Bucs reaping benefits of Coonelly, Huntington hirings
Brought on in '07, team president and GM 'rebuilt organization from ground up'
ARLINGTON -- If surveyed on the key moments that finally led to the one Monday night -- when who else but the Pittsburgh Kid, Neil Walker, tossed to first for the final out of an 82nd victory that assured the Pirates' winning season -- few people would pick the September 2007 arrivals, at club chairman Bob Nutting's behest, of club president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington.
After all, the 94-loss season of 2007 was followed by seasons with escalating losses of 95, 99 and 105.
One of the few is Huntington. An arrestingly selfless man, Huntington does not see himself as the key, but being allowed to back up the truck, both to the clubhouse and to the front office.
"Most people don't want to hear that, or want to recognize that, but a lot of it goes back to Bob Nutting's willingness to invest heavily in the infrastructure," Huntington said. "In the expansion of our staff, the retention of talented staff members and the addition of new people. We had our biggest turnover that first year, and we've continued to adjust."
It pained Huntington to come in with a broom, but he had walked into a dysfunctional front office.
"There were talented baseball guys who, for whatever reason, didn't work well together," reflected the young (44) executive. "Our lifeblood -- scouting and talent developments -- have to trust and respect each other, and that didn't seem to be present. Change was important, and those were some of the most challenging decisions I had. I'd actually worked with most of them, and had a ton of respect for each.
"It's always challenging to make a professional decision over a personal decision, but I felt like it had to be done."
The first change, obviously, was Huntington himself. He followed Coonelly through the doors a few days after he had replaced Kevin McClatchy atop the Pirates' chain.
"Neal was my first hire, and my best hire," Coonelly said. "I knew he was a passionate professional who devotes all his time and significant talents to a challenging task."
Huntington surrounded himself with other talented people who shared his wavelength -- with assistants Kyle Stark and Greg Smith in his inner circle -- and they set about overhauling the playing talent. Not a single player from 2007 remains.
Smith, as the Bucs' Draft maven, oversaw the No. 1 selections of Pedro Alvarez (2008), Tony Sanchez and Vic Black (2009), and Gerrit Cole (2011).
So you know it pained Smith to have Black included in the recent trade with the Mets that brought outfielder Marlon Byrd and catcher John Buck.
But that move was part of Huntington's grandmaster tactic, which brought Justin Morneau a few days later. Just to consider this season alone, Huntington hunched over his chessboard for months, conservatively and almost inert -- until he saw a favorable board, and went for the checkmate kill.
Those were the latest of a two-year influx which most people would finger as key moments. Huntington agreed, with, characteristically, a nod to the other people who helped make it happen.
"We've had a few key acquisitions along the way," he said. "Getting A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano. They all played a big role, the scouts who helped us acquire non-marquee pieces that have come out and done a nice job for us."
"From Day 1, Neal has not wavered in his commitment to his plan, and in his belief it could work," Coonelly said. "And never complained about obstacles other clubs did not have to deal with. And the man had a hell of an offseason."
"Clint Hurdle was another big step," Huntington added of the manager's pre-2011 hiring. "The experience, energy and passion he brings to an organization. Then there's the growth and development of our core players."
Ahh, yes. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Alvarez … all along for the 105-loss ride in 2010, a classic case of on-the-job force feeding.
"Actually," said Huntington, correcting the perception of many that they may have been rushed, "the talk was that we were holding them back. They criticized us for sending Cutch back to Triple-A [in 2009], for not moving Pedro along more quickly, for not giving Walker more of an opportunity."
"We weren't able to see any improvement, any tangible evidence on the Major League level of being on the right track, until Clint came aboard," Coonelly said.
If criticism were dollars, Coonelly, Huntington and his aides would be multimillionaires today. Coonelly smiled benignly.
"We had to ask fans, who had every right to be out of patience, to remain patient as we rebuilt this organization from the ground up," said Coonelly. "We had some missteps; I certainly wish we could've done it quicker. But I never stopped believing we were on the right track."
"We knew, coming in, that one of our biggest assets was the passion of the fan base," Huntington said. "And they've been anything but apathetic -- at times, that's been voiced via anger, even venom. We get all of that. We stretched their patience as far as you can possibly stretch it, and now we are working hard to reward that patience."
Sustaining the rewards will be even harder. That's something else they all get.
"If it's challenging to build, it's even more challenging to sustain," Huntington nodded. "But when you push through to the next step, it becomes easier to acquire players. The case early was players coming here because they thought they had a chance to lose their role-player stigma and become an everyday player. We had some challenges because of that. Now, Pittsburgh is becoming a destination."
A destination for the 2013 National League Division Series, for the 2013 National League Championship Series, for the 2013 World Series? More key moments in the making.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.