Tim Benz: Now what, Neal? Streaky Pirates put pressure on GM | TribLIVE.com
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Tim Benz
Pittsburgh Pirates' Josh Bell, center, celebrates with teammates Gregory Polanco, top, Elias Diaz, center left, Jordan Luplow (47), and Jameson Taillon (50) after driving in the two runs with a double to win the baseball game in the tenth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers, Sunday, July 15, 2018, in Pittsburgh. The Pirates won 6-5 in ten innings, sweeping the five game series.(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Last Sunday, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said a week of 4-4 baseball wouldn’t be enough to convince him the 2018 club should be kept together at the trade deadline.

It was a warning through the media to the fans, his manager and the players.

Well, the Pirates didn’t go 4-4 in those eight games against the Brewers and Nationals. They went 7-1.

To be fair, when Huntington spoke to the assembled media again this Sunday, that string was still 6-1. The Bucs had yet to register their most emotional win in that group of games: a 7-6 walk-off, extra-inning, double-comeback against Milwaukee .

But the question was still certainly worthy of asking: “OK, Neal. So, now what?”

Now that the Pirates had immediately and sufficiently answered Huntington’s call for improved play, had the clubhouse bought itself some more time before being disassembled?

To say that Huntington was noncommittal would be an understatement.

“While we’ve closed ground in the division, while we’ve closed ground in the wild card, while we’ve had a really good week against really good teams, we need to do more,” Huntington said.

So in other words, the goalposts are moving.

No doubt, Huntington was as stunned as anyone that the Pirates played this well this past week. He never would’ve intimated that roster changes would be coming if he had any faith that his club would rattle off this much good baseball over that time.

Because now, he’s more or less boxed in. He made this week sound like a turning point in advance.

With the Pirates responding on the field in the manner that they did, fans will hold Huntington to his word. Those words suggest that this team deserves a little more time to show that it is a contender down the stretch and should at least be judged right at the deadline and not before.

Meanwhile, prior to Huntington’s decree, it was pretty clear that in the GM’s mind he was looking to stage the home before putting it on Zillow.

Huntington sounded far from celebratory over the Pirates great play of late. In fact, he sounded almost unsteady over how the players had climbed their way out of seller status and into wait-and-see mode.

“We’re built around young players. We’re built around young guys who have the ability to be here beyond this year.

Translation: ”I’m not trading the young, affordable guys. So let’s talk about them and make the older, more expensive veterans sound disposable.”

Huntington added: “We’ll continue to do what we believe to be the right thing to do for this organization. It makes it easier when we continue to play well. It makes it better, I should say. It makes it easier if we continue to go on 9-1 stretches, if we can continue that. That also makes it easier if we go on 1-9 stretches, just not nearly as much fun.”

For Huntington, “easier” and “fun” appear to be divergent results at this point.

Should the Pirates extend this torrid pace over the 11 games between now and the trade deadline, it would be fun. But that’s not easy for Huntington. In fact, it’s harder.

It’ll be more difficult to explain to the fans a sell-off of veterans such as Francisco Cervelli, Jordy Mercer, Corey Dickerson, Ivan Nova, David Freese and Josh Harrison if the club creeps above .500.

Should the team retain those players amid a continued rally for fear of further backlash from the fan base, it’ll be hard to explain to his owner Bob Nutting why the organization is going to continue paying those salaries the rest of the year and still be on the hook for them after this season.

Counting contract options, and before arbitrations, that number is in excess of $48 million as of now for those players in 2019 and beyond.

If Huntington’s initial goal last week was to rally the troops with fear of a fire sale, it worked. If by saying they needed to continue doing so after the break, then obviously, he’s trying to double down with similar motivational tactics.

If the goal was to prime the pump of acceptance for the fan base as the latest sale of Pirates talent was about to begin, the players themselves made that backfire.

On the off-chance the Pirates happen to continue playing elite ball over those remaining games between now and the start of August, don’t expect them to add much at all before the deadline.

The explanation will be, “We got back into the race with this crew, so we are sticking with this crew.”

My feeling is Huntington’s desire is still to trade as many veteran contracts as possible before the deadline at the end of July.

Now, he just has to wait a little bit longer for it to come off looking logical in the face of this most illogical of Pirates winning streaks.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter @TimBenzPGH.

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