Tim Benz: Who are the 2018 Pirates, and is Neal Huntington done?

August 4, 2018

Now that the Pirates have acquired Rangers closer Keone Kela, two questions need to be asked before Tuesday’s trade deadline: Who are these 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates, and is general manager Neal Huntington done?

Since the cost of acquiring this bullpen help was just Double-A pitcher Taylor Hearn and a player to be named later, it’s fair to ask if Huntington may want to do more.

Huntington has given us plenty of comparables by which we can measure his approach.

As he reminded us Sunday, they could be the 2011 or 2012 Pirates where multiple players were added. The 2011 club was two games over .500. This team is three games over.

The 2011 edition signed Jason Grilli and traded for Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee within the 10 days leading up to the trade deadline. Moves that history doesn’t remember as significant as they appeared at the time because the club so badly collapsed in the second half of the season.

The same can be said for the 2012 team which was 59-44 when it grabbed Wandy Rodriguez, Travis Snyder, Chad Qualls and Gaby Sanchez before July 31.

Neither of those teams made the playoffs. Those players yielded mixed results after coming on board. And it’s entirely possible the same thing could happen to the 2018 incarnation.

As Huntington pointed out, they could’ve been the 2014 team. A unit that got the benefit of no help at the deadline but got white hot in September and made the playoffs, anyway.

But clearly, he wanted to give them at least a little help, since he still felt burned by acquiring no one in that year.

Huntington didn’t limit his analogies to predecessors in Pittsburgh. During his 93.7 FM radio show, he once again invoked last year’s Minnesota Twins. That’s a club he has used as a rallying call, or a reference point for doubting-Thomas Pirates fans and media members all year long.

That was a team given zero chance to compete. But it crept into the AL playoff bracket as the final wild card, anyway.

All the Twins did in late July 2017 was get Jaime Garcia from Atlanta. He won his first start with them. Then Minnesota turned around and traded him to the Yankees for prospects.

Let’s hope Kela isn’t back in Texas, maybe with Houston or something by September.

“The small market and mid-market teams that make the postseason generally follow a typical model,” Huntington said. “You build from your core players that come from drafts, the international market or smart trades to acquire young players. Then they supplement those via trades and free agency.

“I reference those to give our fans hope that small markets can make the postseason.”

One of those recent small-to-mid-market teams is Kansas City. The Royals made the World Series in 2014 and won it in 2015.

Yet, Huntington frequently alludes to K.C. as a kind of “cautionary tale” for what can go wrong when you give up a lot of prospects to get a big fish at the trade deadline. In 2015, they got two in Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. Five prospects went out the door in those deals

However, Kansas City dipped to 81-81 in the 2016 title defense season, then 80-82 in 2017. Heading into Tuesday’s deadline, they had the second-worst record in MLB at 32-73.

So is Huntington fundamentally opposed to doing business that way?

“No. They won the World Series,” Huntington said. “It’s not that the Royals did anything wrong, they did everything right. It’s hard to question that.”

Here comes the “but”...

“My point is more, I think any GM, if he was guaranteed he’d win a World Series, every single one of us would mortgage the future for a World Series. The challenge is that there are franchises out there who have made huge pushes and have not won a World Series and have brought tough times upon those franchises.”

Huntington then pointed out the rebuild the Royals are enduring now.

Here’s the thing, though: The Royals had no guarantee, either. But they made a few “swing for the fences” moves, anyway. Then they worked out. Huntington was asked if he had a willingness to take that kind of a chance without a guarantee.

“To an extent, we are willing to go there,” he answered.

I’d like to see that “extent” extended as far as possible by Huntington in this trade market that has quickly become picked clean.

Getting Tampa Bay pitcher Chris Archer wouldn’t exactly be a “home run move” for Huntington. But it’d be a bases clearing double. Kela was a solid RBI single to left.

Getting someone of that ilk may be worth the return in prospects simply to show the fans that the team is really committing to trying. That’s another question that has been asked quite a bit in recent years.

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