Huntington, Stark paved new way in Minors

Huntington, Stark paved new way in Minors

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Cohesiveness. Accountability. Consistency.

These have been buzzwords since Neal Huntington took over the general manager post in September 2007, and they have dictated the overhaul of the Minor League system that has transpired since.

With so much focus on the drastic changes made to the Major League roster since the end of the '07 season, it would be easy to overlook the systematic transformation, from the Pirates' Dominican League club to their Triple-A affiliate. Programs have been instituted. Standards have been set. Discipline has been instilled. Rules have been enforced.

All of this has been overseen by Kyle Stark, the Pirates' director of player development, whose trademark buzz cut fits with his military-like approach to the job.

Some consider what Stark has done to be progressive in thinking because of how outside-the-box some of the ideas are. (What other team forces its players to wear their socks high out on the field?) Others would be prone to label the widespread changes as restrictive because of a perceived lack of wiggle room.

Whatever your assessment may be, there is no debating that the structure is different and that the expectations are higher.

"We've joked a little bit about it here during big league camp, just about how different expectations are, how different processes are, systems are," Stark said. "I think we've accomplished a ton, but it feels like it has been a slow, steady climb. This year is one I'm excited about, because I think this is the year that guys come into it knowing who I am and what I'm about, what the coordinators are about. There are expectations about how we are going to do things, and then there's a confidence and a comfort with that."

Making a plan

They might have been the most pointed words about the Minor League system spoken by Huntington during his first months on the job. But what he observed when he finished an evaluation of the Minor Leagues, quite frankly, appalled him.

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"Dysfunctional is a strong word, but dysfunctional is probably the best word," Huntington said two springs ago when asked to assess the Minor League system he inherited. "It didn't work. I did not feel like people were on the same page."

That led Huntington and Stark to make cohesiveness the organization's top priority. It started with the simple implementation of a consistent language. The names for a particular drill in Pittsburgh would be the same for that drill in Double-A Altoona or with the Pirates' rookie club. Such a consistency, Stark believed, would cut down on the transition when players move up through the system.

"It's as much about the mind-set as anything," Stark said. "It's just the relentless cohesive mind-set that we're chasing perfection. There's a plan in place. There is a consistency of message."

Pursuing cohesiveness also led to the addition of particular programs and plans. Each Minor League player has a written plan, documenting goals and areas of development, that follows him through the organization. Though Stark first introduced these plans in 2008, there is a continued refinement two years later.

"Now it's a matter of prioritizing those issues that we see for each player -- mentally, physically, fundamentally and personally," Huntington explained. "We want to be able to better prioritize with each player so we don't throw too much information at them, and to make sure we get at the true root cause of issues so we can overcome that."

The program implementation isn't over. This year there is a new one in the works, a program designed to target the personal development of each of the Pirates' Minor League players.

There will be classroom sessions designed to teach such things as financial responsibility, communication, self-awareness and media awareness. There is also a plan to have a mentorship program, through which staff members or big league players will serve as mentors to the Minor Leaguers. It's all designed to help these players grow -- first as men, then as players.

"We've talked about the man and that our system starts with the development of the man first before the player, and we care about how these guys behave on and off the field," Stark said. "So while we've talked about it, while we've done specific things, we haven't had a specific program geared toward it."

Enduring pushback

Not all of these systematic changes have been met with open arms, however. Not everyone -- players and staff -- embraced Stark's ideas. There has been plenty of resistance and dissent, and nowhere was that more evident than in the turnover of Minor League staffs.

Of the 18 Minor League managers and coaches who began the 2008 season in the organization, only seven are with the Pirates today. Some of the departed coaches complained privately about how things are run and expressed disagreement with particular rules and processes.

"That probably is evidence that we wanted to do things very differently than maybe they wanted it to be done," Huntington said. "We don't want to make change for change's sake. The changes that we have made have been made to help us get better and to help impact these players."

Nor has every Minor Leaguer embraced the Pirates' way. Players at every Minor League level are forced to wear their socks high. No exceptions. They are required to stay clean-shaven. Their lockers have to maintain a particular level of organization.

Stark hesitated to call these "rules," preferring to define them as "expectations" and "standards." But he also expressed little sympathy for those who show resistance.

"This is who we are and what we're about, and if you don't like it, you're not going to hurt our feelings. You can go somewhere else," he said. "If we can't expect a guy to keep his locker a certain way, how can we expect him to go out and execute in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the game on the line?

"It is just getting back to the 'big picture' perspective. Getting too caught up in tonight or today is detrimental to what we're doing. If you want to wear your uniform a certain way, get to Pittsburgh and you can."

Acquiring talent

The reality is that any systematic changes can be only as effective as the talent level for which they are designed. Huntington and Stark still talk about the dearth of Minor League talent they found when they took over, and these past two years have been all about increasing organizational depth.

More resources, both financial and personnel, have been dedicated to the Draft. Investments have been made to find talent abroad. Trades have netted more than a dozen prospects, some of them highly touted.

The result?

"There is no comparison," Stark said. "Putting together projected rosters is a more challenging task than it used to be."

The improved stockpile of young talent hasn't necessarily translated into a better placement in organizational rankings, though. A number of baseball publications that put out annual farm system rankings have slotted the Pirates somewhere in the bottom of the middle-third group. That's lower than fans might have anticipated given the influx of young talent over the past two years.

Some criticize the organization for a lack of high-impact Minor Leaguers, which could partially explain why the Pirates fall where they do in these rankings. The fact that the organization's 2009 Draft class -- one that the Pirates believe will prove to be quite deep -- hasn't had much time to be evaluated means it also hasn't had a chance to be reflected much in these polls.

"We still understand the criticism that we don't have quote-unquote the 'high impact' guy, but if you look at All-Star Games, there were a lot of players who weren't high-impact guys that play in All-Star Games," Huntington said. "We don't have as many definitive can't-miss guys. But there are a lot of can't-miss guys that do miss and a lot of guys who shouldn't hit that do. Our belief is that we have a handful of pretty good talented players in our system."

Even so, no one will question that the organization is deeper than it was when Huntington arrived.

The impact of all these systematic changes and talent upgrades won't be felt for a while, but for the first time in two years, the Pirates have a satisfaction in knowing that they have a system in place that they believe will breed success.

"I think we're light years ahead of where we were two years ago," Huntington said. "Kyle Stark deserves a ton of credit for his willingness to tackle a lot of challenges, his willingness to challenge people to get better and his willingness to make changes to help us get better as an organization."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.