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Up Close with Neal Huntington

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Neal Huntington was named senior vice president and general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates on September 25, 2007, after spending almost a decade in the Cleveland Indians front office. The 41-year-old native New Englander—a Division III second-team All-American first baseman at Amherst College in Massachusetts—has changed the entire way the Pirates have done business since taking the reins, often with mixed results.

Huntington immediately set out to rebuild a bereft minor league system, and the franchise spent their the limited funds in different ways, pouring money into Latin American scouting and spending more than any other team in the Major League Baseball Entry Draft from 2008 to 2010, at just over $30 million. With their first two selections in the 2011 draft, Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell, they are obviously poised to be big spenders again. PSR Pirates beat writer David Golebiewski interviewed Huntington shortly after last month's draft.

PSR: The past few years, the Pirates invested a great deal of money in the draft. Can you explain the opportunity that the draft presents to add potential stars to the organization, both in the first round and in subsequent rounds?
The draft is one of the most crucial avenues of talent acquisition for all major league teams, but it is especially important for mid-to-small market teams. We are truly appreciative that (owner) Bob Nutting has recognized the importance of investing in amateur players and has allowed us to invest more in the amateur draft than any organization in baseball the past three drafts.

PSR: What ultimately led the Pirates to select Gerrit Cole with the first overall pick instead of a highly-rated position player like Anthony Rendon or a pitcher who turned in a better season statistically, like Cole's teammate Trevor Bauer?
We believed Gerrit Cole had the highest ceiling and the largest potential ability to impact the Pirates’ organization.

PSR: Elite pitching prospects are highly coveted, but they also have higher rates of injury and attrition than position players. How can the organization limit the risk involved with pitching prospects?
NH: Pitching is a game of attrition and an organization can never have enough good arms. That said, we spend a tremendous amount of time, energy and effort to properly build up our pitchers, reduce the risk of injury, help them remain healthy while developing them to help us win in Pittsburgh.

PSR: Pirates' second-round pick Josh Bell sent a letter to the MLB Scouting Bureau indicating that he plans to attend Texas. Are you optimistic that the Pirates can reach an agreement with Bell?
NH: We selected Josh with the intent to find a common financial ground and have him join the Pirates’ organization.

PSR: Was Bell's selection similar to the Tanner Scheppers pick in 2008, in that the Pirates can take a gamble by picking a player with first-round skills in the second round and get a compensatory pick next year if the team can't sign the player?
Our selection of Bell has some elements in common to our selections of Scheppers and Allie. We believed a player that was available to be of a talent level significantly higher than the typical player available at that point in the second round, and we felt the selection was worth the risk of not signing the player. It is a reality that if we are unable to agree to terms with Josh Bell, we will get the 62nd pick in the 2011 draft, but our focus remains signing the player.

PSR: Do you feel that it's more important for a team to gamble on a possible star and occasionally miss than it is to take a "safer" player with lower upside?
NH: Drafting and signing the right player, albeit sometimes a tougher sign, is always better than the wrong “safe” player. That said, just because a player asks for a lot money, it does not mean he is worth it. We focus on aligning values—the player ask versus our internal value—and if those values align, we add talent to the system. If they do not align, we move on to the next player.

PSR: The Pirates selected several raw but projectable high school arms in the first ten rounds. Would it be fair to say that the team decided to buy some lottery tickets with those picks?
It would not be fair to say those are lottery picks. While high school pitching has proven to be a difficult return on investment, the combination of the value of pitching in the industry and our belief in our ability to develop pitchers, and position players, allows us the confidence to tackle the challenge.

PSR: Another possible change to the draft is the ability for teams to trade draft picks. Would you prefer to have the flexibility to swap picks?
NH: It is certainly an enjoyable intellectual exercise to think about the ability to trade picks. The practicality of the process is something that Major League Baseball will need to evaluate as a part of the current CBA negotiations.

PSR: Currently, players from the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico are eligible for the draft. What challenges would an international draft present?
NH: The largest challenge is the administrative demands that would be placed on the league to determine draft eligibility status. Clubs would still have the ability to choose the level to which they scout internationally, but the ability to see a player eligible to sign and sign him would be eliminated.

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