07/09/09 1:45 PM ET
Bucs feel impact of recent roster turnover
Huntington: We needed a change of culture and identity
By Jenifer Langosch / MLB.com
All the proof needed can be found in the past 12 months:
On this day one year ago, manager John Russell put together a lineup that resembles little of the team he now manages. Four of the position players in that lineup (Nate McLouth, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Doug Mientkiewicz) have since departed, three via trades. John Van Benschoten, the starting pitcher that night, and two of the three relievers to enter the game (Sean Burnett, T.J. Beam): gone. Both pinch-hitters in the game (Jason Michaels, Jose Bautista) are also playing elsewhere.
It may be just one game, but it's a mirror into what general manager Neal Huntington has done over the past year. This much turnover this fast? Huntington contends he saw no other option.
"We inherited a group of players that had experienced 90-plus losses, and we inherited players that had two years of contractual control," he said. "That's not how you build a winning team."
Of the 25 players currently on the team, 14 were not in the Pirates' organization at this time last year. Four others were in the system, but playing in Triple-A. That leaves only seven -- Matt Capps, Zach Duke, John Grabow, Paul Maholm, Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson -- in the same place this year as they were a year ago.
There are more rookies (eight) on the team than that.
There would seem to be some risks associated with this type of revolving door, one of which includes a loss of identity. Is there a risk that externally, fans won't be able to relate to a team with little stability? Is there a risk internally that players will become too disheartened by this trend?
Huntington's answer is simple. No matter what the cost or discomfort endured, a new identity had to be formed.
"I think what we're looking to establish an identity of being a championship-caliber team," Huntington answered. "We needed the change of culture, and we needed a change of identity. My focus is creating the focus of a winning team. With that comes uncertainty. With that comes change."
Still, the consensus in the clubhouse seems to be that through this entire turnover process (one that has by no means ended yet) and all these personnel changes, a team unity has still somehow managed to be maintained.
"We have avoided the big meltdowns where everybody is moving in different directions," LaRoche said. "Everybody is still shooting for the same goal. Everybody is staying together and not breaking up."
That's a pretty notable feat considering what the core has been through. Seven different trades in the past year have netted nine of the Pirates' active players. Two more players have been claimed off waivers. Three were signed as Major League or Minor League free agents this offseason.
"Our guys have been great," Russell said. "There has been some turnover. These guys have lost some friends. But the guys we've got in return are doing very well for us."
"It hasn't really been difficult at all to keep the chemistry," he continued. "The guys are really relaxed. They're still passionate about what they're doing. They're still energetic about what we're doing. It's actually been fun. I hate our record. I hate where we are. Those guys do, too. But I like the way we go about it."
Huntington's stance was a bit different. Although he acknowledged that frustration is the natural reaction when seeing teammates and friends come and go, it's been the public criticism of management's decisions that hasn't sat well.
Some veteran players have spoken skeptically of the in-season moves or lack of offseason moves, at times even questioning whether the organization cares about winning in 2009. That, Huntington said, shouldn't be the case moving forward.
"I don't think it has been handled well at times," Huntington said, pointing to some of the post-trade reaction over the past year. "The players have been vocal in their concerns about the moves we've made. I think the younger players have taken it and run with it because there are opportunities there. I think the older players have asked at times what's in it for them. They need to see that there is still a lot in it for them."
In light of all that has happened over the past 12 months, there's little question that the depth in the organization is better, as many of Huntington's moves have netted prospects. However, it's debatable whether or not the team taking the field now is better than it was a year ago.
At the Major League level, the Pirates currently sit at 38-47, two wins fewer than at the 85-game mark in 2008.
"You look at the won-loss record, and it's hard to say we have decimated the franchise," Huntington said. "I think where we are in the standings shows that it's not as bad as it feels. We haven't taken this team as far down as people think."
Russell went even further, noting the improved starting pitching and depth has made this team more consistently competitive.
"I feel like we have a much better chance to win," he said. "I think, watching from the outside and legitimately, we have a chance. I just think we're in a much more balanced situation than we were last year."
While Huntington acknowledged that he doesn't envision revolving door indefinitely, before this month is up, the 12-month turnover is likely to claim a few more players. Of the seven players that have been with this team through the entirety of the past year, five have been tossed around as potential trade candidates with the Trade Deadline sitting three weeks away.
Until the identity of the organization changes for the better, Huntington said he sees no other way but to continue to further mold the roster.
"We did expect major changes," he said. "We knew we had to get younger. We knew we had to get prospects at every level. The upper levels, we knew it was going to have to come through trades."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.