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Pirates GM Neal Huntington continues to prove he's among MLB's most valuable executives

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It's now been three weeks since the trade deadline. Back then, we took stock of the Pirates' series of modest acquisitions. We gnashed our teeth at the Pirates' unwillingness to make a big move, or we shrugged our shoulders and said, "Eh, that's fine."

As it turns out, at least so far, the Bucs' acquisitions have mostly been terrific. All of this is, of course, part of a pattern. This is what Neal Huntington does, as Chris Mueller writes for the Beaver County Times. And, increasingly, Huntington is proving that he's among the game's most valuable executives.

I'd like to expand on a point from Mueller's last paragraph -- that the Bucs should "back up a dump truck full of money" to keep Huntington. Fortunately for the Pirates, it looks like they'll have Huntington for at least the next several years. He's under contract through 2017, with a team option for 2018.

Just as fortunately, the Bucs have a healthy front office and coaching staff that extend well beyond Huntington. I'm sure Huntington himself would credit Clint Hurdle, Ray Searage, Jim Benedict, Dan Fox, Mike Fitzgerald, Rene Gayo and any number of other people for the organization's recent success. If Huntington were to leave, the Pirates wouldn't radically change philosophies, and their success might well continue.

At this point, though, it might be worth at least beginning to think about what it might take to keep Huntington in Pittsburgh even longer. His contract isn't a problem that needs to be addressed now. It can wait another year or so. But the going rate for top executives continues to climb, as Bruce Levine writes in a recent article about the Cubs' Theo Epstein. Pay for executives often goes unreported, but we know Epstein's current deal, to which he agreed in 2011, is worth $18.5 million over five years. Andrew Friedman's 2014 deal with the Dodgers is worth almost twice as much, at $35 million over five years. And the Red Sox will pay Dave Dombrowski at a similar rate.

Can anybody think of a reason why Huntington couldn't get a Friedman type of contract if he were on the market? I can't, and I've been a Huntington skeptic at times in the past. Epstein, Friedman and Dombrowski technically are no longer GMs but presidents of baseball operations, and if you were an organization looking to hit reset, hiring Huntington to be your president of baseball operations and signing him to a lucrative long-term deal would probably be a great move.

Huntington got off to an uneven start in his first several years with the Bucs, and at least some of the criticism he received for his work at the time was fair. He inherited a broken big-league team and a broken farm system. He wisely took bold steps to fix the latter but didn't always get the best results at first, and his patchwork solutions to problems with the big-league club (Lyle Overbay, Rod Barajas, and so on) were often underwhelming.

By the end of the 2012 season, though, Huntington had finally assembled an interesting core. And since then, nearly everything he's touched has turned to gold. There are probably three main reasons why. First, and probably most importantly, there's a better decision-making process in place -- Travis Sawchik's Big Data Baseball shows that at least some of what's made the Pirates good in the past few years didn't start happening until after their second straight collapse in 2012. Second, the Pirates have had somewhat bigger budgets to work with in recent years. Third, it's easier for Huntington to get good players to come to Pittsburgh now.

Before the 2012 season, Huntington acquired A.J. Burnett for pennies on the dollar. After the season, he signed Russell Martin to a two-year deal that was widely criticized in the Pittsburgh media. He then acquired Mark Melancon for Joel Hanrahan just before Hanrahan's arm exploded, even though Melancon had a 6.20 ERA at the time. Then he signed Francisco Liriano to an incredibly cheap two-year deal. For 2014, the Bucs got Edinson Volquez, Vance Worley and John Holdzkom, all for practically nothing. In 2015, it was Francisco Cervelli, Jung-Ho Kang, Arquimedes Caminero, and Burnett again, all for dirt cheap.

That isn't to say there weren't some uninspiring or outright bad acquisitions -- Ike Davis, Ernesto Frieri, Jonathan Sanchez, and so on. But the Pirates' recent success has been driven in large part by players like Martin, Burnett, Liriano, Melancon, Cervelli and Kang, all players Huntington identified as winners before anyone else really did. Huntington is getting more bang for his buck from veteran acquisitions than just about anyone, and he's been doing it now for three years.

So it's no surprise that it now looks like Huntington did it again with his performance at the trade deadline. As usual, he didn't make any high-profile moves. As usual, the fans and the media complained. And as usual, Huntington's players have performed.

Well, most of them. Aramis Ramirez, acquired to provide a patch for the Pirates' infield with Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer on the disabled list, hasn't been particularly good at the plate or in the field.

But J.A. Happ has recovered from a weak first start and has been terrific in his last two. Joakim Soria has been reliable in the seventh inning, deepening the Pirates' bullpen. Mike Morse's first 25 plate appearances with the Bucs have been terrific. And Joe Blanton -- Joe Blanton! -- has dominated, allowing one run and striking out 20 batters in 15.1 innings. If the Pirates had traded for, say, David Price, and he had produced as Happ has, would you have been disappointed? If they had traded for Jonathan Papelbon, and he had produced as Blanton has, would you have been disappointed?

These are, of course, small sample sizes. I'm uncomfortable using guys like Happ or Blanton as proof of Huntington's talent, because part of me still feels like the Pirates' magic pixie dust is going to wear off. But they're part of a pattern that's persisted for almost three full years. We know what we're likely to get from Huntington. He probably isn't going to make splashy moves. He isn't going to block the Pirates' prospect pipeline. Everybody's going to complain about it. And then the players he acquires are going to perform.

There are the usual caveats. I want the Pirates to spend more money, and Huntington could probably do even more if he had more to spend. The Bucs haven't yet won their division under Huntington, let alone a World Series. And Huntington has gotten an awful lot of mileage out of Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Neil Walker, all of whom he inherited.

But whatever. Huntington is among the best GMs in the game right now. It's becoming almost impossible to argue otherwise. And if he keeps this up, he's going to get paid. Maybe not this year, but soon.