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The Pittsburgh Pirates and building a perennial contender

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Neal Huntington has taken a suffering franchise of nearly two decades and created a dangerous playoff team. How solid drafting, sound international scouting, and marginal improvements can take a team from a perennial cellar-dweller to a contender.

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Neal Huntington was promoted to the Pittsburgh Pirates' General Manager post in September 2007 and has transformed what was for most of the 90s and 00s the epitome of baseball frustration, futility and failure. Just a few weeks after taking over the GM role, Huntington fired manager Jim Tracy, Tracy's entire staff, the team's Scouting Director, and the Director of Baseball Operations. It was a clear indication of culture change and a demonstration that the results of the previous two decades would not be tolerated. In his first 18 months, Huntington alienated fans (as much as you can alienate an already dejected fan base) by trading away stars including Nate McLouth, Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, and a host of other fan favorites to add draft picks, make low-cost signings, and revamp to prepare the team for the future. It has been a long journey, but the Pirates have proven that last year's NLDS berth was not a fluke, and they intend to remain contenders beyond 2014.

Not only was there a change of personnel, but Huntington led a clear culture-shift within the organization. Scouting internationally became a main priority for Huntington's staff, and has played a significant role in the team's success with the signing of Dominican speedster Starling Marte (as well as set up the team for the future with the signing of Gregory Polanco, also out of the Dominican Republic)  As the years went by, adding pieces to make the team a little better on the margins was more the norm than the exception, and due to the growing revenues within the game, payroll nearly doubled during Huntington's tenure. Despite the increase in payroll since taking over in 2007, Pittsburgh remains a small-market franchise whose payroll pales in comparison to other teams.

Year Opening Day Payroll
2014 $71,929,333
2013 $66,805,000
2012 $51,932,333
2011 $42,047,000
2010 $39,068,000
2009 $48,693,000
2008 $48,689,783
2007 $38,537,823

The burden is still on Huntington to improve the Pirates at the margins, as they did not make any off-season splashes and did not go out and get a big name at the trade deadline, instead choosing to continue on the path that brought them an NLDS berth in 2013. Huntington's efforts bore significant fruit last year when the team ended a two-decade playoff drought and took the Cardinals to a decisive fifth game of the NLDS; alas, here we are again, with the Pirates advancing to the postseason with a team put together without signing any big free agents or trading any of their top prospects. Comparing the 2013 Buccos to 2014, it's easy to see the team Huntington put together is mostly the same, but improvements on the margins compensating for losses has kept the team competitive.

Position 2013 Playoff Roster Projected 2014 Playoff Roster
C Russell Martin Russell Martin
1B Justin Morneau Ike Davis
2B Neil Walker Neil Walker
3B Pedro Alvarez Josh Harrison
SS Clint Barmes Jordy Mercer
LF Starling Marte Starling Marte
CF Andrew McCutchen Andrew McCutchen
RF Marlon Byrd Travis Snider
SP1 A.J. Burnett Francisco Liriano
SP2 Gerrit Cole Gerrit Cole
SP3 Francisco Liriano Edinson Volquez
Closer Jason Grilli Mark Melancon

Four of the five top valuable Pittsburgh players were on the team last year with the only exception being A.J. Burnett, who was not retained for the 2014 season (the Pirates did not even make him a qualifying offer) despite leading the team in pitcher fWAR by sporting a 2.80 FIP, a 9.85 K/9, and posting a .52 HR/9 rate over 191 innings. Huntington was left with an aging Francisco Liriano, an up-and-coming Gerrit Cole, and a bunch of vacant spots to fill out the roster for skipper Clint Hurdle. Replacing a 4-win pitcher while maintaining a stingy budget was no easy task, and in essence, he was not replaced with an ace, or even a number two starter. Huntington took a different approach improving the team on the margins by signing high-upside, low-risk pitchers.

The easily identified coup this year is the Vance Worley deal with the Twins. Worley was tossed aside by Minnesota in the spring and basically given away to the Pirates in May after clearing waivers. Worley suffered from arm problems in 2013 and was essentially acting as an ‘org player' filling a roster slot in the minors. Huntington and his staff traded cash considerations to the Twins in the hopes he could regain form as a league average or slightly above average pitcher. Though 2013 was a lost year for Worley, he had been  a solid starter for the Phillies in 2011 and 2012, pitching to 2.3 and 1.7 WAR seasons.

Worley started in AAA for the Pirates this year but came up to toss over 100 above league average innings, ultimately ending the regular season with an ERA- of 80 (20% better than league average). Despite starting the season on a different team and spending time in AAA for the Pirates, Worley is fourth in Pirates' pitcher fWAR, having amassed 1.4 wins above replacement. Not bad for Huntington having given up virtually nothing.

Another pitching reclamation is the signing of Edinson Volquez. Volquez was signed for $5 million and has given the Pirates nearly 200 above-average innings. Volquez has outperformed his 4.15 FIP by posting a 3.04 ERA, good for 14% better than league average. While he has not amassed the value of Burnett, Volquez has been a reliable pitcher who has eaten a significant amount of innings; at $5 million, this signing was a definite win.

2013 WAR Leader 2013 WAR 2014 WAR Leader 2014 WAR
Andrew McCutchen 8.3 Andrew McCutchen 6.9
Starling Marte 4.6 Russell Martin 5.2
Russell Martin 4.1 Josh Harrison 4.9
A.J. Burnett 3.9 Starling Marte 4
Francisco Lirano 3.1 Neil Walker 3.5

On the non-pitching front, the Pirates are largely the same team as last year with a few exceptions of marginal improvements and expanded roles to players on the roster in 2013. One of the most impactful players has been Josh Harrison, who took over for Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez's defensive woes caused a position change (and an odd three man platoon at first base), and injuries caused him to miss significant time (eventually he was shut down for the year and will not be on the playoff roster).

The versatile Josh Harrison was drafted in 2008 and has been one of the Pirates' top players in 2014 at a position where the Pirates needed it most. Although he's played second base and the outfield, his filling in for Alvarez has been a key to the Pirates' success. At $500k, his value has been one of the best in the league, and while it is clear he has been benefiting from an artificially high .355 BABIP, Harrison's 5-win season has been a major reason why the Bucs are making the playoffs. Credit Huntington's staff with seeing something in Harrison and Clint Hurdle for playing him regularly.

At the other corner is Ike Davis, who was traded for early in the season from the Mets. With a 109 wRC+, Davis has been a slightly above average hitter (though admittedly low for a first baseman) who has played in 130 games for the Pirates this season. At just a shade over $3 million, Huntington found an above-average hitter who is durable and can play every day at first. Though not a slam-dunk win, Davis has found a place with Pittsburgh and should be starting at first on Wednesday night.

It's been a long road, and Huntington has been given a long leash to bring in his own personnel, establish a new culture and utilize the (smallish) payroll as he saw best. In the past two seasons, the Pirates have achieved 94 and 88 wins, respectively, and have advanced to the postseason both times. The brilliance of Huntington's tenure lies in improving the team on the margins, targeting low-risk, high-reward players and making impactful international signings. Combined with drafting domestic players (Gerrit Cole leading the charge), Huntington has found a formula for success on a budget.

The one negative of Huntington's moves this year would be the trade made for the Angels' closer Ernesto Frieri. Jason Grilli had a horrendous April and May for Pittsburgh (amassing a negative WAR and blowing several saves early in the year), but since then, Frieri was designated for assignment and Grilli pitched 33.2 innings for the Angels, striking out 36 and giving up only 13 earned runs. Despite this trade, the Pirates have secured home-field advantage for the wild card game and will face the Giants on Wednesday night.

Regardless of what happens, Huntington has been at the front office helm for the most successful period in Pirates history since the days of Jim Leyland and Barry Bonds. With prospects Jameson Taillon (recovering from Tommy John Surgery) and Josh Bell on the horizon, and a more seasoned Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco, there's little reason to think this team will fade back into irrelevance any time soon. Pirates fans should expect to continue to happily raise the Jolly Roger, and with a little luck, could be ‘raisin' it' on their way to the NLDS.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Cot's Baseball Contracts at Baseball Prospectus.

Steven Martano is a writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano.