Neil Huntington Departs From Previous Philosophy at Trade Deadline

Niel Huntington
PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 16: Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neil Huntington speaks at a press conference at PNC Park on June 16, 2017 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neil Huntington departs from previous philosophy at trade deadline

Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Neil Huntington is being praised by his fellow baseball executives, scouts, media and fans for deadline deals which landed starter Chris Archer, 30, from the Tampa Bay Rays and Keone Kela, 25, from the Texas Rangers.

The deals were a major departure from past trade deadlines for Huntington who had previously refused to part with prospects no matter the immediate needs of the Pirates.

Deals could help lagging attendance figures

At least part of the reason for the change in philosophy has been lagging attendance at PNC this year. The Bucs are averaging 5,000 fans less per game than they did last year and interest in the team has been falling since they traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole in the off-season and failed to sign a free agent.

The trades, especially the addition of Archer, have created a buzz in Pirates Nation that could lead to a surge in attendance if the Pirates, 56-53, can make a strong run for the playoffs.

Given up for dead at 40-48, the Pirates have played well lately, putting together an 11-game winning streak and capturing 16 of their last 20 games. That has put them seven behind the first-place Chicago Cubs in the National League’s Central Division and four games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks for the second wild-card slot. The Dodgers and Diamondbacks are tied for first place in the NL’s West Division with 60-49 records.

Chris Archer brings uncertainty

However, the trade for Archer is anything but a guarantee for the Bucs. He might have been the best pitcher on the market at the deadline, but he’s been far from the best pitcher overall in the game.

He was excellent for Tampa Bay from 2013-2015, compiling an ERA of 3.22, 3.32 and 3.23, respectively, while being among the league leaders in strikeouts. But his ERA the past three seasons have jumped to 4.02, 4.07 and 4.34, respectively.

He’s also given up 78 homers the past three seasons, after yielding only 46 gopher balls in his first three seasons. Overall, for his career, he has a 54-68 record with a 3.69 ERA.

Despite those numbers, he was among the American League leaders last year with 249 punch outs. He also led the American League in 2015 and 2017 with 34 starts, He could benefit from not having to face the Red Sox and Yankees on a regular basis in the American League’s East Division, and he should be helped by not having to face designated hitters. The Pirates have also had success in bringing pitchers over from the American League with A.J. Burnett, J.A. Happ, and Ivan Nova coming to mind.

Archer is affordable

Archer is also affordable, making only $6.4 million this year and scheduled to make $7.6 million next year. The Pirates have options for the following two years at $9 million and $11 million, respectively. If Archer pitches well, he could be a bargain. But if he fails to improve on the mound, those numbers could be costly for the Bucs, who have been known to watch their pennies.

In the end, the Pirates need him to be a much better pitcher than he’s been for the last three years. The Bucs need him to be an ace with an ERA far below 4. With three starters under the age of 26, the Pirates are counting on Archer to win crucial games down the stretch and in the playoffs.

Did Bucs overpay for Archer

Questions also remain about the players the Pirates gave up to get Archer. It’s possible the Pirates paid too high of a price to get him. In exchange for Archer, the Rays got outfielder Austin Meadows, pitcher Tyler Glasnow, and a player to be named later.

Meadows, 23, was a ninth overall draft pick and had one of the hottest starts of any players in MLB history earlier this year, batting .434 with 18 hits in his first 41 at bats. He also had four homers and seven runs batted in. He eventually cooled off and was batting .292 with five homers and 13 runs batted in when he was sent back to the minors to give him more regular playing time. In addition to being a good hitter, he also has a strong arm and quick feet. Everyone agrees he has all the tools necessary to become a star in MLB.

Glasnow, 24, once one of the most heralded young pitchers in MLB, failed as a starter last year, ending the year with a 7.69 ERA. Relegated to the bullpen this year, his ERA dropped to 4.34. But more importantly, he gave up no earned runs in his last eight innings over five appearances with the Pirates. He continued to improve, giving up only one run in three innings Wednesday in his debut with Tampa Bay. Particularly impressive were his five strikeouts and one walk. Free passes have been his major downfall thus far in MLB. If he can harness his sterling fastball and elite curve ball, Glasnow could become a better pitcher than Archer both in the short and long run.

Kela is the real deal for Pirates

No such questions surround Kela. For one, to get him, the Pirates only had to deal Double-A starter Taylor Hearn, 23, and a player to be named later. For another, he’s been lights out as a closer for the Rangers, saving 24 games in 25 chances. Known for his outstanding fastball, which averages 97-99 miles an hour and a hard-biting slider, he’s struck out 44 batters this year in 36 and two-thirds innings.

Kela is affordable as well. In his first year of arbitration, Kela is making $1.2 this year, and he’ll be controllable for the next two years. Kela also brings some veteran savvy to one of the youngest and inexperienced bullpens in MLB. Since coming up a rookie for the Rangers in 2015, he’s gone 19-10 with a 3.45 ERA. During that time he’s pitched 169 innings, giving up only 128 hits and 17 homers. He’s struck out 208 batters while walking 66.

His veteran presence should be a help to one of the youngest and inexperienced bullpens in baseball, which has had more than its share of ups and downs. The Pirates bullpen is 10th in MLB with a 4.23 ERA.

Bucs bullpen has been up and down

The Bucs closer Felipe Vazquez has been terrific of late, posting a 1.64 ERA in June and a 1.46 ERA in July, yielding only four runs in his last 24 innings. During that time, he’s struck out 41 batters while walking only eight.

However, he did struggle in May, giving up seven runs in 11 innings for a 5.73 ERA, while striking out 10 and walking five. Overall, he has 24 saves and a 4-2 record.

Kyle Crick, 25, acquired from the San Francisco Giants in the trade for McCutchen, has allowed only one run in his last 19 innings while striking out 23 and walking four. Crick, who didn’t make the team coming out of spring training, struggled in June with a 3.76 ERA.

Edgar Santana, 26, a product of the Pirates farm system, had a 0.64 ERA in August and has given up only two walks in his last 36 innings covering 38 appearances. However, his ERA in June was 4.76 as he yielded three homers in only 11 innings.

Richard Rodriguez, 28, who was signed as a minor league free agent in the off-season, was outstanding through the first three months of the season giving up only seven only earned runs in 30 and two-thirds innings. During that time he struck out 42 batters and walked only three. But he’s had his troubles in July and August, giving up eight runs in his last 13 and one-third innings, and striking out 11 and walking seven.
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