By Vince Guerrieri
If there’s one Cinderella story in Major League Baseball that has attracted more attention than the Indians, it’s the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Buccos, owners of the longest streak of futility in the major leagues with 18 straight losing seasons, have not just climbed out of the cellar of the National League Central, but are at the top of the standings at 49-44, the same record as the Indians.
And in fine Pittsburgh tradition (Chuck Noll), they needed a guy from Cleveland to lead them out of the desert.
In 2007, Neal Huntington was hired as the Pirates’ general manager. Huntington started his baseball career as the assistant director of player development for the Montreal Expos before being hired by the Indians, where he served as assistant director of minor league operations, director of player development, assistant general manager and special assistant to the general manager.
The Indians won the Central in 2001, but were in the last gasp of their 1990s glory years. In 2002, the Tribe pulled the trigger on a deal that sent ace Bartolo Colon to Montreal for Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee and Grady Sizemore – a deal that would benefit the Indians for years. Huntington was there to watch a team perpetually rebuild, trading off talent when it appeared they might become too expensive and getting prospects in return.
At that point, the Tribe seemed to be good at identifying prospects and picking them up. Their drafting, on the other hand, left a little to be desired. The first-round picks for the Indians included JD Martin, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeremy Sowers, Adam Miller and Brad Snyder. Guthrie was picked up by the Orioles after being released by Cleveland – the only one still in the majors.
Huntington was hired by new Pirates President Frank Coonelly. The Bucs were the laughingstock of the major leagues, playing with AA talent in the most beautiful stadium in the majors. They overpaid for catcher Jason Kendall, traded Aramis Ramirez for, in the words of one radio host, “some magic beans” and skipped over catcher Matt Wieters to draft Daniel Moskos – a more affordable candidate – in 2007. Wieters is an All-Star. Moskos has one more win in the majors than I do.
However, the cupboard wasn’t entirely bare. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker were both draft picks that predated Huntington’s arrival. And Huntington whiffed on a couple trades, letting Jose Bautista go to Toronto for almost nothing, and getting nothing of substance for dealing Jason Bay.
But at the All-Star break, Huntington could take credit from bringing 22 of the players on the Pirates roster to Pittsburgh.
This year, the Pirates had three All-Stars in McCutchen, starter Kevin Correia and closer Joel Hanrahan. Correia was signed as a free agent, but three of the other Pirates starters – Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens and James McDonald – were acquired via trades by Huntington. Hanrahan also came over in a trade, from Washington.
Like the Indians, the Pirates are seeing good production from players they traded for – for whom immediate expectations might be low. And like the Indians, the Pirates are playing in a division that appears to be a free-for-all.
But Huntington made some moves that appeared unpopular but turned out to reap dividends – sound familiar?