Pirates GM offers insight into Shapiro’s front office

With Tony LaCava locked up long term, either as the GM or an assistant, the Toronto Blue Jays are taking aim at filling any holes that may emerge in order to hopefully build on their 2015 successes in 2016.

BOCA RATON, Fla. – Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington pauses when asked about some of the key traits he learned from Mark Shapiro when they worked together with the Cleveland Indians, and then smiles.

“There’s a lot,” he says, before rhyming off his prioritized list. “The importance of people, and the importance of how we take care of our people. The importance of creating a culture of inclusion, the importance of providing guidelines, setting expectations, holding people accountable but letting them do their jobs. The importance of having a difficult conversation, the importance of process, and while the decisions may not always work the way we thought they would, or intended or wanted them to, if we take care of our process, and we do that well, then we should get good results.”

Huntington’s experience with the Indians offers some intriguing insights into how Shapiro is likely to handle the front office currently in place with the Toronto Blue Jays. While a series of changes were expected after the shocking departure of GM Alex Anthopoulos, so far the new president and CEO has moved to ensure stability and continuity, extending interim GM Tony LaCava, keeping the leadership group as is so far, and announcing that manager John Gibbons will be back for 2016.

Some additions to the front office are still believed imminent, with Ross Atkins, Cleveland’s vice-president of player personnel, the subject of much industry speculation. But he appears to have little intention of clear-cutting the place.

That would be true to Shapiro’s track record, and consistent with how he encouraged his underlings to manage people with the Indians.

Huntington took over from him as director of minor-league operations for the Indians in 1999, after Shapiro was promoted to vice-president of baseball operations and assistant general manager to GM John Hart. He’d come over from the Montreal Expos a year earlier to serve as Shapiro’s assistant, and was cautioned against disturbing the department’s culture needlessly when he sought to turn over staff.

Their discussions then are still being applied with the Pirates today.

“As a first-year assistant taking over in my second year with the Indians, I hadn’t necessarily been in place to implement the development programs that Mark wanted for the staff that I had recommended letting go,” says Huntington. “In some cases we ended up implementing a development plan in some places those staff people stayed with us for years into the future, in some cases we let them go after that year because it didn’t work, and we did make some changes my very first year.

“The process we now have in place in Pittsburgh, we should never surprise an employee that we’re letting go, we should do everything we can to help them grow, to develop, and if we’re unsuccessful then we let the employee go, but that’s on us. Through some challenging discussions and conversations, Mark allowed me to make some changes my first year, but from that point forward, we had to make sure we were doing everything we could to help our employees grow and get better.”

Still, Shapiro didn’t force Huntington to keep things static, either.

“I was a first-time farm director inheriting his system, and he was passionate about it, it was a great system, and he let a first-time farm director make some adjustments that as I look back on it, as long as my thought process was sound, he encouraged me to move forward,” says Huntington. “If I wasn’t sound in my thought process, he would challenge me, he would push back, and I didn’t recognize it at the time, but as I look back on it, as long as I had logical, rational reasons for what I wanted to do, he supported it.”

Huntington was promoted to assistant general manager when Shapiro took over from Hart following the 2001 season, concentrating on player evaluation and acquisition. In September 2007 he was hired as GM of the Pirates, a position LaCava, who spent 2002 with the Indians as a national crosschecker, was a finalist for.

“With John Hart and Mark Shapiro, those are two of the better developers of executives that exist in the game today,” says Huntington. “I count my blessings every day that I was able to work in a very small market in Montreal with Dan Duquette, and learn some things that were way ahead of the curve then, and then to have the opportunity to go to Cleveland and have a variety of roles with Mark, and to learn from him and to learn from John and to watch those guys help people grow, help an organization grow and then regrow as we had to tear it down.

“We were an aging, veteran club, the revenue streams shrunk and we had to turn it over. Mark took personal and professional hits as we were turning over and he stayed the course because he trusted his people, he trusted what we were doing, he trusted why were doing it. Short of being able to close out a series in 2007 (when the Indians lost the ALCS to Boston despite a 3-1 lead), it would have been an absolutely remarkable turnaround.”

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