Neal Huntington is not quite satisfied.
Huntington has transformed the Pirates from the laughingstock of baseball to an organization coming off back-to-back postseason appearances since being hired as the general manager late in the 2007 season.
The 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-12 have started to become a fading memory, and there is now an expectation inside the organization of not only winning but getting to the playoffs after winning the National League wild card in 2013 and 2014.
“I’ll never totally happy until we’ve won the World Series and are back at it the next day trying to figure out how to win it again the next season,” Huntington said this past week during baseball’s GM meeting at Phoenix. “You can never be completely satisfied unless you’ve ended the season by winning the World Series.”
But, when pressed, Huntington admits he is happy about what has happened in the seventh years since he was hired away from the Indians' front office to replace Dave Littlefield.
The Pirates’ string of losing seasons at that point was on the verge of reaching 15, and Huntington inherited a major league roster with few trade chips of value and a farm system thin on talent beyond Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker.
It was not easy to rebuild an organization in dire need of one, and the Pirates did not show immediate improvement at the major league level, falling to 57-105 in 2010, Huntington’s third full year.
Yet, while Huntington methodically razed the organization and started over again, he never fell into the trap that many other GMs do of giving into temptation -- abandoning his plan in an effort to win now and increase his job security.
"I firmly believed in what we were doing and the people we had in our organization,” Huntington said. “I knew we were doing things the right way and it was going to take time. It’s not easy to be patient. Nobody wants to lose, but we had to go through that phase to get to where we are now.”
The Pirates are in an interesting spot this winter, though, with the potential loss of three key players as free agents.
Catcher Russell Martin is as good as gone because his price tag is skyrocketing. When one team inquired about him earlier this month, it was told the starting price was five years and $85 million -- the same contract catcher Brian McCann received from the Yankees last off-season as a free agent.
Two starting pitchers -- left-hander Francisco Liriano and right-hander Edinson Volquez -- are more attractive free agents than when they signed with the Pirates. They revived their careers under the tutelage of pitching coach Ray Searage and special assistant Jim Benedict.
While much has been made about what seems to be Martin’s inevitable departure, the losses of Liriano and Volqeuz would be significant after they combined to go 20-17 with a 3.19 ERA in 61 starts last season.
But Huntington has struck quickly in an effort to fill the holes after being criticized for not doing enough last off-season or during this past season to bolster his roster. The Pirates signed right-hander A.J. Burnett for one year and $8.5 million as a free agent on Friday after trading for Yankees backup catcher Francisco Cervelli a day earlier.
The Pirates are intrigued by the 28-year-old Cervelli, who had a .340 on-base percentage during his seven seasons on the Yankees’ bench and is noted for his ability as a receiver.
Burnett will slot into the rotation behind right-hander Gerrit Cole, and the Pirates have a number of internal options for the other spots, including left-hander Jeff Locke and right-handers Brandon Cumpton, Stolmy Pimentel, Casey Sadler and Vance Worley.
Despite going 8-18 with a 4.59 ERA in 34 starts for Philadelphia last season, the Pirates were encouraged by Burnett’s ground ball rate and the fact he pitched 213 2/3 innings despite playing through a sports hernia over the final five months.
The Pirates also have room in their budget to possibly re-sign either Volquez or add another starter from outside the organization. The chances of Liriano coming back appear slim because his agent has told teams he is looking for a contract of at least three years and a total value of $40 million.
“We have some solid internal options and the resources to go outside the organization if we had to,” Huntington said. “I feel we will have a very competitive rotation.”
And competitive is really what most fans want to see from the Pirates after two decades of losing.
The Pirates appear well positioned to be contenders for a while. They have a number of premium prospsects in their farm system, including right-handers Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham and Jameson Taillon, catcher Reese McGuire, first baseman/outfielder Josh Bell, middle infielder Alen Hanson and outfielder Austin Meadows.
“We have a good balance in our farm system, prospects that are close to be ready to help at the major league level and other who should be ready in a few year, and we’re not overloaded at any one position,” Huntington said. “It’s what we are going to need to be competitive on a yearly basis. We have to rely on scouting and player development to provide us a steady flow of players.
If nothing else, the Pirates showed this past season that they were not one-year wonders by going back to the playoffs. Yet, that has given Huntington a goal for 2015.
“Now we have to prove we aren’t just two-year wonders,” he said with a smile.