Ron Cook: For Pirates front office, it's 82 or bust

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The wise guys in Las Vegas have put the over-under number on Pirates wins this season at 77 1/2. It's far too early in spring training to make a prediction for a team that finished 79-83 in 2012. There will be an injury, if not more, before the opening game April 1 against the Chicago Cubs. There will be a few pleasant surprises and some unexpected failures.

There is another over-under number on Pirates wins that is even more fascinating: 81 1/2. Team president Frank Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle should be especially interested in it. Their jobs will be determined by which side of the line the team falls.

It's hard to believe much of what Pirates owner Bob Nutting says. He has been making promises to the team's fans for years and mostly failed to deliver. But it was easy to believe Nutting last week when he said the Pirates must "take a step forward" this season. That would be at least 82 wins. Not even Nutting, who often seems willing to tolerate mediocrity as long as he's making money, can stand by and do nothing if the team has a 21st consecutive losing season.

The Pirates should have fired Coonelly and Huntington after last season when the Pirates had what some in baseball called the worst collapse in the sport's history, going from a 63-47 record through Aug. 8 to that 79-83 finish. It was Year 5 for Coonelly and Huntington, who are tied at the hip. It was only the second season for Hurdle, but a strong case can be made that he, too, had to go, even though the Pirates improved under him to 72 wins in 2011 from 57 the year before and to 79 last season. The 2012 collapse was the second under his watch. He also had no answers as the Pirates failed miserably down the stretch in 2011, going 19-43 in their final 62 games.

No one would have criticized Nutting if he had swept out all three of his top baseball men.

But Coonelly, Huntington and Hurdle are back. Hurdle even received a one-year contract extension last week. He and Huntington now are signed through 2014 with a club option for 2015.

Nutting said he gave Hurdle the extension to show his commitment to his top leadership. It's hard to knock him for doing it. It's never a good situation when a manager is working in the final year of his contract. It leads to major distractions. Ask the Philadelphia Phillies' Charlie Manuel, who already is tired this spring of answering questions about his final-year status. And he's a much more successful manager than Hurdle.

But rewarding your people after another losing season also can be dangerous for a team owner. It made no sense when the Pirates did new contracts with Huntington and then-manager John Russell in October 2009 after a 99-loss season. Coonelly must have been embarrassed about doing it because he didn't announce the deals until the following June. Russell was fired after that 2010 season -- a 105-loss season -- with a year left on his contract. It also made no sense when the Pirates gave Huntington a three-year extension -- not one or two, but three years -- in September 2011 just as the team was finishing that 19-43 free fall.

At least Nutting is aware of the perception that often goes with such questionable moves.

"The idea that an extension [for Hurdle] was somehow a free pass is exactly the message I don't want to send," he said last week.

Good for Nutting.

"We've absolutely shown we're more than willing to make a change if we need to, irrespective of contract terms," he said. "Everyone in the organization knows that."

Once again ...

Good for Nutting.

The guess here is Nutting will follow through on his tough words if the Pirates fail to have a winning season again this year. Coonelly, Huntington and Hurdle will be out. They have to be out.

The Pirates' brass can say all it wants that it isn't interesting in merely finishing above .500, that it wants to win a division championship, a league championship and a world championship. That's admirable. Those have to be the goals. For every other baseball team, an 82-80 record is nothing to brag about. That's just barely better than mediocrity.

But the Pirates aren't like any other team because of their historic losing streak. That's why everyone from Nutting on down is disingenuous with that nonsensical talk about winning championships. There will be plenty of celebrating at Pirates headquarters in October if the team somehow gets to 82 wins.

Coonelly, Huntington and Hurdle will buy the champagne.

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Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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