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Pirates GM Neal Huntington: 'Optimism has turned to realism'

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, July 8, 2018, 4:03 p.m.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington addresses the Jung Ho Kang situation with reporters Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington addresses the Jung Ho Kang situation with reporters Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington discusses the trade of Andrew McCutchen in January at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington discusses the trade of Andrew McCutchen in January at PNC Park.

While accepting blame for the Pirates' freefall toward the bottom of the National League Central, general manager Neal Huntington said Sunday the next eight games could dictate how the team will take shape as it approaches the July 31 trading deadline.

“Sometimes, reality sets in,” he said. “The optimism has turned to realism.”

The Pirates, who had lost 12 of 16 games prior to the finale of the Philadelphia Phillies series Sunday, will play three games against the Washington Nationals starting Monday, followed by five against the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers. All games are at PNC Park.

“You don't want to overemphasize what a week can mean, but this is one of those weeks where 4-4 doesn't do us a lot of good,” Huntington said. “We need to make up some ground in a short period of time, and we need to show we can continue to do that.

“Otherwise, we get to a point in time where we start to take a realistic look at this club and look at the young players we do like.”

At that point, he said, it might make sense to give more playing time to younger players, including a few currently in the minors, at the expense of some veterans. Huntington did not identify any veterans who might have to step aside.

Shortstop Jordy Mercer, for example, is only signed through the end of this season. Left fielder Corey Dickerson is eligible for his final year of arbitration in 2019.

“We have guys on expiring contracts who maybe (it) makes sense to give those at-bats and those innings to guys who are young and are learning,” Huntington said.

The Pirates trail the Brewers by 12½ games.

“This is on me,” Huntington said. “This is the club I put together. I believe in our coaches. I believe in the message they are giving our players. But we're where we are. It's real.

“I'm ultimately accountable for everything. Some of the moves that I've made haven't worked the way I anticipated.”

Huntington said he estimated before the season the Pirates could win between 78-82 games and “could exceed that and be one of the teams in the postseason battle.”

He liked the team and didn't feel the need to adjust the roster because he wanted to show faith in young players “we felt had earned opportunities.”

“We believe in our young players,” he said. “We still believe in this young, talented but erratic bullpen. We believe they can go do the jobs. It didn't work. That's squarely on my shoulders.”

But, he added, the Pirates have a group of players in their mid-20s who are worth keeping and evaluating.

“Our projection is going to be 78 to 82 wins next year, maybe a little worse, if we take some of the veterans off this club. But the Royals got to and won a World Series with a projection of 78-82 wins. We've gotten to the postseason three times with that projection.

“We believe that this young group is going to be the core of the next Pirates winning team. We go on a nice run this July, and it becomes this year. If not, how do we turn that corner for next year?”

Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jdipaola@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.

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