Tim Benz: Fans should hold Pirates’ Neal Huntington to his word after this quote | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Fans should hold Pirates’ Neal Huntington to his word after this quote

Tim Benz
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Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington answers question during a press conference on June 11, 2019, at PNC Park.

After a while, it gets tuned out.

When Pittsburgh Pirates management waxes optimistic about good times ahead, it turns to white noise.

With only four winning seasons since 1993, you build a filter.

But please jot down this pearl from general manager Neal Huntington so you can have it ready in 2020. And make him accountable for living up to it.

If he’s still on the job, that is.

During his weekly radio show on 93.7 FM, Huntington was asked about remaining goals for this season.

His said he is hoping to see a blend of winning and player development.

“I would love to say we’re going to repeat 2012,” Huntington said. “In 2012, we were in first place into July and even into August. We were in a competitive playoff race into August. Then we went 6-21 in September. The core of that team is the team that won 94 games in 2013.”

I would love to say you are going to repeat that process, too, Neal. That would be wonderful.

What are you going to do to make it happen?

If you want to tell me Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Kevin Newman can evolve into a lineup that replicates what existed with Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker, that’s a leap.

At least I see the premise.

However, the tattered starting rotation that is currently set to return next season doesn’t come close to a facsimile of what was here in 2013.

Between A.J. Burnett, Jeff Locke, Wandy Rodriguez, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, only Locke (3.52) had an ERA above 3.50. This year, no starter has an ERA better than 4.06 (Steven Brault).

Brault is also the only regular starter who has yet to yield more than 10 home runs. Remember, it’s still August. In 2013, the highest home run total allowed from a starter was 11 (Burnett, Locke).

Then there was a bullpen that featured Mark Melancon, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson — all with ERAs between 1.39 and 2.39 — setting up Jason Grilli and his 33 saves.

Those bullpen numbers are a far cry from the ones recorded by the motley crew assembled to get the ball to Felipe Vazquez a few times per month this season.

This season’s pitching staff has a .263 batting average against (second-worst in the National League). Six years ago, it was .238 (second-best in the NL).

So there’s a lot of work to do on the mound to make this hypothetical comparison a reality.

To say the least.

But let’s get away from, you know, stats and data. Let’s get to Huntington’s responsibility when it comes to making this dream of his happen.

Get a Francisco Liriano: I admit it. I thought Liriano was washed up when Huntington acquired him after the 2012 collapse. However, he was a crucial component of the 2013 club, going 16-8 with an ERA of 3.02. And all he cost was a million dollars. Huntington must make another shrewd move like that if this team is going to experience another rebound.

Who is your catcher?: God bless Jacob Stallings for overachieving as much as he has this season. But it’s clear the organization doesn’t want to make him a regular starter behind the plate. It also appears Elias Diaz isn’t the next Yadier Molina after all.

Russell Martin’s offense didn’t fully come around until 2014, but he hit 15 homers in ‘13 (Stallings and Diaz have five combined). Also, he was a blood-and-guts stabilizing factor behind the dish.

Oh. He did this, too.

Cole Train 2.0?: Cole was called up in June 2013. He totaled 10 wins and 100 strikeouts, had a 3.22 ERA and won a playoff game in his first season.

I don’t see a pitcher like that in the minor league system right now. Do you?

I’ll even offer Mitch Keller as an option.

What if you are right?: I wonder if Huntington actually considered that.

If the 2020 Pirates become what his club became after ‘12, will he invest in it the way he did back then?

Sure, in 2013, the Pirates traded for Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. But perhaps spooked by the collapse of 2012, Huntington didn’t make those big trades until late August. With only the July 31 deadline in place nowadays, would he be willing to aggressively hunt down a trade and acquire salary earlier in the season next year if such a scenario should present itself?

Look, I understand Huntington’s dilemma. When asked to plumb for optimism, what’s he supposed to say?

“We stink, and I don’t see us getting better.”

Of course not. But by making that 2013 analogy, Huntington is putting the spotlight on himself. He’s reminding us high expectations are allowed even after the darkest of endings.

So if he wants us to buy what he is selling, he better deliver. If he doesn’t, he shouldn’t get mad when I dredge this quote back up 365 days from now.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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