- Grove City, Pennsylvania

July 10, 2013

EXTRA INNINGS: No time to 'Neal' to change in strategy

By Jim Sankey
Allied News Baseball Columnist

OPINION — HOW MANY OF these names do you remember: Exicardo Cayones, Diego Moreno, Nate McLouth, Joel Hanrahan, Brock Holt, Rudy Owens, Luis Rico, Luis Santos, Gorkys Hernandez, Quincy Latimore, Colton Cain, and Robbie Grossman?

How many of these names do you recognize: Gaby Sanchez, Wandy Rodriguez, Mark Melancon, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, Jeanmar Gomez, A.J. Burnett, and Vin Mazzaro?

Of the first group, only 31-year-old McLouth is playing in the majors, although his six homers and 15 runs batted in over the first half of the season have hardly blazed the way for Baltimore’s success.

The dozen in the first group is what it cost the Pirates in trades to obtain the eight players in the second group.

And while Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Neil Walker are selections made during the Dave Littlefield era, the only pitcher on the big-league staff not brought to Pittsburgh by current general manager Neal Huntington since 2008 is Tony Watson. It is true that Littlefield signed those young players; it is also true that he was their boss for less than a year and it is the current management staff that developed them.

When Littlefield was canned, Huntington took over in late 2007. The Pirates had no pitching prospects in Baseball America’s Top 100, and the major league staff had only two young starters in Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell, but neither ever approached their 2007 successes. The pitching staff was 14th in ERA in 2007 and finished last in 2008.

Huntington got rid of McLouth, Snell, Gorzelanny, Xavier Nady, Jason Bay, Sean Burnett, Nyjer Morgan, Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Eric Hinske, Jack Wilson, John Grabow, Damaso Marte.

And while the return was iffy from players like Nathan Adcock, Jeff Clement, Tim Alderson, Jose Ascanio, Kevin Hart, Josh Harrison, Argenis Diaz, Brandon Moss, Ross Ohlendorf, Daniel McCutchen, Aaron Pribanic, Brett Lorin, Josh Harrison, the Pirates did get some creditable, short-term performances from Andy LaRoche, Jose Tabata, Ronnie Cedeno, Lastings Milledge, and Joel Hanrahan.

Huntington’s shrewd dealings brought Locke, Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Burnett, Rodriguez, Gomez, and Mazzaro, at little player talent cost.

Huntington also signed free agents Jason Grilli, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin and Garrett Jones, as well others who haven’t done much, such as current players Clint Barmes and Brandon Inge.

Huntington has always had a penchant for building a bullpen, and 2013 seems to be when that acumen has extended to the starting staff. And it’s been done without breaking the bank — even that of the Pirates!

Starters Gerrit Cole, Rodriguez, Morton, Burnett, Liriano, and Gomez will cost about $26 million this season — less than one-third of what the Los Angeles Dodgers are paying for their starters, and about $2 million less than when the New York Yankees are paying Alex Rodriguez, who hasn’t played a game all year.

In addition, the Pirates’ cost per bullpen player is around the major-league minimum of $490,000, except for closer Grilli’s $2.25 million.

The Pirates’ rotation is in the top half of the National League, third in strikeout percentage, and sixth in ERA. The bullpen has been even better this season leading the league in ERA and placing third in strikeout percentage.

The biggest difference between the 2011-2012 teams and the 2013 version is that its pitching staff as a whole has been among the leaders in all of baseball. Certainly the blossoming of young stars like Marte has helped, but sub-par seasons so far for Walker, Jones, and (for him) McCutchen illustrate that solid pitching can overcome downturns in offense.

Huntington’s strength has been in his steadfastness to stick to his slow, steady plan that so irritates fans in an “I-want-it-now” society.

And the GM must not abandon that strategy just as the long-desired results seem within the team’s realistic reach.

Players like Cole, Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, and Luis Heredia must remain in the organization. No realistic return is worth their cost.