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Starkey: Pirates' Huntington never looked so good

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle watch batting practice Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.

Disclaimer: This column has praised Neal Huntington and the Pirates early in other seasons, notably the past two, only to see the club disintegrate in historic fashion. The opinion herewith is to be applied only to this precise time period — meaning, now — and makes no claims to the future, immediate or otherwise.

Just to be clear, I'm talking about now. And at this particular moment — the clock on my laptop reads 6:46 a.m., May 24, 2013 — Neal Huntington's stock has reached its highest peak since Sept. 25, 2007, the day he was hired as Pirates general manager.

Huntington has never looked so good.

First, acknowledge this: The Pirates have achieved respectability. Since the beginning of last season, they are 108-101.

That is, by any definition, respectable. This franchise no longer is a joke.

Low bar? Sure. But when you've been losing for 20 years, even leaps over low bars are significant.

Now look around the diamond. It's almost comical how well things are developing on several fronts.

Huntington has expertly mined the scrap heap. He has other teams paying his players. He has a $20 million talent (Andrew McCutchen) signed for an average of $8.58 million over six years. He's winning trades. He finally reeled in a high-impact free agent and — wonder of wonders — has even seen one of his lower-round draft picks make an impression.

A closer look:

• A.J. Burnett was acquired before last season because the Yankees wanted to shed his salary. Except they didn't even shed half of it. They agreed to pick up $20 million of the $35 million left on his deal. They are paying Burnett millions of dollars to win games for the Pirates.

• Meanwhile, the Astros are paying Wandy Rodriguez $8.5 million to pitch for the Pirates (the Pirates are on the hook for the other $4.5 million) this season.

• Huntington took a chance on well-worn reliever Jason Grilli — now on the verge of All-Stardom — in July 2011, signing him to a minor league deal. Grilli flourished, then signed for below market-value in the offseason. He is the gift that keeps on giving.

• Mark Melancon was acquired from Boston with three prospects in exchange for Joel Hanrahan and Brock Holt (you should have heard the cries when Holt was included). Melancon has been as good as any reliever in baseball. Hanrahan, unfortunately, sustained a season-ending injury.

• Travis Snider and Gaby Sanchez have been decent contributors, acquired in maligned trades that Huntington clearly won. Sanchez arrived for a draft pick and the legendary Gorkys Hernandez, batting .250 with the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs. Snider fetched Brad Lincoln, whose ERA is best measured with two hands since he joined the Blue Jays.

• Jeff Locke, one of the team's most effective starters, was acquired in the much-lamented Nate McLouth deal with Atlanta. A clear win for Huntington, even though Gorkys was part of the package coming to Pittsburgh.

• Garrett Jones, who has established himself as a consistently productive hitter against right-handed pitching, was a flea-market find.

• On the free-agent front, Huntington has reversed a string of busts by signing catcher Russell Martin (no, the Yankees aren't paying part of his $7.5 million salary, too) and pitcher Francisco Liriano. The Martin signing reminds of me of when the Detroit Tigers, coming off a 119-loss season in 2003, signed Pudge Rodriguez. Like Rodriguez, Martin is a heart-and-soul player. A winner. He also has the second-best OPS on the team and is throwing out runners left and right.

• Jose Tabata looks like a different player this season, and Jeff Karstens might still have value. Those two are what's left of a trade with the Yankees that must be considered a win for Huntington, who gave up Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte.

• Huntington has taken heat for producing nothing from the lower rounds of expensive drafts, but reliever Justin Wilson is an exception. Taken in the fifth round in 2008, he has been highly effective.

Is a lot of this blind luck? Of course. The Pirates were ready to commit $10 million a year to Edwin Jackson, for example, and instead settled for Burnett when Jackson declined the invitation.

But if you're going to cite Huntington's good luck, you must acknowledge his bad luck, too, with the likes of Lyle Overbay, McLouth (second time around), Brandon Moss and Ryan Ludwick — examples of players who, for whatever reason, didn't perform here as they would elsewhere.

Luck always factors into winning.

Isn't it about time Huntington and the Pirates got some?

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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