Pirates make correct call on extensions

Commentary

PITTSBURGH — The Pirates handed out a couple of long-term contracts on Tuesday, and the celebration seems to be limited to the men who received them.

Manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington both got new four-year deals.

Based on a quick scan of talk radio and a few glances at social media, renewing the current management wasn’t an especially popular move.

But it was the right thing to do.

The Pirates are likely headed for a second straight losing season and are virtually guaranteed of missing the postseason. It’s been a disappointment.

So fans want changes and didn’t get them.

Huntington is approaching his 10th anniversary as GM, and Hurdle is wrapping up his seventh season with the Pirates. Look at their body of work. Together they ended the streak of 20 losing seasons that had claimed three general managers and six managers.

It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t immediate. Huntington, new to the GM position, made some big mistakes at the start. He didn’t get much of anything when he traded his best chip, Jason Bay. He gave contract extensions to dubious talents like Ian Snell and Ryan Doumit.

But Huntington also learned from those mistakes. He rearranged the front office and eliminated people who had provided some hideously bad advice on trades. (Anybody remember Aki Iwamura trying to play second base?)

Huntington also made a terrible choice when he hired silent John Russell as manager.

But Russell gave way to the garrulous Hurdle. Iwamura was replaced by Neil Walker. A spot was cleared for Andrew McCutchen who, like Walker, had preceded Huntington into the organization.

The Pirates started using analytics to maximize their limited dollars. Those numbers led them to take chances on A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez and Mark Melancon that paid off.

Sports is the ultimate what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, so those three postseason years seem like ancient history. They shouldn’t, though. They’re as much a part of the shared history of Huntington and Hurdle as the disappointing current season is.

Hurdle can be a handful. His outsized personality would probably put off some other GMs. But Huntington has found a way to navigate that, both behind closed doors and in public.

A manager and GM occupy an odd yin and yang in baseball. The manager is focused on winning today’s game. The GM always has to be aware of the bigger picture. Clashes can happen.

Chuck Tanner and Pete Peterson were barely speaking to each other in the final days of their partnership in the 1980s. Once Jim Leyland complained that he hadn’t gotten enough September reinforcements. Larry Doughty responded by calling up the maximum number of players allowed, filling the clubhouse beyond capacity. Guys were dressing off a clothes rack in the middle of the room.

“Jim said he wanted more players,” Doughty said pointedly. “Now he has them.”

That was mild compared to open warfare that developed between Leyland and Ted Simmons, which led to Simmons’ resignation after a heart attack.

Hurdle and Huntington can work together. They understand and accept the shackles that baseball’s unfair economic system puts on franchises like the Pirates.

They figured out a way to get into the postseason three straight years. Maybe they would have done that this year, too, if their left fielder hadn’t gotten suspended for half a season, if their third baseman hadn’t run afoul of the law in his native country, and if their highly-paid No. 3 hitter hadn’t batted .200 for two months …

You get the idea. There are always going to be ups and downs. The Pirates are choosing to navigate those with a management team that has had success in the past.

It’s the right way to go.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com.

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