On the Pirates: How to fairly evaluate Russell?

Manager's even keel, instruction, performance come with many sides


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Of the many large decisions facing Frank Coonelly, the Pirates' president, this fall, perhaps none will be more challenging than evaluating John Russell's job as manager.

Russell, in the final guaranteed year of his contract, has overseen a remarkable 84 different players in two-plus seasons of upheaval unlike any in Major League Baseball in that span. And, for the most part, that upheaval has resulted in a roster less experienced and, possibly, less talented.

Here is one look at three of Russell's pluses and minuses as manager, each with an accompanying counterpoint ...

Three pluses

1. Even keel

Players young and old give some credit to Russell's personality for the team's repeatedly demonstrated ability to bounce back, even from the ugliest of blowouts. Witness May 18 in Philadelphia, beating Roy Halladay, 2-1, after losing, 12-2, the night before.

That even-keel trait, maddening as it might be to some, might be the best fit for a roster being built for the future. Picture, for example, if Russell had blown his top Wednesday in Cincinnati when Neil Walker errantly threw that ball into right field.

Counterpoint: Maybe just once in a while?

It can be a fine line between stoic and passive, and that line might have been crossed in Los Angeles earlier this month when Zach Duke failed to retaliate for the Dodgers' head-hunting of Andrew McCutchen. Russell was furious afterward, but took no visible action.

2. Stands by players

Although Russell can be critical on occasion, he is anything but the Jim Tracy type when it comes to deflecting blame to the players. That is a big part of a manager keeping a clubhouse together, and it surely cannot be easy in light of the Pirates' many mistakes.

He faulted Duke for misfiring on a pitch that resulted in St. Louis' Yadier Molina hitting through a conspicuous defensive shift, but he has been consistent on that expectation with all pitchers.

Two weeks ago in Philadelphia, when McCutchen had a rare lapse in dropping a routine liner, Russell was asked about it and simply shook his head, not about to criticize his best player.

Counterpoint: Neither is Russell the type to blame himself or his coaches, even when circumstances make that clear. Case in point was third base coach Tony Beasley's failure to alert Andy LaRoche during that bizarre two-men-on-third double play this month.

Moreover, the occasional player accountability -- right out in the open, like, say, a benching for Aki Iwamura for failing to get down on a grounder 5 feet to his right this week in Cincinnati -- is rare.

3. Hands-on instruction

Russell delegates to his coaches, but he also is not above doing even the most remedial work himself, including countless hours on the Bradenton fields teaching Jeff Clement to play first base pretty much from scratch. (A project, by the way, that has gone better than expected defensively.)

It is worth remembering that, when Russell had a more experienced -- perhaps more talented -- group of everyday players upon taking the job, many of them got visibly better under his watch. Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan all improved in all facets, as did others.

Counterpoint: His fault or not, the same generally cannot be said of many pitchers.

Three minuses

1. Missing connection

It is, perhaps, more important for a manager to connect with the fan base than any person with the team. He is the daily face in the dugout, the spokesman, the one who shapes the collective personality.

That connection has yet to happen for Russell with Pittsburghers, who tend to prefer their managers with either Chuck Tanner's joy, Jim Leyland's passion or Lloyd McClendon's fire.

That disconnect was never more visible -- or audible -- than the home finale last season when Russell pulled Duke from a start one out shy of a complete game at PNC Park, drawing a rancorous vocal rebuke from the 16,696 on hand.

Counterpoint: The manager's primary responsibility is to connect with the players.

2. Strategies

From the pitcher batting eighth, the no-triples outfield defense and the 80-foot hole in the infield handed to Molina, the Pirates under Russell have had many unusual strategies. They have worked at times, but they have been glaring when they have not.

Counterpoint: These strategies have been constructed at least partly by the front office, including general manager Neal Huntington and his chief statistical analyst, Dan Fox. Huntington has defended the defensive shifts, in particular, citing internal numbers he is adamant shows they are beneficial.

Either way, Russell is the one regularly hearing the questions on these topics.

3. Results

The bottom line: Russell's record is 149-224, and there are few examples in any sport of a manager or coach surviving three years of heavy losing, McClendon's five years notwithstanding.

Counterpoint: The broader numbers such as run differential, team batting average and ERA would indicate this year's Pirates should be far worse than their record. A few days ago, Yahoo! columnist Tim Brown wrote that these disparities should have locals building "a statue" in Russell's honor.

Really, who can know how much of this has been Russell's fault?

From a former player

No manager is universally loved or even liked by his players, but the broadest sentiment regarding Russell is one of respect.

"There might not be a person in Pittsburgh who's more misunderstood or misinterpreted than JR," one former member of the Pirates said earlier this year. "They don't see the guy getting mad the way we did. They don't see his love of the game. They don't see all the instruction, the hands-on instruction. He's a good manager, and the Pirates are lucky to have him."

International bargains

For all the heat the Pirates took for failing to sign top Dominican prospect Miguel Sano last summer -- he went to the Minnesota Twins at $3.15 million -- the broader scope of their approach to spread their dollars rather than commit in bulk to one or two players has some strong backing in these three examples:

Starling Marte, the Class A outfielder who might be the only five-tool talent in the system, cost an $85,000 bonus.

Rogelio Noris, another Class A outfielder who has six home runs at West Virginia, cost $90,000.

• And reliever Diego Moreno, who was just promoted to Class AA Altoona and who might throw harder than any pitcher at any level other than Evan Meek, cost $7,000.

Less than a used car.

And those are the Pirates' top three Latin American prospects in terms of potential, for a total bill of $182,000. Put another way, it's pretty much what Iwamura, the Pirates' highest-paid player, makes in a week.

"It's still about finding the player, finding the right player," Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo said. "Those are some exciting players, and we've got more on the way."

The Pirates have signed 17 international players this year, with a high bonus of $280,000 for Dominican outfielder Willy Garcia, and agreements have been reached with four others for a total of 21.


Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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