farm systems of any organization.
Not bad, huh? But was all that a product of brilliant general managing on Huntington's part, or simply of the weird ebb and flow of the tides of luck?
Probably a little of both. For example, I didn't like a lot of Neal Huntington's pre-2013 free-agent acquisitions (Overbay, Diaz and Correia looked like bad ideas right away, for example), but he should have had better luck with some of them. Bedard, for example, made a lot of sense, given his track record of performing well when healthy. Barajas actually wasn't the worst idea, given the thin free-agent market at catcher at the time. Prior to 2013, Huntington wasn't as clueless about acquiring veteran talent as he might have appeared. He just didn't have much to work with, and didn't have much luck with the guys he did acquire.
Then in 2013, everything he touched suddenly turned to gold. Signing Liriano took an admirable bit of chutzpah on Huntington's part, given the strong chance that Huntington would be fired if high-beta types like Liriano failed to perform. So did trading Hanrahan for a package centered on a pitcher who had posted a 6.20 ERA the previous season (even though there was a lot more to Mark Melancon than that extremely misleading number). If players like Liriano and Melancon hadn't panned out, and the Pirates hadn't had a winning season last year, Huntington likely would have been fired, and none of us would have been surprised.
So where does that leave us? Huntington is clearly a much better GM than most fans gave him credit for being through the 2012 season, and a worse one than the 2013 season made him look. What's most striking is what a difference a year makes. It would be difficult to argue too strongly against an extension for Huntington right now, and I certainly won't. But even what's happened since October has suggested Huntington's Midas touch has worn off, at least to a degree. It appears he misjudged the free-agent market, leaving the Pirates worse at the beginning of the season than they were six months ago. (Edinson Volquez did start his Pirates career with a bang, but he has a long way to go before we ought to trust what we saw yesterday more than his previous several years of performances.) The Pirates have already lost two prospects, Jameson Taillon and Clay Holmes, to Tommy John surgery. The big-league team is off to a great start, but it remains to be seen whether that will continue.
Neal Huntington brought us Russell Martin and A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. He also brought us Lyle Overbay and Akinori Iwamura and Matt Diaz. Perhaps he's an idiot who became a genius. Or perhaps he's neither, and a fair amount of this is luck that took a while to come out in the wash. I'm going with the latter. Huntington has earned his extension, and the excellent results he's gotten in the past 18 months reveal that much of the criticism he got before that, including from me, no longer applies. (Or never applied, in the case of stuff like the Hoka Hey nonsense.) Let's see where this season takes us.
Managers are even more susceptible than GMs to short-term fluctuations in reputation. When your team's bombastic manager is winning, he's just the sort of fiery personality to motivate his players. When he's losing, he's a loudmouth who's lost control of the clubhouse. When your team's taciturn manager's team is winning, he's providing calm, steady leadership in the face of adversity. When he's losing, he's John Russell.
Clint Hurdle's tactical managing seemingly improved a lot last year -- the Pirates appeared to get #Hurdled a lot less than in seasons past. But maybe that was partly a mirage that we saw because they were winning. The degree of Hurdle's openness to new ideas, however, is relatively uncommon in a veteran manager, and that helped last year, when the Pirates seemed to be way ahead of the competition in their strategic approach to the game. And, with the caveat that this all might look different if the Pirates' fortunes go south, he seems to possess real leadership skills -- he sticks up for his players and is outgoing without drawing too much attention to himself, and he's great with the press.
It's hard to say how important those last few qualities are, but they clearly matter. For example, it's not hard to imagine a scenario in which someone like Burnett joined the Pirates and became a huge distraction.
"Look, there's A.J. and there's J.A., as I always tell him," Jeff Locke said. "The J.A. was for jackass. He could be that, and we all knew it. But he's A.J. That man did so much for this team and city, and no one can deny that."
Burnett was a leader as a Pirate, even though he sometimes seemed to teeter on the edges of entitlement and insanity. A.J. Burnett plus young, impressionable teammates could have added up to a disaster. Instead, it was the opposite. That's to Burnett's credit, but it's probably also to Hurdle's. Hurdle hasn't always had the best teams, but I can't recall a single incident, or even a comment, that revealed that the team seemed to be falling apart, along the lines of Ian Snell's "I ******* hate this" under Jim Tracy in 2007, or an unnamed veteran's "Bad collection of dudes" comment in 2006.
That can all change quickly, of course. Managers have great reputations until they don't, and all it takes is a couple bad incidents or negative comments to create the impression that they're not doing well. And even if you're a reporter in the clubhouse every day, it can be hard to see those moments coming. There's also the possibility that Hurdle was the right manager for the combination of players the Pirates had last year, but he won't be for the combination the Pirates have in, say, 2016. There's almost always a certain amount of analysis after the fact built into outsiders' evaluations of managers. But for now, Hurdle seems like exactly the right person to lead the Pirates.