BRADENTON, Fla. - It's safe to assume a large portion of the Pirates' fan base believes general manager Neal Huntington doesn't know what he's doing and should be fired when his contract expires after this season.
It probably would be a waste of time to try and convince all those people that they're wrong. But in some very important ways, they are.
Bucco fans don't want excuses or five-year plans. They also don't want to hear about being patient after 18 disastrous losing seasons, a dubious streak that will extend to 19 this year as the Pirates are destined for 90-95 losses.
Neal Huntington jokes around with Pirates pitcher Evan Meek.
Patience, though, is exactly what is required right now, and fans need to be a little more patient with Huntington.
Maybe not a lot. But a little.
Huntington implemented a plan to overhaul the Pirates' minor league system when he became GM in late 2007. For those who only notice the results - or lack thereof - in the big leagues, it must be pointed out that his plan is working. Very well, in fact.
Top 10 prospects
The Pirates' top 10 prospects, as rated by Baseball America:
9.Zack Von RosenbergRHP
* - Projected to be on Curve's opening-day roster
# - May be on Curve's opening-day roster
"We're very pleased with the progress," Huntington said Sunday at Pirate City. "It's never going to be enough. But we're pleased with the system structure, personnel on and off the field and where we are overall."
Huntington, farm director Kyle Stark and the scouting and development staffs have done a very good job of building depth in the minor league system, particularly on the pitching side.
We saw a great example of it in Altoona last season as the Curve's starting rotation featured good prospects Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson.
"That group that was in Altoona last year is a group that we're very intrigued by and think are gonna play a big part of our rotation and our bullpen moving forward," the GM said.
Huntington drafted flamethrowing right-hander Jameson Taillon with the No. 2 pick last year and gave him a $6.5 million signing bonus. He then spent a ton of money for a second rounder when he gave another hard-throwing righty, Stetson Allie, $2.25 million. And 16-year-old Mexican pitcher Luis Heredia received $2.6 million, the most the Bucs have ever given an undrafted free agent.
"They're definitely putting the focus where they need to," said Tim Williams, who closely monitors the minor league system as owner of piratesprospects.com. "They've spent the most in the draft the past three years, and they were fourth in spending in the international market this past year."
Spending money on guys before they become stars is the only way the small-market Pirates can build and maintain success. They may not spend the money on the big league payroll - which infuriates fans but isn't Huntington's fault - but they are investing in the right kind of young players.
The patience part comes into play because it will be at least three years until Taillon and Allie reach Pittsburgh, and possibly up to five years before Heredia gets there.
"Overall, we certainly feel like we're seeing a quality return in the investment in the international market, in the draft, as well as the players we acquired through some trades," Huntington said.
Here's the issue for Huntington, and if he does eventually get fired, this will be the reason why: He simply cannot make some of the egregiously expensive mistakes he has made at the big league level and expect his overall plan to work.
Huntington and each member of his staff can do every single thing right along the way for three or four years when it comes to drafting, signing and developing players like Taillon, Allie and many others. But one or two critical mistakes in judgment with the big league club can sabotage everything and prevent the Bucs from making progress.
Last year the team basically threw away $4.85 million on second baseman Aki Iwamura, who hit .182 in 54 games before getting demoted to Triple-A. Huntington blew more than 10 percent of the payroll on a stiff who couldn't hit a lick.
This year, more than 10 percent of the payroll is being spent on a backup catcher, Ryan Doumit, who's due to make $5.1 million.
The Yankees, Red Sox and others can afford those kind of mistakes, but when your payroll is always one of the lowest in the big leagues, you have virtually no margin for error.
The Huntington haters know this all too well, which is why they want him gone.
But if he can prove he has learned from the mistakes like Iwamura and Doumit and not make them anymore, plus continue to add promising young talent through the draft, there's a chance Huntington's plan may help the Bucs finally end their lengthy skid.
"The big question is will it all come together as planned and will it all come together in a timely manner," Williams pointed out.
If so, Huntington just may get the last laugh.
If not, he will face the frustrating notion of watching another GM try to win with the young talent he stockpiled.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or email@example.com.