Tim Benz: Breaking down Pirates GM Ben Cherington’s ties to Neal Huntington
It could just be one of those “funny how things work out” stories.
Or, it could make more sense than that.
“He was someone who helped me get an interview for an internship with the Cleveland Indians in 1998,” new Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said of his predecessor Neal Huntington. “He was really helpful to me getting that interview and getting my foot in the door.”
In 1998, Huntington was the director of player development with the Indians. Nine years later he’d become the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Twelve years after that, Cherington — a fellow product of Amherst College — took over the job Huntington once had.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a person,” Cherington said of Huntington Monday.
I know Huntington felt the same way. In May 2014, I left Pittsburgh briefly to work in Boston. By that point, Cherington was the general manager of the Red Sox, just a few months removed from a World Series victory.
On my last day at work in Pittsburgh, I was at PNC Park. On the way out, I said goodbye to Huntington and told him I was leaving for New England.
Huntington beamed with a big smile and mentioned how much he liked Cherington. He was effusive in his praise personally and professionally. How good of a guy he was. How much I’d enjoy covering him. How smart Cherington was and how nice of a job he had done in Boston.
Now Cherington is sitting in the same office Huntington did for over a decade, after Huntington helped Cherington get his start in the first place.
And, apparently, Huntington even consulted with Cherington through the hiring process.
“I did get to speak with Neal a couple times,” Cherington said of the weeks leading up to his appointment. “He was incredibly helpful throughout the process. In terms of teaching me things about Pittsburgh. The people here. The opportunity. That was an important part of the process for me.”
At this point, we could just say, “Huh, what a small world baseball is.” Leave it at irony, or coincidence.
But the connection probably goes a little deeper.
Between when Cherington resigned amidst a structural realignment at Fenway Park in August 2015 and when he became vice president of baseball operations with the Toronto Blue Jays in September 2016, it wouldn’t shock me if Huntington perhaps brought up Cherington’s name as a guy the Pirates should look to hire.
Or, at the very least, a guy Huntington had mentioned around the offices.
“Ben Cherington has been on my radar screen and baseball’s radar screen for the last several years,” Pirates owner Bob Nutting said. “The people who I really respect in baseball all equally respect Ben.”
Nutting said he didn’t talk to Huntington directly about Cherington. Maybe he didn’t have to. Maybe a seed had already been planted.
And the shoe fits.
It’s probably oversimplifying things to say it this way, but in his best of times in Boston, Cherington was lauded for winning with a small-market approach to talent procurement despite the benefit of a big-market payroll.
Look at the 2013 World Series team which went from last place to first place.
Cherington shed $262 million by moving the contracts of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. He offset their departures by cobbling together seven mid-tier free agents.
No. He’ll never get the financial latitude to sign seven MLB free agents here. But assembling a roster with an eye toward finding multiple, maneuverable parts from less than obvious places is partially how Huntington got the Pirates to the playoffs in 2013-15.
Koji Uehara = Jason Grilli
David Ross = Russell Martin
Ryan Dempster = Francisco Liriano
Stephen Drew = Clint Barmes
Or, at least, close enough.
But in his worst of times in Boston, Cherington and the Red Sox organization at large were criticized for the same attitude of operating like a small-market team — trying to “Moneyball” their way to another World Series when they had plenty of money to spend.
Next thing you know, Jon Lester isn’t getting the contract he wants, so he’s traded before the end of 2014 and winds up going to the playoffs with the A’s and then signs for big money with the Cubs.
*(Clears throat)* Gerrit Cole *(Clears throat)*
And Cherington sometimes caught heat for holding onto prospects too long instead of getting a good return.
Henry Owens = Nick Kingham.
Then, in hopes of avoiding a second straight last-place finish, when Cherington did decide to spend big in the offseason before 2015, it was on duds like Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to the tune of $183 million.
And they finished in last place anyway.
Panda > Lonnie Chisenhall
But you get the point.
Where Pirates fans hope Cherington regains a magic touch — one that Huntington had but lost along the way — is in drafting and development, which saw him as part of an organization that got the likes of Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi into the system over his years there.
Nutting liked and respected Huntington. He reiterated that in those exact words Monday. I’m sure there was a lot of Nutting’s gut that didn’t want to fire Huntington in the first place. Yet he knew he had to based on the club’s stagnation since the start of 2016 and the fanbase’s outcry for change.
So why not get a guy that is like Huntington in a lot of ways, that just isn’t — well — actually Huntington.
For a few years, Huntington did a lot of things right here.
Until he didn’t.
That’s where Cherington hopes the similarities end.