Beating A Dead Horse: Ron Cook Shames Neal Huntington For Alvarez Non-Promotion

[UPDATE 6/16: Obviously this argument is even more pointless now with Alvarez coming up, but it was a valuable use of hours of my life nonetheless]

The Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook wrote a column today arguing that Neal Huntington should promote Pedro Alvarez ASAP. He then goes into a half-hearted rehashing of a bunch of non-arguments about the Pirates’ recent trades and how they somehow mean that Huntington is going to be fired.

As long as columnists aren’t gonna get tired of these same tired arguments, I won’t get tired of rehashing the same tired really obvious logical responses to them. Let’s dive into the column:

If I’m Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, I’m promoting hotshot prospect Pedro Alvarez from the minors today, putting him in the lineup at third base tonight against the Chicago White Sox at PNC Park and praying like crazy he does something to help me save my job. Next month might be too late. Heck, next week could be too late.

Huntington has to be running out of time. He’s in the final season of a three-year contract and management has given no indication it plans on extending him. There’s a good reason for that. Overall, he hasn’t done a very good job.

Ok. Three things:

1) Cook is arguing that Neal Huntington should be making executive baseball decisions partially motivated by saving his own job. That’s one of the most dangerous things a baseball executive can do; the last time a Pirates GM was desperate to save his job, the Pirates ended up eating the contract of a near-death Matt Morris.

2) Does it really matter if Pedro Alvarez comes up Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday? Alvarez is a potential franchise cornerstone under team control for the next six major league seasons — are we really going to base an entire column of vitriol on the specific date of his arrival? It’s nit-picky at best, and certainly not rage-inspiring; he’s not sealing Alvarez in a time capsule along with a Lady Gaga cd and oil spill news clippings and mailing him to 2050. He’ll be in the majors this week.

3) Is Cook able to cite any sources that Huntington’s job is in jeopardy? The column is pure speculation, based on Huntington’s contract being up at the end of the year, mixed with observations of the major league team and conjecture. Pay attention as the tone of Cook talking about Huntington’s impending firing changes from speculative to inevitable.

Huntington can pat himself on the back for rebuilding the Pirates’ minor league system, through the draft if nothing else. It’s not so much that he and his scouts picked Alvarez No. 2 in the 2008 draft. That was a no-brainer. What’s more impressive is that baseball people have praised the Pirates’ overall drafts under Huntington. Good for him and his people.

Good for you, Neal Huntington. You have excelled at the single most important aspect of your job. You’re building the team from the ground up with an unprecedented level of draft spending, outspending every other Major League team on the draft over the last two seasons to bolster an area which has absolutely crippled the franchise for the past decade. Congratulations. Pat yourself on the back. If I couch these facts in patronizing half-sarcasm, it makes these accomplishments seem like a throwaway detail, even though they’re a billion times more important to the franchise than two or three extra games for Pedro Alvarez, who has played less than a season and a half of professional baseball.

Let’s move on:

But what about the big league club?

While Huntington has been off overseeing the minor leaguers, it has become a joke, even worse than when he took over from previous general manager Dave Littlefield.

David Littlefield’s season-by-season loss totals, starting in 2002, his first full season: 89, 87, 89, 95, 95, 94

Under Huntington, the team has lost 95 and 99 games, and will likely lose between 95 and 100 this season. This is the absolute definition of splitting hairs, just short of literally taking a hair and cutting it into two pieces with a precision laser. Does it matter if the Pirates’ major league club loses 95 games or 99 games while they’re rebuilding? I’d say the answer is an obvious and resounding “no”, but apparently, it’s a piece of evidence in a “fire Huntington” column.

Incidentally, Dave Littlefield was on the job for more than 6 years, and we’re talking about letting Huntington go after 3? Yikes.

Huntington has to take the blame for this mess. His trades have been mostly failures, although it’s still too soon to pronounce final judgment on some.

Now let’s go ahead and pronounce final judgment on some!

Robinson Diaz for Jose Bautista, who had 18 home runs through Sunday for the Toronto Blue Jays?

Jose Bautista was a footnote when the Pirates dealt him. No one cared when he was dealt, and his career year is coming absolutely out of nowhere — his 18 home runs this year are already 2 more than his previous career high, and he’s slugging 131 points higher than his career SLG. It would’ve been ludicrous for Huntington or anyone else to foresee Bautista having this season at the age of 29, just as it would’ve been ludicrous for the Twins’ GM to predict Garrett Jones’ success one season ago. Bautista is still hitting .231 in this career year, and the rest of his numbers will assuredly slide back towards his career norms. Robinson Diaz wasn’t anything special, but a randomly good half-season by a journeyman infielder two years after he’s been traded is hardly a massive GMing blunder.

Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Bryan Morris and Craig Hansen for Jason Bay?

Bryan Morris has a 1.26 ERA and 67 Ks in 71 IP this year in Single and Double-A at the age of 23. Andy LaRoche has been a disappointment, and Moss and Hansen were filler at the time and remain filler, but guess what? The Pirates also still have them. Bay was an unrestricted free agent this past offseason, signed a 4-year, $66 million deal with the Mets, and currently has 4 home runs and will be 36 when the deal expires.

We can quabble over whether the Pirates could’ve gotten a better return on Bay from another team, but surely the Pirates are better off without him. Obviously Cook wouldn’t argue that the Pirates would be any closer to competing with Bay in their lineup for $16 million over the next four years, so why is this casually thrown in there? And doesn’t the resurgence of Bryan Morris make this trade one of those “too soon to pronounce final judgment” deals that Cook himself just mentioned?

Bad as those deals were, sending Jack Wilson and $3.3 million to Seattle to get Jeff Clement as the key acquisition was worse. Clement was given the first-base job in the spring and hit .189 before being sent, finally, to the minors Wednesday.

This just is just flat-out misinformed cherry-picking for the sake of making an argument. The Pirates didn’t trade Jack Wilson and money for Jeff Clement — they traded Ian Snell and two months of UFA-to-be Jack Wilson to Seattle for Clement, Ronny Cedeno, Nathan Adcock, and two other minor leaguers. Wilson has played in 26 games this year, posted a .282 OBP, and was recently contemplating retirement; Cedeno — who wasn’t a free agent and thus remained under team control in the offseason — hasn’t been anything special, but he’s been healthy and produced about the same as Wilson, and while he’s not Wilson defensively, he’s certainly passable, plus he’s almost $4 mil less expensive than Wilson and he’s 5 years younger. Nathan Adcock is 22 and has a 2.85 ERA and 68 Ks in 66 innings in single-A this season. Jeff Clement has been a disappointment, but Ian Snell has also totally imploded, posting a 26/25 K/BB ratio and a 6.41 ERA in pitcher-happy Safeco Field, to say nothing of his well-documented insanity.

Maybe Adcock won’t pan out, and Clement is looking more and more like a bust, but what about this deal in any way reflects poorly on Neal Huntington? Cedeno has exceeded Wilson’s production and is younger and cheaper, and Ian Snell is terrible, making any long-term production the Pirates get from Adcock or Clement a total gain (though the Pirates did include $3+ million in this deal to cover some of the salary, in a rare display of non-cheapness).

Then, there was the Aki Iwamura fiasco. Huntington traded to get him in the offseason when the Tampa Bay Rays were ready to release him and took on his $4.85 million salary, which is highest on the Pirates. Iwamura is hitting .177 and has no range in the field because of a bad knee. If you count Iwamura’s salary with the money the Pirates sent to Seattle for Clement and the $2 million the team ate to release Ramon Vazquez in the spring, that’s more than $10 million wasted dollars for a franchise that can’t afford it.

Shame on Huntington.

It’s Ron Cook’s favorite song! Cook permanently has “Shame on” saved on his clipboard and just Control-Vs it into his shame columns every other day, then conveniently adds the name of the person or persons who are deserving of said shame.

Aki Iwamura and Ramon Vazquez were both terrible pickups. They also were under contract for one and two years, respectively. On a list of criteria for judging a general manager, “effectiveness of veteran stopgap middle-infielders acquired to fill short-term void” isn’t near the top. Presenting this paragraph as a viable counterargument to the “Huntington has drafted exceptionally well” is proportionally unjustified.

Not signing highly touted Dominican Republic shortstop Miguel Sano was a huge one. People loved this kid. He badly wanted to play for the Pirates. Huntington couldn’t get it done, losing him to the Minnesota Twins over a few hundred-thousand dollars.

It’s no wonder Huntington is running out of time.

This was indeed disappointing — the Sano situation was bizarre by any estimation, though the quotes coming from both the Pirates’ camp and Sano’s agent made myself and many others believe there was a lot more to this story than was ever reported on the surface.

But the comment “It’s no wonder Huntington is running out of time.” — does Cook have any sources or evidence that Huntington’s job is in jeopardy, other than his contract being up at the end of the season? Nutting hasn’t said anything concerning Huntington’s status, and certainly hasn’t said anything linking Huntington’s fate to the specific Win/Loss performance of the current major league roster. Cook begins the column speculating that Huntington may be running out of time because he doesn’t have an extension and the team is playing poorly, then as the column goes on, just starts referring to this speculation as fact.

In many ways, the Pirates’ season is over again, long before the Fourth of July. But wouldn’t it be fun to see what Alvarez could do with future star Andrew McCutchen and the other young guys that Huntington has finally, seemingly reluctantly, brought up? Tabata. Neil Walker. Brad Lincoln. Steve Pearce once he is healthy again.

“Seemingly reluctantly”? What an unfair statement — Andrew McCutchen made his major league debut at age 22, and the Pirates traded Nate McLouth to make room for him in center field. How is that in any way “reluctant”? If anything, it’s incredibly proactive. Jose Tabata is 21 and began last season in AA, and is now starting in a major league outfield. How much sooner would Cook have preferred Huntington promoted these guys? Neil Walker was called up in September last year, struggled, was sent down to AAA, learned a new position, and hit his way back onto the major league roster this year. What is remotely objectionable about the way Huntington has handled any of these situations?

And yes, it will be exciting to see what Pedro Alvarez can do with the Pirates’ young core, when he gets called up very very soon and makes this point moot.

Who knows? Maybe they could put a little something good together. Maybe they could save Huntington’s job.

I again re-iterate, Cook cites no sources that Huntington’s job is in jeopardy, other than him not having an extension for 2011. Beyond that, though, I hope and pray in the name of anything sane that Bob Nutting isn’t basing the decision of whether or not to retain Huntington on how the Pirates perform at the major league level in the next couple months. If he’s sitting there saying “We better finish with at least 68 wins — 67 or fewer, and Huntington is outta here after three seasons! 68 or fight!! That’s what I always say! Remember that thing from history with the latitude? It’s like that, but more definitive!”

If I’m Huntington, I’m willing to take that chance. Apparently, he isn’t to that point yet. What? Is he afraid Alvarez will fail? If that happens, he almost surely will be fired.

That’s a terrible way to generally manage, isn’t it?

So you’re saying, Huntington should promote Alvarez RIGHT NOW to save his job, but he isn’t promoting Alvarez because he’s afraid that Alvarez will fail and he’ll lose his job. You know you’re allowed to re-read your columns before printing them, right?

Huntington will promote Alvarez later this week, and this whole thing will be academic. Is Cook actually suggesting that Huntington is afraid that Alvarez will fail and this will cost him his job? Then what’s Huntington’s plan, to never ever promote his top prospect? Just gonna keep him stashed in a cellar somewhere and hope everyone goes “Didn’t we used to have some really good dude in AAA? Ah well, don’t remember. Let’s give Huntington an extension, I don’t recall a top prospect of his failing.”

If I’m Huntington, I’m going down firing all the bullets in my gun. I’m not leaving any in the chamber in Indianapolis.

Whoa, crap, when did this column turn into The Professional? Are you TNT? Cause you know drama.

A lot of the major league level acquisitions Neal Huntington has made during his brief tenure haven’t panned out; even the most ardent Huntington supporters aren’t deluding themselves into believing that Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Clement have been rousing successes thusfar.

But think of the players Huntington has dealt away: Bay, Wilson, Snell, Nate McLouth (hitting .176 in Atlanta), John Grabow (UFA, 9.45 ERA with the Cubs), Freddy Sanchez (UFA who’s hitting well but missed the first two months of the season, and he’s now 32), Nyjer Morgan (lower OBP than Milledge, also has 0 homers, and is 5 years older), the list goes on and on.

Tom Gorzelanny is off to a good start, and Matt Capps and Adam LaRoche (also UFA) have been productive for their respective teams, but seriously, look at that list of guys — would the Pirates be any better if they’d kept even a handful of those guys around? Are we really going to cast harsh judgment on a general manager who inherited one of the worst major league teams and probably the worst minor league system in all of baseball based on the short-term returns he received from dumping aging impending free agents, rather than on his approach to the draft, the single most important aspect of running a midmarket franchise?

We are going to do exactly that? Oh. I see. Well, then, I suppose carry on criticizing Huntington for failing to promote the guy he drafted to the majors instantly enough. His job should definitely be in jeopardy because of it.


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7 Responses to “Beating A Dead Horse: Ron Cook Shames Neal Huntington For Alvarez Non-Promotion”

  1. PensDiaspora Says:

    Dan – agree wholeheartedly with your post. Ron Cook hasn’t made a good point in years. It’s tough to evaluate Huntington on these trades because hardly any of the guys we have given away were or are any good (although it’s hard to excuse accepting Charlie Morton for anything).

    Since you take Cook to task on his substance, I thought you might appreciate my blog post about Cook’s form. It’s a tutorial on writing a Ron Cook column in 25 minutes.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Today in Ron Cook Poetry: The Comatose Skipper | Pens Diaspora Says:

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  3. Matt Says:

    Nice post. I always enjoy reading someone strip down Ron Cook’s “articles” to expose the hack that he is. Keep up the good work.

  4. Brian Says:

    Cook’s a blowhard, and is one of many writers whose columns I skip as soon as I see their name attached to it.

    Maybe he should just stick to one thing and try to do it well, rather than half-assing it in the PG, half-assing it on The Fan, and half-assing it on Nightly Sports Call.

    When I see some in the mainstream media criticizing blogs for being uninformed and irresponsible, I think of people like Cook, Smizik, Mariotti, Paige, etc. who are more concerned with their own names than with the news they’re supposed to cover.

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  7. opis Says:

    Niesamowita opinia. Właśnie takiego podejścia szukałem.
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