Despite the recent dry spell that has seen the team lose eight straight, the Pittsburgh Pirates' 2011 season will be defined by the total cultural turnaround that saw the team stay in contention for the NL Central Division lead through June and July.
Manager Clint Hurdle garners much of the thanks for the turnaround. Pre-season stories of Hurdle sending mass emails of positive reinforcement to players, coaches and team employees alike were met with sideways smiles. It would take more than a positive attitude to turn around one of pro sports' worst franchises.
While Hurdle has certainly affected a huge change on the team's culture, his success with the Pirates is unique in that he is the first manager in some time to have useful pieces to work with.
The collection of those useful pieces must be attributed to the work of general manager Neal Huntington and, though conventional wisdom may disagree, the work and open wallet of owner Bob Nutting.
Much like Ray Shero of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Huntington's time with the Pirates has been a learning experience. Each inherited a team on the ropes, and Shero has already shown what can be done with smart management, excellent drafting and a good developmental system.
Though Huntington may not have had the luxury Shero enjoyed in inheriting a team with fantastic prospects waiting in the wings (and one that played in a league with a hard salary cap), his work with the Pirates draws parallels to Shero's work with the Penguins.
These Penguins are a team with a very clear identity, one that starts at the top and reaches down to prospects in the earliest stages of their time with the team.
Fundamentally altering a baseball organization at all levels can take a great deal of time thanks to the lack of a salary cap, the multitude of developmental leagues and the average time it takes a prospect to reach and flourish at the major league level. It can take much longer than in the NHL.
That didn't diminish Huntington's fervor in taking the job.
"To achieve our goal, we will thoroughly evaluate and aggressively seek to acquire elite talent internationally and domestically," Huntington said. "We will diligently cultivate that talent on and off the field in a process-oriented player development system that demands accountability and excellence from all staff and players. Lastly, we will utilize that talent to build our Major League roster and put our team in the best possible position to succeed."
In three-plus seasons with the Pirates, Huntington's Pirates are beginning to establish an identity, and his promise to rebuild the team can be interpreted in very explicit, very simple terms—infiltrate, destroy, rebuild.
It's hard to think of Huntington's hire as an infiltration, but bringing a young, forward-thinking executive into the Pirates fold could have been considered a coup in the pitch-black final days of the Dave Littlefield era.
The old guard out the door (and not a moment too soon), Huntington represented a fresh perspective for the franchise, an executive "...among the newer breed of executives who rely heavily on statistics and number-crunching before making decisions," according to the New York Times.
The new boss was hired in September 2007 after holding an assistant general manager position with the Cleveland Indians. Huntington was a bit of a surprise hire at the time. A young executive in his first role as a team's GM, he was hired after just two weeks of scouting potential hires despite the Pirates being the only team in the market for the position at the time.
Like Huntington, Ray Shero was an up-and-coming executive whose first role as a general manager came with Pittsburgh.
Son of the famed former hockey coach Fred Shero, Ray was an assistant general manager with the Nashville Predators before coming to Pittsburgh.
Unlike the staggeringly unsuccessful Littlefield, Shero's predecessor, Craig Patrick, was the most important executive in Penguins history—the architect of the Penguins' Stanley Cup-winning teams of the early 1990s and the man also responsible for drafting Brooks Orpik, Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
Co-owner Mario Lemieux and the Penguins won big in gambling on Shero, who has rewarded his bosses with five straight postseason appearances and who annually performs feats of salary cap gymnastics to keep the team's stars and role players in the fold.
Shero, like Huntington, was an up-and-comer at the time of his hire. Similarly, each has found early success in his time with his respective team, as well as the standard growing pains.
Huntington's work so far has been to trim the fat from a team that had no muscle to speak of, jettisoning mediocre veterans at every turn in exchange for picks and prospects.
Like any young GM, Huntington's deals so far have been hit or miss.
There have been some early successes. Trades that saw the departure of Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth and Damaso Marte brought Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, Jose Tabata, Daniel McCutchen, Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernandez in return.
Those two trades cashed out to a total of three starters, a reliever, an everyday outfielder and an MLB-projected prospect in exchange for just three players, only one of whom remains with the team to which he was traded.
There have also been misses, however, as the Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez trades brought almost nothing in return.
Huntington's veteran acquisitions have been largely terrible, also. Names like Eric Hinske, Aki Iwamura and Lyle Overbay have been brought to Pittsburgh while providing nearly no return whatsoever.
Like Huntington, Shero also blew up his roster when circumstances called for it. Underperforming or perceived "lazy" players were shown the door, and the result is a team of hard-skating, ever-focused "Dan Byslmas" attacking the ice, and to great effect at that.
More than the simple movement of players, however, Penguins management had to destroy the team culture, a poisonous one, that had been fostered during the down years of the early 2000s.
Stories of fried chicken served on the team plane and beers after every game began to surface after former head coach Michel Therrien was hired. Therrien promptly put an end to the unhealthy food and lazy practice habits, providing a disciplinarian presence at the head of a young, directionless team.
Though Therrien was fired mid-season in 2009, his hire was a must for the young Penguins team. Similarly, Dan Bylsma's player-friendly approach and intense standards have kept the team focused while not running them through drill school.
Shortly, Therrien and Bylsma were the right coaches at the right times for the Pens.
As part of the effort to destroy the losing culture of the Pirates, Clint Hurdle, ever the optimist, was brought on board to lead the young Pirates.
Many of the players on this Pirates roster are too young or too new to the team to have been jaded by the decades-long losing streak. Allowing them to develop in the right atmosphere will mean more to the team's success than big free agent acquisitions, and the effects of Hurdle's culture have already begun manifesting themselves.
In spite of the current losing streak, this year's Bucs have already made strides they weren't expected to make for another year or two.
The difference isn't just a matter of personnel. It's a cultural shift, and if the work of Hurdle and Huntington has already helped to push the losing mentality out of town, the Pirates aren't far removed from winning on a regular basis.
Personnel are key to any rebuilding effort, and those efforts usually center around a core of untouchable, irreplaceable players.
The Penguins' core of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Jordan Staal and Kris Letang have payed dividends for years already.
However—and for perhaps the first time in memory—the Pirates finally have an emerging core of young stars of their own, including Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and a core of strong-armed fireballers honing their craft in the minor leagues.
Those players don't just fall into place—rebuilding starts at the top.
Penguins fans have seen what good ownership means for a team's success. Owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle open their wallets every season, and the Penguins have been a team which has spent to the cap every year for the last three or four years.
Their wallets open, it has been Shero's job to spend their money in the most effective ways possible.
Neal Huntington doesn't run the books in the offices of PNC Park, and so far he has been given little incentive to spend big on the Pirates.
The acquisitions of Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick looked good on paper, but the team's current freefall may prevent the true value of their acquisitions from ever being known.
Huntington will get his chance to sign important players in the midst of a division race. Avoiding overspending on such players this season is now proving to be a very far-sighted move by the young GM.
For the decades of stinginess displayed by the team and its string of owners, fans ready to point at current owner Bob Nutting's perceived stinginess need to keep the Huntington approach in mind.
The Pirates are in no position to spend at rates commensurate to the Yankees or Red Sox. Baseball's monopolists may be able to constantly build and rebuild by spending beyond the reach of Earth's atmosphere, but small-market clubs like the Pirates are better suited to build from within.
This is the model of the Tampa Bay Rays, a small-market, small-money team who has managed to keep pace with the Yankees and Red Sox by continually drafting well and developing their young prospects.
Whether or not it's a competitive model to make small-money teams develop and lose talent while the deep pockets get to cherry pick at their leisure, the model isn't likely to change soon. The Rays cast the mold on small market success, and Huntington's Pirates are working from that mold.
While Nutting has yet to prove he is willing to open his wallet on big-name free agents or trade candidates (the McCutchen re-signing will be the barometer by which Nutting's intentions will be truly measured), he has opened his wallet in the interest of Huntington's draft choices.
As noted in part one of this series, no team has spent more on draft pick signing bonuses than the Pittsburgh Pirates ($30.599 million) in the last four years.
With names like Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Gerrit Cole selected and signed, Nutting has proven he is willing to fund the team as it builds from the ground up.
Given the realities of small-market baseball, that is exactly how a rebuilding effort should take place.
Part I of the series, Introduction: 2011 Pirates Mirroring 2006-07 Penguins Squad, is viewable at link.