I just keep staring at it. I refresh my browser every now and then, just to make sure it’s true.
49-30. Now the best record in all of baseball. The Pittsburgh Pirates.
I never saw this season coming. Ever. This past March, if I had predicted the 2013 team’s record based on how little I thought GM Neal Huntington accomplished over the offseason, I would’ve regressed the Pirates substantially from the 2012 club that finished 79-83, probably dropping them around 70-92.
If you’ve read any of my 80+ articles over the past few years, you’ll know that I’m generally critical of the Pirates’ General Manager, going so far as to wonder whether he’d be fired, previously incapable of matching even the cumulative won-loss record of the Pirates under former GM Dave Littlefield, whom I considered one of the worst GMs in professional sports history.
Luckily, the pink slip never came, because for whatever reason, everything Neal Huntington has touched over the past year has turned pure gold. Let’s take a look at a few of the GM’s controversial offseason moves that are paying bigtime dividends for the current club.
December 1st, 2012: Pirates sign Russell Martin to a 2-year deal
I thought this was a terrible waste of resources, a transparent gesture to show fans that the Pirates could “outbid” the New York Yankees on players, even though the Yankees didn’t seem to have an interest in bringing back the 30-year old backstop that hit .211 for them the year previously. I was frustrated that Martin’s OPS+ the previous 4 years were 86, 88, 95, and 92, and yet the Pirates were paying him like a consistent 100 OPS+ catcher. Finally, I felt that Martin saved the Pirates from their own bad judgment, kyboshing a 3-year offer in favor of a 2-year, $17MM pact.
As of late June, 2013, the signing has been excellent. Even with some offensive regression, Martin is still posting a 114 OPS+ and 3.0 WAR (wins above replacement player). Perhaps even more importantly, he improved upon the MLB-history-making atrocious defense of former Huntington signee Rod Barajas, throwing out an MLB-leading 46.2% of potential base bandits, a rate higher than even Gold Glove NL Central rival Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals. Martin’s DWAR (defensive WAR) is also 50% higher than any other backstop in baseball (if you believe the stat has value). Lastly, the Pirates’ pitching staff believes Martin- who worked in Pinstripes with current ace A.J. Burnett– calls an excellent game, and sneaks a few calls per game as an accomplished pitch framer.
December 30th, 2012: Pirates trade CL Joel Hanrahan to Boston; name RP Jason Grilli as closer
The Buccos may not have *officially* named Grilli closer on that day, but everyone saw it coming when the Pirates finally moved Hanrahan- along with 2B Brock Holt– to the Red Sox for RP Mark Melancon, OF Jerry Sands, SP Stolmy Pimentel, and INF Ivan De Jesus. I was not opposed to the Pirates dealing their closer; frankly, I think Huntington missed two previous better selling opportunities on the effective but inaccurate fireballer. Rather, I was leery about the reins simply being handed over to the next man in line, especially when that arm was attached to a 36-year old body that had a total of 7 saves over his 10-year career. Further, I thought the return from Boston was incredibly underwhelming, basically a scrapped-together package of pieces that the Red Sox weren’t wild about anyway, as other teams have used to dupe Huntington in the past.
But the Pirates’ instinct was correct, because Jason Grilli has been one of the 4 best closers in baseball in 2013. Not blowing his first save until June 19th, the 6’4″ righty is 26/27 in save opportunities, to go with a 1.82 ERA and A.B.S.U.R.D. 15.1 K/9. To put that number in perspective, if a pitcher struck out “half” of all the batters he faced every inning (1.5 out of 3), he would only reach 13.5 K/9. That’s how dominant Grilli has been.
And then when you factor in that:
1. Joel Hanrahan (9.82 ERA) underwent Tommy John surgery for the Red Sox, and will not pitch again in 2013.
2. Mark Melancon has been arguably the best setup man in baseball, with a 0.96 ERA and 9.6 K/9, while serving as the “grilled cheese” appetizer.
3. While Holt and Sands have both endured atrocious AAA campaigns in 2013, and Pimentel has only been passable, De Jesus is hitting .315 with an .837 OPS at AAA, and *should* be a preferred candidate to put either SS Clint Barmes (.502 OPS) or INF Brandon Inge (.503 OPS) out of their misery on the MLB club.
So in total, an excellent trade by Huntington on at least 2 different fronts.
January 21st, 2013: Pirates sign Francisco Liriano to modified 2-year deal
Again in my mind, yet another waste of Pittsburgh’s limited resources. After being one of the more dominant pitchers in the AL in 2010 (regrettably causing me to trade a young SP Derek Holland for him during a pennant chase in a fantasy keeper league of mine), Liriano had atrocious 2011 and 2012 seasons, filled with more free passes than a Clay Aiken concert in South Central.
2011: 5.09 ERA, 80 ERA+, 5.0 BB/9
2012: 5.34 ERA, 78 ERA+, 5.0 BB/9
The Pirates were paying Liriano like the guy coming off his 2010 season, completely overlooking his previous two campaigns. I thought Liriano breaking his non-throwing arm over the offseason would sober the Pirates up and have them walk away, but they simply modified the deal, reducing Liriano’s salary if he couldn’t pitch.
As of late June 2013, pitching coach Ray Searage has worked wonders with the 30-year old lefty, returning him to his 2010 form- if not better. Liriano is currently 6-3 with a 2.70 ERA. His 10.0 K/9 would rank him 5th among SP in all of baseball, were he to qualify innings-wise (as he started the season late due to his injury). Most importantly, his BB/9- long Liriano’s Achilles Heel- has dropped to 3.6. The lefty is a valuable addition, and has provided stability to the rotation in the wake of DL stints by Burnett and SP Wandy Rodriguez.
Overall, Neal Huntington’s offseason had some very strong moves in hindsight, which this author clearly misevaluated at the time. And if you think these were good, try reading up on the positive developments out of Pittsburgh’s minor league system this year (which we’ll cover in future articles)! For whatever reason, after 20 straight years of black, everything appears to be turning gold for the Pirates this year. Thanks for reading!