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Kovacevic: Why Huntington will -- and should -- get an extension

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Monday, June 13, 2011
 

It says here that the Pirates will extend general manager Neal Huntington's contract, currently due to expire at season's end, and that they will do so sooner rather than later.

Want proof?

Listen to what team president Frank Coonelly told me this weekend at PNC Park when I raised the topic: "I'm very pleased with what Neal has done in building our organization from the ground up as well as the work that's been done by the staff he put together. My expectation is that Neal is going to be with the Pirates for many years to come."

All that's missing is the formal press release, right?

Well, here's something else it says here, and it might surprise some: I'm all for this.

In covering the Pirates all through the Coonelly/Huntington era that began in late 2007, I have questioned and criticized many front office moves, particularly Huntington's trades. And, without regurgitating the various Jason Bay/Jose Bautista/Aki Iwamura debates, suffice it to say I stand by those sentiments.

I'll say it plainly: There were times Huntington looked overmatched, even overwhelmed.

But I also have witnessed Huntington grow as a GM, especially in how he has handled his mistakes:

• He has added total busts, but he has not clung to them too long. That started with Byung-Hyun Kim in the spring of 2008, and it continued with Ramon Vazquez, Iwamura and Scott Olsen, all paid large sums of money -- a total of roughly $7 million -- to just go away and clear a roster spot for someone else.

• He has made dubious trades, but he also has responded behind the scenes -- including replacing evaluators -- to upgrade that area. The result was a methodology far superior to that of the disorganized Los Angeles Dodgers when the Pirates stole James McDonald and a prospect for aging reliever Octavio Dotel last summer. And even some earlier trades that once looked iffy -- the acquisitions of Charlie Morton and Joel Hanrahan, for example -- have swung Huntington's way.

• He used to find rejects who played like rejects -- Ryan Church, anyone• -- but he now is pulling off creative signings such as Kevin Correia, perhaps baseball's best bargain this past winter after yet another strong showing Sunday despite the 7-0 loss to the New York Mets, as well as waiver-claim contributors such as Chris Resop and Xavier Paul.

• He has matured in his public persona, more cautious with his words and smoother at handling criticism. He realized from the outset that many of his moves would be unpopular, given how barren the system was under Dave Littlefield, but he still took that criticism to heart at times. Not so much anymore.

Huntington remains far from perfect -- free agent Matt Diaz has badly underperformed, the loss of Nate Adcock in the Rule 5 draft was a poor show of roster management and the offense as a whole still has huge holes -- but you get the idea: He has come a long way since being Cleveland's No. 4 guy.

"I try to live my life to grow and develop every single day, as a husband, a father, a friend and certainly as a member of an organization," Huntington told me before the game Sunday. "You try to learn from every decision, the ones that work well, the ones that didn't, what we could have known at the point of the decision that might have altered the course."

Of addressing mistakes, Huntington said: "I think the worst thing a leader can do is fail to admit a decision didn't work and compound it by forcing the decision upon the organization."

Maybe his confidence stems from the Pirates' improved play at the top level, the mess Sunday aside. Maybe it's from the elite pitching acquired through the draft and international pools. And maybe it's just from finally seeing rewards from his aim to take high-end risks, best exemplified by Morton.

Whatever the case, Huntington is different. He always has heard out his lieutenants, even encouraging them to raise voices in the draft room. But he makes the final call, and he no longer feels compelled to explain every minute aspect of that call, nor to defend it.

Does he feel more confident?

"Sure," Huntington replied. "I think experience breeds confidence. The more times you go through that annual cycle, you have more of a sense of what's coming."

Huntington should get two more years to match the length of manager Clint Hurdle's contract. He always has had the right plan and, having progressed in executing that plan, he has earned seeing it through.

First, though, how about finding a bat somewhere, huh?

 

 
 


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