Cook: Pirates should ship management

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Give the Pirates credit. They are making progress. In October 2009, team president Frank Coonelly did new contracts with general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell and lied about it for eight months before finally coming clean. A year ago, on the same day the Steelers opened the NFL season in Baltimore, Coonelly gave a three-year contract extension to Huntington, the curious timing designed to lessen the negative feedback after one of the worst second-half collapses by the team in franchise history. At least this time, when Coonelly announced his top baseball people will be back next season despite one of the worst late-season collapses in the history of the sport, he did so in the light of day Wednesday.

They must be so proud at 115 Federal Street.

So what do we make of the news, that Huntington, assistant general managers Kyle Stark and Greg Smith and manager Clint Hurdle will keep their jobs? Is it that Pirates owner Bob Nutting still believes he has "the single-best management team in all of baseball, maybe in all of sports," as he said so famously and idiotically late in 2008? Or is it that it's a lot easier and whole lot less expensive to keep his underachieving people rather than pay them off and hire new ones?

Can we agree it's choice two?

That, for all the preaching about accountability that comes from Nutting and Coonelly, there really is none in the top levels of the sorry organization?

That upper management really doesn't give a damn about winning and cares only about the bottom line?

That Coonelly's talk in the past about "mutual trust" between the team and its fans and how the team will invest in its product as the fans continue to buy tickets is garbage?

It's a consensus, as far as I can tell.

The big problem is Nutting can't be fired. No one even asks him anymore if he would consider selling the team because he has made it clear he will not. He has talked about keeping it in the family so his three daughters can take over. I'm trying to find the positive there. The girls have to do a better job than their old man, right?

Everyone else -- including Coonelly -- can be replaced.

You could make a strong case they all should go.

It's almost comical; Coonelly makes the big announcement that everyone is safe when he could be fired next week. He doesn't get nearly the blame that Huntington does, but he deserves more. He hired Russell in 2008 and gave him that extension. That's impossible to imagine because Russell has the personality of a first-base bag. Coonelly also hired Huntington and gave him that long-term extension. He and Huntington are tied together. They have been at it for five seasons. They still are waiting to celebrate their first winning season let alone any kind of a championship. They have failed miserably.

The won-loss record is the only way to judge any general manager. Huntington has made some good moves and a lot of bad ones. But it always comes back to the wins and losses. Huntington has had five years to get it right. It's hard to argue he should get a sixth.

Stark and Smith are fair targets because they're responsible for bringing young players into the system and haven't done a very good job. Stark has been widely and unfairly criticized for having some of the minor leaguers do three days of Navy SEAL training at the Instructional League. I have no problem with that, just as I has no problem when the Penguins did the same sort of thing a few years ago. There's nothing wrong with demanding mental toughness from your players. It's not as if those players haven't had time to be schooled in baseball's fundamentals. The problem is most are not good enough at the game. There doesn't appear to be a power bat, a catcher or a shortstop in the system who is close to helping the big club. You want to fire Stark and Smith, fire 'em for that.

Then, there's Hurdle. He has been all-in with Nutting, Coonelly, Huntington and the rest for just two seasons. You could argue that, if he were smarter, he never would have taken the Pirates job and would have waited to get the manager's position with a better organization. It's not as if Nutting's reputation around baseball isn't known. You go work for that guy, you deserve what you get.

But Hurdle did take the job, and the Pirates have collapsed at the end of each of his two seasons. He has had no answers. Unless the team finds a way to finish strong, it will be his ninth losing season in 10 years of managing.

Hurdle is a much more dominant person than Russell. It's fair to think he tells Huntington what to do, not the other way around. Certainly, Hurdle had a big say in the team's acquisitions last winter, especially shortstop Clint Barmes, who played for him with the Colorado Rockies. The team gave Barmes a two-year, $10.5 million deal and will owe him $5.5 next season.

Guess who will be the shortstop on opening day next season?

You don't think Nutting is going to eat that contract, do you?

Unfortunately, next season will be here before we know it. Plenty of questions must be answered in the meantime. Who will be in the rotation after A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez? Who will catch? Will Starling Marte mature as a hitter and learn a little plate discipline? Will the team take Joel Hanrahan to arbitration and pay him millions or trade him? Can it count on Andrew McCutchen to compete for another batting title? On Garrett Jones matching his career-year numbers from this season? On Burnett winning 16 games again?

Good thing the Pirates will have the single-best management team in all of baseball working on the issues.

No need to thank me for reminding you.

roncook

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


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