On Wednesday last week, the Pirates best power prospect in decades took the field in a Pirate uniform for the first time, joining a talented young center fielder who seems likely to become a perennial All-Star, a local kid made good playing second base, and a very young outfield prospect who loves Roberto Clemente. Throw in a pitching prospect and a red-hot out-of-nowhere success story, and things are looking up no matter what the win/loss column says at the moment. Later in the week, the team announced that contract extensions that were more or less foregone conclusions had actually been given out in the off-season, despite the team previously saying that they hadn't been talked about, and the team fired what would appear to be a bad part-time employee for violating the team's social-networking policy. Guess what everyone in the media is talking about on Monday?
Look, keeping the contract extensions quiet was weird. It was a bizarre evasion what's considered normal baseball operating procedure. You know what else is weird? The practice of giving employees yearly one-year extensions in public to prevent them from becoming "lame ducks," even if you think there's a good chance they'll be fired before that extension ever kicks in. The Pirates were apparently operating on the policy that Huntington and Russell will be retained as long as they do good jobs and as soon as they stop doing so, they won't have jobs any more. How do I know that? Because that's more or less what was reported this spring during the discussion of the contract terms.
Let's look at this from a different angle. Just three weeks ago, Neal Huntington and his staff conducted a draft using more or less the same strategy they used in their first two drafts. Is there any way they would have been allowed to do this if the team was considering not keeping them on board for 2011? Coonelly surely knew what Huntington was planning on doing in the draft and thus far, any evaluation of Huntington's job security would have to weighthe draft heavier than anything else. So if you were worried about the work the guy was doing, would you let him screw up another draft before firing him? No, you wouldn't. And once it became clear that Huntington would be allowed to helm the draft, it was equally clear that he'd be back for 2011. The contract extension was a formality.
And what about Russell? Russell might still be fired, but if the Pirates have had serious discussions about firing him, why would they wait until after their most highly valued prospects have been promoted? If Russell is doing something deleterious to the team, wouldn't you get rid of him before you let Tabata, Walker, Lincoln, and Alvarez get exposed to him? Or don't you at least want to expose your prized assets to as little turmoil as possible?
Again, I'm not arguing that these extensions weren't mis-handled, but by the time they became public they absolutely should not have been surprises. Would Huntington have abandoned ship for the rookies if he thought he might get fired because of the team's performance? Would Russell have stuck with Charlie Morton or Andy LaRoche or Aki Iwamura as long as he did if he were worried about his job? I don't think so. The Pirates refused to talk about extensions (I'm not entirely certain I'd say they were being dishonest or that Coonelly outright lied about it, as my Pointy-Haired Blogging colleague has alleged recently, but they were certainly evasive), but the actions of the people in question more or less answered my own personal questions about the situation and if you were truly unsure about it before the team was cornered into an announcement last week, I'm not sure you were paying that much attention.
It's another question entirely whether or not these guys deserved their extensions, of course, but the simple truth of the matter is that most GMs get at least three years on the job and while some of Huntington's trades haven't worked out perfectly, the ones that have been panned the most are the ones that were made with both an eye on the present and future which are, invariably, the hardest moves to make because they always involve bargain-shopping. The Pieta was not carved out of marble because Michelangelo found it in the half-off aisle at Lowe's and so maybe it shouldn't be a huge surprise that the Andy LaRoches and Lastings Milledges and Jeff Clements found in the same aisle haven't panned out perfectly. Neal Huntington didn't just inherit a mess in 2007, he inherited a mess with an expiration date and I'm just not sure there was much anyone could do to turn this team around by the 2010 season.
What Huntinton has done is replenish the system with talent. Neil Walker and Brad Lincoln represent, for the most part, the end of Dave Littlefield acquired talent (Rudy Owens and Starling Marte were both acquired by Littlefield, but I think a compelling argument can be made to attribute Owens' success to the Pirates current developmental team and Marte's signing was more Rene Gayo than Littlefield and Gayo is not only still with the club, but has more to work with thanks to the new front office), but in the low minors the Pirates have Tony Sanchez and Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke and Chase D'Arnaud and Brock Holt and Nathan Adcock and a whole passel of young arms waiting to be developed and they were all put into the system by Huntington and his staff. They're all a long ways off, but that's still much more talent than the Pirates ever had in the low minors under Littlefield. Not giving Huntington a chance to put the rest of the puzzle together would be unfair and illogical.
And again, what about JR? I'll certainly agree that sometimes his in-game manangement can be maddening, but that can be said about most other big league managers. It doesn't seem fair to hire a manager, ask him to make do with the leftovers the front office is trying to trade, toss a bunch of young guys at him who are only Pirates because someone considered them damaged goods, and then can him right as the cream of the minor league system starts rising to the top. It's true that the Pirates make a ton of mental mistakes, but I'm not sure how much of that is Russell's fault. When the Pirates traded for Andy LaRoche, a Dodger fan told him he was one mental error after another waiting to happen. I'm sure Nats and Mets fans would be happy to regale us with stories about Lastings Milledge and his mental lapses if we asked. There's only so much one guy can do.
Sure, Russell seems to favor his vets, but think back to Little League or high school or whatever the last level you played ball at was, assuming it was somewhere below the professional level. What do most coaches do with a player who's head isn't in the game all the time? What do they do when they try to make a point time and time again and the player doesn't get it? They bench players. And which veteran has received the biggest portion of JR's generosity? Ryan Church. And who does he take the field for on most nights? Lastings Milledge. You shouldn't need a flashlight to see where this is going.
I don't really want to go out of my way to defend Russell, because I'm honestly pretty indifferent about him. But I actively disliked Jim Tracy when he was the Bucs' skipper (I still do, for that matter) and I wasn't much a fan of Lloyd McClendon either. I've played for coaches and managers who would explode at the drop of a hat just to make a point and "fire their players up" and it got tiresome after a while. If JR wants to be a stoic in the dugout, I'm fine with that. The only thing that matters is that the players in the dugout know that he has their backs. I think they do know that. Russell strikes me as a good guy who may not demand respect, but who's presence is capable of commanding it. And he's shown a willingness to think outside the box once in a while, which I like from a manager. I'm not the guy's biggest fan, but if the Pirates want him back in the dugout in 2011 I can think of far worse choices.
For the first time since I've started blogging, the Pirates have some real talent at the Major League level that's actually worth talking about and analyzing and dissecting. And they have more depth in the lower minors that, if developed properly, could eventually combine with this current group and actually become something. I'm not sure if that's a light at the end of the tunnel, but for the first time in a long time I am sure that this is a tunnel that we're in and not a coffin. 25-44 record or not, this is the most excited I've been about the Pirates since I was too young to know any better. And despite that, all that the people that drive the mainstream sports conversation in Pittsburgh want to talk about is stuff that ultimately doesn't matter.