In the first move of an offseason rife with implications for the prospect-based franchise's future, Pirates management and acclaimed infield coach Perry Hill failed to reach an agreement, and club officials announced yesterday that he will not coach for them in 2010.
They made one addition by promoting longtime minor league pitching instructor Ray Searage, who primarily will work with pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and could eventually succeed him.
Nonetheless, the subtraction of Hill is significant for a team with considerable youth.
Hill, 57, came out of a self-imposed retirement with his family in Texas to mentor a Pirates infield with Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez anchoring the middle, but both were traded away within hours of one another July 29.
Many Pirates felt such a respect for and kinship with him, and one of the traded veterans later asked his infield coach to speak with Hill to better align and prepare the player defensively on his new team.
Although Hill expressed interest in continuing as a first-base coach and infield coach -- what he long maintained were the only baseball jobs he sought -- Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said talks reached an end and he exercised an option for 2010 to keep Hill from working for any club other than the Pirates.
"We were willing to go more than one year, we were willing to go higher dollars," Huntington said last night. "We exercised the option strictly to protect the club's interests.
"He wants to go home. He told me that it's time for him to go home. [Hill returning in a part-time basis or different capacity,] it's something we're open to. I can't handicap whether it'll happen or not."
Hill, who has tutored a total of six Gold Glove infielders covering all four positions, figures to stay home in Texas for another year, though he declined to explain the impasse with the Pirates.
"I just choose not to come back," Hill said simply.
Statistics bore out his one-year effect on the club: The Pirates topped the major leagues in fewest errors (73) and in fielding percentage (.988) this past season, the latter of which set a franchise record as did their 101 errorless games. They also led the National League with 171 double plays. Moreover, the Pirates became the first team in baseball history to lead the majors in fielding while losing 99 or more games.
One of Hill's prized pupils was third baseman Andy LaRoche, who was considered a Gold Glove candidate by Pirates management by the end of the season. His play improved so much, he was asked to work at second base next year.
Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee, a Gold Glover under Hill with the Florida Marlins, said last month: "What he preaches defensively, what he brings as an infield coach, I'd say he's worth about 10 to 15 wins a year as a coach. That's saying a lot for a coach. ... We'll take him."
"It's definitely sad to see him go," pitcher Paul Maholm said yesterday. "He definitely made our infield defense way better. He's going to be a tough guy to replace. But I think the guys who worked with him know where he came from, and, hopefully, they can carry it over."
Huntington kept open such possibilities as returning third-base coach Tony Beasley to his former infield-instructing role and hiring a replacement at third base, or perhaps hiring a new first-base coach and shifting other staff duties.
Searage, 54, has spent the past seven seasons in the Pirates' organization, including 2008 and '09 as Class AAA Indianapolis' pitching coach. He previously worked in the Tampa Bay, Florida and St. Louis minor league systems.
"He's going to do a lot more than be an assistant pitching coach," said Huntington, noting that club officials long were considering the addition of a second pitching instructor.
Kerrigan talked at season's end about grooming a successor, and Huntington said Searage could "put himself in position ... to step in that role in '11, '12 or '13, whenever Joe decides to head home."
"He's been around, and he knows his stuff," added Maholm, who worked with Searage in Williamsport in 2003 and in spring trainings. "He's definitely somebody who'll help out ... let your natural talents come out. He's a very positive guy, high energy, wants everybody to do well. To me, he's just a fun guy to have around."
Chuck Finder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .