By John Perrotto
Everything surrounding Neal Huntington’s contract extension with the Pirates seemed odd on the surface.
For openers, the Pirates announced the move in an email at noon on Sunday, exactly one hour before the Steelers began their season. Secondly, the Pirates did not hold a press conference to announce the deal, instead making Huntington and club president Frank Coonelly available to reporters in the back of the PNC Park press box before their game against the Florida Marlins.
It was almost as if the Pirates wanted to get the least amount of publicity possible for the move, like they were quite happy to have the news be nothing more than an afterthought in the newspapers and on the local newscasts. Huntington got a three-year deal with a club option for 2015 and it got barely more play than Pedro Ciriaco being recalled from Class AAA Indianapolis for the 37th time this season.
Then there was Pirates chairman Bob Nutting not being there for the announcement. While Nutting can be hard to find when things are going badly, he is usually front and center when there is good news.
Instead, the Pirates issued a press release with the following statement from Nutting: “Neal was hired to take on the difficult task of building an organization that can compete on a consistent basis. While there is still much work to be done, Neal and his staff have done an exceptional job of overhauling the scouting and development systems while building a strong foundation by aggressively acquiring talent through all possible avenues. We have begun to see that positive impact on the major-league level this season and expect that improvement to continue as we execute our plan in building a winning organization.”
Coonelly can be prone to the occasional bout of hyperbole. However, it was almost as if he went out of his way to be low key about keeping Huntington.
“I just felt he was the right person,” Coonelly said. “He’s done a lot of hard work. I think the excitement and buzz we saw when the team was in contention is something we’ll see for an entire season when we finish the job.”
A year after losing a major league-worst 105 games, the Pirates were leading the National League Central as late as July 25. However, the Pirates have since plummeted in the standings and are 18 1/2 games behind the first-place Milwaukee Brewers going into Tuesday night’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park.
Perhaps the steep drop is why the Pirates didn’t make a big production out of the extension. Whatever the reason, the next step is almost certain to be extending player development director Kyle Stark and scouting director Greg Smith, whose contracts expire on Oct. 31.
“Neal has put together a strong front office team that is dedicated, hard working and focused,” Coonelly said. “They done a lot of work and there is a still a lot of hard work to do.”
While Huntington was rewarded this time for tearing down an organization that was rotted to the core when he took over four years ago and building up the farm system, the criteria will be different when it comes time for the Pirates to decide on exercising the 2015 option. By then, there were will need to positive results at the major-league level, where the Pirates are on the brink of their 19th consecutive losing season, which will extend their major North American professional team sports record.
“Ultimately, we’re all going to be judged by what happens here in Pittsburgh,” Coonelly said.
John Perrotto has covered the Pirates and Major League Baseball since 1988.