PITTSBURGH — Neal Huntington arrived in Pittsburgh a decade ago confident he had the right plan to turn around the floundering Pirates. Three years later, the general manager hired Clint Hurdle to take the building blocks the front office put in place and mold it into finished — and winning — major-league product.
Together, Huntington and Hurdle oversaw the franchise’s end to a generation of misery. While the buzz provided by three straight playoff berths from 2013-15 has dulled with Pirates entering the final month of a wildly uneven 2017 season well out of things in the NL Central, the resolve of the men who oversaw baseball’s renaissance in Pittsburgh has not.
Rather than panic or split, Huntington and Hurdle are doubling down. The Pirates signed both to four-year contract extensions on Tuesday that will keep them in Pittsburgh through 2021.
“We were able to accomplish some things in the last seven years that have meaning,” Hurdle said Tuesday. “There are things out there that have more meaning that we want to accomplish together.”
Namely, bringing a World Series to PNC Park, a destination Hurdle and Huntington insist remains attainable and not as far away as it may appear. The Pirates entered Tuesday 9½ games back of the World Series champion Chicago Cubs and will need to put together a late surge to avoid a second straight losing season.
Still, Hurdle remains upbeat. Hip replacement surgery has rejuvenated the 60-year-old. So has a clubhouse in the midst of a youth movement. The core led by five-time All-Star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen that pushed Pittsburgh to three consecutive wild card appearances is giving way to the next wave led by first baseman Josh Bell, whose 24 home runs are the most by a rookie switch hitter in National League history.
Hurdle is 575-534-1 in six-plus seasons in Pittsburgh, and his 1,109 career victories rank sixth among active managers. He remains bullish on the franchise’s future. Though the Pirates have seen a noticeable dip in support the last two summers — dropping from 15th in attendance in 2015 to 25th this season — he knows the math needed to rekindle the base is pretty easy.
“Nothing leverages fan attendance like winning games, nothing,” Hurdle said. “We are in the baseball side of it to win games. We still have got another opportunity to win games at a more impactful level. And push into the post season and to win the World Series. That’s the goal. That hasn’t changed.”
The length of the extensions is unprecedented under owner Bob Nutting, though Hurdle was quick to downplay the idea that the reason the sides agreed to four-year deals is because of the length of time it could take to get back to the heights of 2015, when Pittsburgh won 98 games.
“I don’t think we’re going to sit around and say ‘Hey, it’s gonna take four years. I hope we get there by the fourth year,'” Hurdle said. “No. Absolutely not.”
The agreements ended months of silence from the Pirates on the future of their leadership. Hurdle and Huntington both had club options for 2018 that were never officially exercised. The new deal takes care of that and then some.
“I said, ‘Make me your best offer, I’m going to say yes or no,'” Hurdle said. “We got to a point where talking to that point, there was a commitment level that was real on both sides.”
The Pirates believe they can find a way despite the fiscal realities of working in one of the smallest markets in the majors. That’s not going to change over the next four years, though Huntington doesn’t view it as an impediment. If it were, the Pirates wouldn’t have been able to average 93 wins from 2013-15 even though they never cracked the top 20 in payroll.
“We’ve got assurances (from ownership) we’re going to be able to continue to do what we’ve done,” Huntington said.
Namely, build through the draft and try to plug holes through trades and free agency. It worked when Pittsburgh developed McCutchen, second baseman Neil Walker, outfielder Starling Marte and pitcher Gerrit Cole, acquired catcher Russell Martin and pitcher A.J. Burnett and signed Francisco Liriano, all key cogs in the renaissance.
Success has come at a price. Martin left for more money in Toronto. Burnett retired. Walker was dealt to the New York Mets when the team decided he was too expensive to keep. Pittsburgh is facing the same issue with McCutchen, who has a club option for $14.75 million in 2018 and is unlikely to sign a long-term deal to stay with the Pirates for the remainder of his career.
Huntington thinks continuity among the decision makers can help offset some of the financial shortcomings.
“The ability to have stability is important,” he said. “The highest payrolls don’t always make the postseason. The odds give us every chance in the world of getting there and the odds tell us once we get there we have as good a chance as big market teams.”
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