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Huntington engineer of Bucs' dramatic turnaround

Huntington engineer of Bucs' dramatic turnaround

Huntington engineer of Bucs' dramatic turnaround play video for Huntington engineer of Bucs' dramatic turnaround

ST. LOUIS -- When it was time to submit the club's nomination for the 2013 Major League Baseball Comeback Player of the Award a few days ago, quite a debate broke out among Pirates officials.

Left-hander Francisco Liriano appeared a natural choice, sure -- until someone injected Marlon Byrd into the conversation. Liriano had a bad year in 2012. But Byrd had a lost year.

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If there was an award for MLB Comeback Executive of the Year, however, there would be no debate that the man who acquired both of the above -- along with numerous others now pushing the Bucs' pennant drive -- would be a shoo-in.

Neal Huntington weathered harsh criticism and some ill-fated moves for years -- not just in 2012 -- to engineer the machine now running a gripping National League Central race.

Since there is no comeback recognition in his category, Huntington has to settle for being a front-runner for an award that does exist -- MLB Executive of the Year.

As the man who hired him, club president Frank Coonelly, told MLB.com the other day, "Neal had a hell of an offseason."

Late season may have been even better. Within days of the Aug. 31 postseason roster deadline, Huntington not only tweaked but turbocharged the Pirates' lineup with Byrd, John Buck and Justin Morneau. Since joining the club, that threesome has hit a collective .418 (23-for-55) and tricked out manager Clint Hurdle's lineup dramatically.

"We've greatly improved the starting lineup and, as a consequence, the bench, too," Huntington said, an assessment with which everyone agrees.

"Neal had diligently looked since the middle of June for ways to strengthen our club," said Hurdle, the appreciative manager. "These were very good gets for us. They balance us a little bit better and provide some much-needed offense."

Consider how rare it is for a team, much less a strong contender, to redo the middle of its lineup for the final month of the season. That is what Huntington accomplished with his relatively low-cost moves (the three players came for Alex Presley, Vic Black, Dilson Herrera and a player still owed the Twins, believed to be Duke Welker).

Morneau has been installed as the new cleanup hitter, and Byrd has found a home in the five-hole.

Buck is the experienced backup catcher needed since Michael McKenry was lost for the season in July. He has also contributed five hits in his first three starts; Tony Sanchez, a youngster with a bright future, has nine hits in his 15 games.

As Coonelly proclaimed, these moves were only the icing on Huntington's cake.

The offseason brought Russell Martin, Mark Melancon Jeanmar Gomez and Liriano -- who represents both a huge pitching success and negotiating success.

The Pirates, you'll recall, agreed to a two-year, $16 million contract with the free agent in mid-December. The deal was negated by a Christmastime household mishap in which Liriano broke a bone in his non-pitching arm.

Rather than turn away, Huntington tirelessly negotiated anew with the pitcher. And negotiated and negotiated. December turned into January turned into February. People snickered both about the Pirates' continuing interest and about the stalemate.

On Feb. 8, a new deal was struck. For a $1 million guarantee. For such a dramatic discount, the Pirates had themselves a 15-game winner -- while reestablishing his ace status will certainly pay off for Liriano down the road.

L'Affaire Liriano and the pirating of Martin from the Yankees form just the foundation of Huntington's merit for the executive award -- mention of which virtually embarrasses him.

"I'm humbled to even have people mention it," Huntington said. "I'm much more focused on the collective rewards of the hard work. This is an organizational outcome."

Isn't there at least a slight bit of satisfaction to have arrived at this point after years of slings and arrows from a fandom whose impatience and irritation had spilled over from too many years of waiting for better times?

"I understand the passion -- I knew that coming in," Huntington said. "Sometimes that passion came out in venom. We get all of it."

Huntington's late moves absolutely energized the clubhouse, particularly the pitchers' neighborhood. But in baseball's typical dry humor, A.J. Burnett, for one, does not think Huntington deserves an award just for making moves to help the team.

"That's what he's supposed to do," Burnett said.

Done.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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