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  • Photo courtesy of THE PITTSBURGH PIRATES

    Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, a Milford High School graduate, talks to reporters.

  • Joe Marchilena photo

    PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
  • Joe Marchilena photo

    Pittsburgh's Jose Tabata dives back into first base during a game earlier this season against St. Louis.
Monday, April 30, 2012

Amherst’s Huntington still working to revive Pirates

Neal Huntington always knew that if he was going to succeed in the world of baseball, he was going to have to do it in a different way.

As a player at Milford Area Senior High and at Amherst College, he wasn’t the most physically talented. But Huntington knew he could make up for that by getting a mental edge, and that meant thinking about baseball almost nonstop.

Now, as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he’s tried to be creative to get a small market team – one that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992 – in position to compete with the big boys.

“We can’t go at this the same way as the big markets do,” Huntington said. “We have to take a different approach because they can out-resource us. We have to be smart and maximize every dollar we spend. It’s been a challenge and our record is not perfect. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Huntington is in his fifth season with the Pirates. When he took over as the GM, the franchise had some proven talent at the major league level, but had “the worst farm system in baseball,” he said.

Within two years, Huntington had traded almost all of that talent – players like Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Xavier Nady and Freddy Sanchez – in order to restock the farm system. In some cases, those trades worked out – for example, Huntington sent Nady and Damaso Marte to the Yankees for Jeff Karstens, Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf and Daniel McCutchen in July 2008. Karstens and Tabata are contributing to the Pirates, while McCutchen has bounced between Pittsburgh and theminors. Only Ohlendorf is no longer in the system.

Of course, there have been some deals that haven’t worked out, like the trade of Bay to the Red Sox that same July. Bay was the Pirates’ best player at the time, and Huntington got Andy LaRoche and Bryan Morris from the Dodgers and Craig Hansen and Brandon Moss from the Red Sox. Only Morris is still in the team’s system and, reaching Triple-A to start this season.

In 2011, the franchise enjoyed more success at the Major League level than it had in most of the previous 19 years. The team was in first place in the National League’s Central Division as late as July 26 before the wheels fell off. But even with that modest achievement, Huntington knows it’s far from what needs to happen to make Pittsburgh relevant in the baseball world.

“I feel like we’re on the right track, but I understand that our won-loss record is not acceptable,” Huntington said. “In baseball, it takes a lot of great players to be a great team and it takes time.’’

Huntington cited another professional sports team in Pittsburgh – the Penguins – as a great example of that. The Penguins were at the bottom of the NHL for the early part of the 2000s, but a few high draft picks netted them some of the league’s best players and helped the team win a Stanley Cup in 2009, three years after finishing last.

“The Penguins were one of the worst teams and then had some great drafts,” Huntington said. “To turn a baseball team around, four to six years is a typical scenario.”

While Huntington has been active when it comes to trades and free agents, his main focus has been on the amateur draft and the international market. The Pirates made noise in recent years by spending money on draft picks in the form of signing bonuses. According to Baseball America, Pittsburgh has spent $52 million in draft bonuses over the last five years, the most in baseball.

Sometimes that’s meant taking high school players who slipped in the draft after stating their intentions to go to college.

One of those players was outfielder Josh Bell, who the Pirates took in the second round in 2011, even though Bell had made known he planned on attending the University of Texas. He even sent a letter to Commissioner Bud Selig’s office telling teams not to draft him, but the Pirates did anyway and signed Bell to a deal that included a $5 million bonus.

“We have to be creative,” Huntington said. “We’re taking a significant step forward on the amateur side and with the young players we’ve traded for. We’ve hit on some good ones and we’ve missed on some. We can’t be gun shy.’’

This past offseason, Huntington tried to make a bigger splash in the free agent market, at one point going after pitchers Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt. Instead, the team brought in free agent Erik Bedard and traded for A.J. Burnett. Although the pitchers are off to promising starts, Huntington’s other free agent acquisitions – catcher Rod Barajas, shortstop Clint Barmes and outfielder Nate McLouth – are not.

“Our free agent track record is not good,” Huntington said. “But the industry’s track record is not good. When you start going with the lesser players, your hit rate is going to be worse. We need to do a better job of signing the right players.”

The Pirates appeared to do just that in the offseason with one of their own, inking center fielder Andrew McCutchen to a six-year contract extension. The deal covers McCutchen’s first two years of free agency, with a club option for the third year.

For Huntington, the move was a sign of the team heading in the right direction.

“In our minds, he is one of the best in the game,” he said. “His willingness to give up free agency and stay in Pittsburgh says we’re different now, we’re better.”

There’s reason for hope, but for the fans, it’s been a long time. In their fourth home game of the season April 20, a game they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals 4-1, the crowd booed thwm in the later innings.

“Losing is brutal,” Huntington said. “Someone in their 20s doesn’t remember a winning Pirates team and that can’t happen. This fan base is still very passionate. The negativity is passion and if we put a product on the field they can cheer for, that’s going to turn into joy. Returning a winning team to Pittsburgh, that’s my focus.”