In linking to my Hitchhiker's-themed Tuesday post on the Pirates' Disaster Week, Baseball Prospectus's Tommy Bennett wrote this:
I don't know why any Pirates fan would panic at this point (as opposed to any other point). One of my favorite thought experiments is how I would go about improving the Pirates. It's surprisingly hard.
This is, of course, something that I spend more than my own share of time thinking about and Bennett is very right. I've said more than a few times in the past year that from some angles, Neal Huntington's job can seem like an impossible one and it's not one I'm sure I would want.
In order to get my PhD, one of the first steps I have to pass is the thesis proposal. In short, I present the question I want to answer during my time in lab and then propose a series of experiments that I think will answer the the question, with the rationale behind why I think these experiments will definitively answer the question and why I think my method is the best way to answer it. I then have to defend this proposal to my thesis committee, who decide whether or not I'm an idiot and if I should be allowed to continue.
Once the proteins and RNA and reagents and reactions are stripped away, I think that's probably pretty similar to Neal Huntington's job interview. He presented a plan to rebuild a moribund franchise, and had to convince Frank Coonelly and the team brass this his plan was the best. There's a key difference between what I do and what Huntington's had to do, though. Huntington has to start in with his plan from day 1 and stick with it early on, without any results or indications that what he's doing is right. By the time he recognizes which parts of the plan are working and which aren't working, it's potentially already too late. In keeping with the theme of the original post, it reminds me a bit of Beeblebrox's Gambit. For those of you unfamiliar, it goes like this:
[...] the renewed shock had nearly made him spill his drink. He drained it quickly before anything serious happened to it. He then had another quick one to follow the first one down and check that it was all right.
"Freedom," he said aloud.
Trillian came on to the bridge at that point and said several enthusiastic things on the subject of freedom.
"I can't cope with it," Zaphod said darkly, and sent a third drink down to see why the second hadn't yet reported on the condition of the first. He looked uncertainly at both of her and preferred the one on the right.
He poured a drink down his other throat with the plan that it would head the previous one off at the pass, join forces with it, and together they would get the second to pull itself together. Then all three would go off in search of the first, give it a good talking to and maybe a bit of a sing as well.
He felt uncertain as to whether the fourth drink had understood all that, so he sent down a fifth to explain the plan more fully and a sixth for moral support.
The parallel isn't the heavy drinking part (though that may or may not be involved after weeks that involve 20-0 and 17-3 losses), but rather in doing the same thing over and over again before you can judge whether it ever even worked the first time. Huntington has to, in effect, fire trades and draft picks down the hatch without any empirical evidence that his blueprint is the best way to go about things.
Take Huntington's biggest trade to date, the Jason Bay trade, as an example. Most Pirate fans, with the Pittsburgh media riding shotgun, have declared this trade a failure on the part of Huntington to not "get more" for his best player and they're not even particularly interested in discussing it, stating that opinion as fact over and over. Except that Andy LaRoche has a phenomenal gove that certainly appears to my eye to be getting even better this year and he's not such a bad hitter and so far, at least, he looks better at the plate this year too. And then you've got Bryan Morris, who seems to finally have his head on straight and while it's true that a 23-year old dominating High-A is nothing to write home about, if he gets to Altoona by mid-season and puts up good numbers there he's more or less back on something resembling a normal track to the majors for a guy his age.
Say Morris keeps progressing and LaRoche becomes a .280/.370/.430 hitter with a great glove. Morris could be with the Pirates by mid-season next year (hugely optimistic, I know, but not impossible at this point if he gets to Altoona in the near future), and then, almost three years after the Bay trade, the Pirates have an important member of their rotation and a starting infielder/top of the lineup hitter. Even with the failures of Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen, how is that a bad trade? Teams just don't hand away prospects anymore, especially not for a year and a half of a very good but flawed player like Jason Bay. If the other offer that Huntington's expressed regret for turning down was say, Jeff Niemann (who was almost certainly offered by Tampa) and Reid Brignac (now I'm just speculating, I'm not sure Tampa would have even offered a second player of his caliber), don't Morris and LaRoche still have the potential to be as good or better than those two down the road?
And when will we have even an inkling of an idea that Huntington's plan to ignore the Tyler Matzeks and Shelby Millers of the world for wider-net approach of Tony Sanchez plus Zach Von Rosenberg and Billy Cain and Zack Dodson and Jeffrey Inman will work? Three years? Four years? How many more drafts will the Pirates have made by then?
This isn't to say that Huntington's method is right or wrong or good or bad , just that it's incredibly difficult to take on the task of rebuilding a franchise from the bottom up with such little in the way of immediate feedback.