Huntington driven by 'right decisions'
Neal Huntington looked out from the Pirates' dugout in PNC Park before Game 3 of the National League Division Series in October and wondered aloud what that night's crowd was going to be like.
He smiled ear to ear as he talked about the atmosphere during the wild-card game the week before and tried to imagine whether it was possible for fans to be even more amped up, even louder than they were that night.
One year earlier, Huntington stood in a much different place.
Despite being nine games over .500 heading into September 2012, the Pirates collapsed down the stretch for the second year in a row. Huntington and his staff were under fire for everything from military-style training tactics at the developmental level to the major league team's failure to finish above .500. Owner Bob Nutting promised a thorough review of every area of the organization, including the front office.
Through it all, Huntington held firm in his resolve that the process was right and that he and his staff were making the “right decisions for the right reasons.”
“If (Nutting) made a different decision a year ago, I would have walked out the door believing this organization was much better off than when we walked in the door, and believing that they were a few good decisions away from being a playoff-caliber team,” Huntington said. “(I'm) very grateful, very thankful, that we had the opportunity to see the 2013 season to its fruition. My hope is that all it has done is reinforce that commitment and that bond, because we've got a lot of talented people doing a lot of good things.”
One season later, Huntington is a front runner for MLB Executive of the Year, an award that will be announced Monday. Other candidates include Boston's Ben Cherington; 2012 winner Billy Beane, of Oakland; Cleveland's Chris Antonetti; St. Louis GM John Mozeliak, who earned the nod in 2011; and Tampa Bay's Andrew Friedman.
It would be easy for Huntington now to fire off a big, fat, “I told you so,” but the Pirates' general manager said internal motivation has to be the driving force behind what he does. Focus on what's coming from the outside — positive or negative, he said — and it becomes too easy to get caught up in the wrong things.
“I've seen some good people get caught up in the wrong direction both ways” he said. “I've seen some guys that I trust and respect a ton get caught up in both directions and become defensive because of the criticism or become too aggressive because of (the praise). And I've had some great mentors along the way who have walked me through it, and I've also learned from watching guys from a distance that it can take you in the wrong direction, good or bad. It's not always the negative that gets you. Sometimes the good gets you, as well.”
Success took longer than Huntington said the organization thought it would. The team felt it was close in 2011, the fourth season under Huntington's leadership, but everything fell apart in the second half of the year. Then, they thought 2012 was going to be it, but another second-half collapse ruined those hopes.
This year's success hinged in no small part on a series of key offseason moves, most notably the additions of catcher Russell Martin and left-handed pitcher Francisco Liriano, plus late-season additions such as veteran hitters Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. Those two were added just prior to the postseason roster deadline after Huntington allowed the July 31 trading deadline to come and go without a move because, he said, the asking price was simply too high.
John Hart is an MLB Network analyst and former general manager of the Indians under whom Huntington worked for several years. Hart said that often the scouting and development pieces are easier for a GM to put in place than finding a way to bring it all together at the major-league level. Pulling off the right trades is where a general manager earns his spurs, Hart said.
“It's not just knowing where your club is, and are we there for sure, it's how deep do I go in my farm system and whom do I trade?” Hart said. “Sometimes it's learning your own scouts, your advisors, the guys you're taking advice from. Then, at some point, trusting your own gut and your own instincts and, once you make a few mistakes, not letting that be the be-all and end-all. The only way to do it sometimes is by experience, and not everyone hits a home run every time. You have to stick to your own convictions, be tough and keep swinging.”
Huntington served as the Indians' director of minor league operations in 1998 and that same year took over as director of player development under Hart.
Hart said there was not one particular thing that led him to believe Huntington would make a good general manager, but it was his daily approach to the job — coming in early, staying late and possessing an overall stability — that impressed Hart.
“I think the Pirates have earned respect around baseball as a well-run organization for their market, along with Tampa and Oakland and some of the more successful smaller markets,” Hart said. “Pittsburgh is now putting itself squarely into that category of teams that are doing it the right way.”
Pirates assistant GM Greg Smith said there was no sense of vindication with the team's success this season. The front office always believed in what it was doing, even in years when few outside the organization did.
“The foundation, core philosophy and conviction hasn't wavered, hasn't softened, and now that we're further along, it just reaffirms it that much more,” Smith said.
Now that the Pirates have broken their 20-year losing streak and returned to the postseason, the hard part will not only be sustaining that success, but continuing to push forward, Huntington said.
“I've also been around long enough to recognize that the sustaining is harder than the building, and that there will be a point in time where they'll call for my head again and I'm right back to being the guy that was thought of as I was a year ago,” Huntington said. “That's a part of the game. You try not to get too caught up in the positive or the negative and just show up trying to be a little better every day and make the right decisions for the right reasons to keep this organization moving in a positive direction.”