Neal Huntington is featured in this excellent article from the Houston Chronicle's Evan Drellich on the pros and cons of tanking -- that is, rebuilding very aggressively and accumulating young talent while posting bad records and thus also receiving top draft picks.
"We pulled the Band-Aid off a little bit more slowly than the Astros and the Cubs, and we went in to '08 to see what the club could do," Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said when asked if a new model had emerged. "In hindsight, it probably would have been much better for us to just rip off the Band-Aid.
"At the same time, you risk losing the fan base and alienating a fan base and in some cases they come back and in some cases they don't come back. … I don't know, I mean, we're a copycat society, let alone industry, so I think it's worked remarkably well on a couple of fronts. I think once it doesn't work well, then it probably won't be a thing to do anymore."
Going back to 2007 and 2008, one thing I've wondered about a little is why Huntington didn't start rebuilding immediately after being hired. Some stories from that time period are lost to the internet, and my memory is a bit hazy, so some of what I'm going to write below is a bit speculative. If anyone can find anything that contradicts anything I've written, leave links in the comments and I'll update the post.
In retrospect, the first year or so of Huntington's tenure was strange. His first offseason was tentative; he made a few small signings (Byung-Hyun Kim, Chris Gomez, and so on) and trades, but in general, he didn't really do anything important. He then headed into the 2008 season with essentially the same bad team he inherited in 2007. Unsurprisingly, the Pirates stunk again, and only in the summer of 2008 did Huntington start making significant trades, beginning with the deal that sent Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to the Yankees.
Part of the problem was that the Pirates didn't feel they were getting good offers for players like Nady, Marte and Jason Bay that first offseason. (The Bucs did, at that time, consider trading Bay to the Indians.) Perhaps that makes sense -- Nady, Marte and many of the Pirates' other veterans were complementary players, the sort who might have more value in the middle of the season than at the beginning. And Bay, the Bucs' best asset at that time, was coming off a poor, injury-wracked year. Waiting to trade those players until mid-2008 was probably the right move, at least in theory. (In practice, getting Cliff Lee in return for Bay would have been amazing.)
But, for example, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson would have made great trade candidates that first offseason. Both were coming off good seasons in 2007. And the Bucs held onto a number of key veterans, including Sanchez, Wilson, Adam LaRoche, John Grabow and Nate McLouth, until mid-2009 -- almost two years after Huntington was hired.
By waiting to rebuild, Huntington gave the Pirates one last chance to compete. But at the time, that seemed to me to be unnecessary, because it was already clear they wouldn't. Maybe, though, he needed time to fully evaluate what he had and make sure he had the right front office staff in place before he started making franchise-changing trades. While waiting to trade certain players, like Bay, was understandable, taking almost two full years to trade key veterans made little sense.
Or, at least, it didn't make a ton of sense from a fantasy-baseball type of perspective. Maybe from the perspective of public relations, or ticket sales, it did. Huntington's wasn't the only new face in the PNC Park offices in 2007. Bob Nutting had only recently taken over for Kevin McClatchy as the face of Pirates ownership, and Frank Coonelly had only recently become team president. Perhaps if Nutting, Coonelly and Huntington had begun trading everyone so soon after arriving, they would have been perceived as carpetbaggers giving the Pirates' talent away to other teams. By waiting until a year after they arrived, they showed that the team had forced their hand. (Of course, a lot of fans still perceived them as carpetbaggers giving the Pirates' talent away to other teams.)
This discussion is mostly academic, of course; the Pirates did end up trading their veterans, and by the time they finally got good, the youngsters they got in return played only a peripheral role in their success (with the notable exception of Josh Harrison). And, of course, they've turned out to be awfully good in the last few years anyway.
But one thing that can make aggressively rebuilding a successful strategy, as Drellich points out, is that you get higher draft picks as a result. If the 2009 Pirates (who still had Sanchez, Wilson, LaRoche, Grabow, McLouth and others for part of the year) had lost four more games, they would have gotten the first overall pick in the 2010 draft. The Nationals took Bryce Harper with that pick. The Pirates took Jameson Taillon at no. 2. Maybe the Bucs wouldn't have picked Harper, but I bet the Bucs would have come to their senses on a decision that obvious. And if they had ...