PITTSBURGH — Separated by only a two-hour turnpike drive, the Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates have been worlds apart in talent and success since the mid-1990s. Neal Huntington, the new Pirates general manager, wants to bridge that gap quickly.
Huntington, a former Indians assistant general manager who was moved into a mostly scouting role two years ago, was hired Tuesday as the 12th general manager in the Pirates’ history and their sixth since they last won the World Series in 1979.
Huntington, 37, replaces Dave Littlefield, who was fired this month after failing to produce a winning season since he was hired in July 2001. The Pirates are finishing up a 15th consecutive losing season, one short of the major league record, and their fifth with 90 or more losses since 2000.
Frank Coonelly, the equally new Pirates president, wants Huntington to replicate in Pittsburgh what regularly takes place in Cleveland: fielding a team that wins by constantly replenishing itself with young talent.
“He’s passionate about baseball, and winning,” Coonelly said. “Neal comes from an extraordinarily successful organization where they not only develop players but fine executives, many of whom are now general managers.”
Huntington formerly was the assistant general manager to the Indians’ Mark Shapiro, but dropped behind vice president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti and assistant general manager John Mirabelli on the front office depth chart two years ago.
Huntington accepted a different role in 2005, Shapiro said, because Antonetti’s skills were in the management and administrative side, while Huntington’s were in evaluation and scouting. Huntington was one of the Indians’ three primary advance scouts.
“My skill set and passion were more that of an evaluator, but they never technically took me out of the front office,” Huntington said. “I was exposed to some incredible things — rebuilding an organization and being involved in every decision, every tough decision, that was made.”
Huntington, an Amherst graduate with a master’s degree in sports management from Massachusetts, broke into baseball in 1992 with Montreal, where he was taught how to build a strong minor league system with limited resources.
“There were four of us — three had very big titles, and I did not,” said Huntington, who worked under Littlefield there.
Huntington joined the Indians in 1998 an assistant director of minor league operations and became the player development director the next season. He was later promoted to assistant general manager, but his most recent title was special assistant to the general manager. He also worked extensively on the club’s new spring training complex in Arizona.
“For us to be successful in Pittsburgh, it must be similar to the way it was in Cleveland,” Huntington said. “There needs to be a continual infusion of talent. How do we get that talent? We sign it, we develop it and we bring it through the model here in Pittsburgh.”
Huntington is among the newer breed of executives who rely on statistics and number-crunching before making decisions. While Huntington will use “cutting edge technology, statistical and analytical,” Coonelly said, the new GM fits neither into the “stat-guy box, the baseball-guy box.”