Pirates disclose extensions for Huntington, Russell
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The timing hardly could have been worse for Frank Coonelly, the Pirates' president, to disclose this afternoon that he quietly gave general manager Neal Huntington and manager John Russell one-year extensions last October.
The team was in a 10-game losing streak with the National League's worst record, with many of its recent trades and signings exposed as robustly unproductive, with its fundamental play hitting a low the previous night with a six-error mess.
But, when a report was published on FoxSports.com this morning quoting a Major League Baseball source that Huntington had been extended, Coonelly ended months of vague answers on the topic and acknowledge that he added a year to Huntington's three-year contract that was set to expire after the current season and exercised the 2011 option on Russell's contract.
And Coonelly did so in a half-hour meeting with Pittsburgh writers in which he never offered any significant praise for Huntington or Russell, nor anything close to a guarantee that either would serve the full term of those extensions.
"As we've demonstrated in the past, the fact that a person has a contract for another year or two isn't going to change the decision we make as to whether they are performing up to expectations," Coonelly said. "If we every conclude someone is not, that person will no longer be with the organization, even if that means we have to eat a year or two of their contact."
Asked why he offered the extensions fresh off a 62-99 season, Coonelly offered no endorsements.
"We sit down at the end of every season and discuss what went right, what went wrong, what were the strengths and weaknesses of the organization, where do we need to improve and how are we performing. We made the decision understanding that this turnaround is not something anyone believed we could do quickly."
And on the team's especially poor play of late: "The level of disappointment is so high I can't accurately give you a word for it. I'm extraordinarily disappointed and frustrated by the play."
When the Pirates announced Russell's first extension during spring training of 2009, they did so a formal press release and interview session in Bradenton, Fla. But Coonelly kept these a secret for months -- and instructed Huntington and Russell to do likewise -- despite the risk of tension that can be created among the front office, players and other employees.
"I thought it was the right move," Coonelly said. "I know it never really ends the constant search for 'Are you going to extend? How many years? Are you concerned the manager won't have authority within the clubhouse if the players don't know he's on board for another year, two years, three years?' That's a concept I disagree with entirely."
Under Huntington and Russell, the Pirates' 152-236 record is the worst in the majors in that span.
Neither of those men struck any more of a celebratory note than Coonelly after the disclosure today.
"My contract status remains a non-issue and has no impact on how I do the job," Huntington said. "I'm focused on the process of executing our big-picture vision and accomplishing our short-, middle- and long-term goals to the very best of my ability. I believe that, if I do that, the result will take care of itself."
"It doesn't change anything," Russell said. "Neal and I have said from day one and we'll continue to say it whether we have a one-year extension or a ten-year extension, we're not going to change the way we do things. The contract is nice, but it doesn't deter what we have to do as an organization."
Coonelly offered some defense for Huntington and Russell.
Of Huntington's trades and signings, he said, "Not all of them have worked out as we'd hoped. That's the case anytime you make trades. The one thing that is missed in the analysis of the success or lack of success of the trades is that the assets we had to trade were not nearly as valued in the industry as they were here in Pittsburgh."
Coonelly cited, among Huntington's positive examples, the Rule 5 draft selection of reliever Evan Meek and the minor-league free-agency signing of first baseman Garrett Jones. When discussing the trades, Coonelly mostly focused on players the Pirates sent out, notably shortstop Jack Wilson, pitcher Ian Snell and $3.3 million to Seattle last summer. Wilson has been hurt, and Snell was just designated for assignment. The return was shortstop Ronny Cedeno, recently demoted first baseman Jeff Clement and three promising Class A pitchers.
Coonelly insisted today, for the first time, that the $3.3 million was not added to the deal to get Clement but simply to have the Mariners take Snell's contract.
"We evaluate the acquisitions made," Coonelly said. "I could put Neal into a mode where he could do nothing, where, every time an acquisition didn't bring back as much as we hoped, he was disciplined, so to speak. I'm not going to do that."
Regarding Russell, Coonelly recognized that he now has managed 86 different players in two-plus seasons.
"Is it difficult to reach the conclusion that a manager is not doing the job when you're turning over the roster so completely?" Coonelly said. "And when you're asking him to win with players who are being asked to move from one position to another? And with so many rookies in the lineup? Yeah, it's difficult in that scenario."
Given Russell's more visible role, he has been the focus of most of the recent public ire.
Coonelly was asked how he imagined fans would react to the word of this extension.
"The easiest target is always the manager," he replied. "It's not just something the press makes up or inquires about. We hear it from our fans: 'Fire the manager.' That's an easy way to placate the fans. What they should know is, this should not be relevant to the fans. If they're a John Russell supporter, it doesn't provide John with any additional security. If they're not a John Russell supporter, it doesn't make it any less likely that John could be let go."
Russell's players, current and former, have expressed widespread support for him, and that continued Thursday.
"I have a lot of respect for him," shortstop Bobby Crosby, one of the team's veteran leaders, said. "Hearing about it really made me happy. I think he deserves it. I think we as players need to play better. He's made moves to put us into position to win, and we just haven't executed."
"It's good that he's going to be here so we don't have to worry about anything else," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. "Clearly, they see that he's the guy for us."
The most common criticism of Russell is his stoic demeanor -- even he has taken to joking about it of late -- but players reiterated a long-held view that he is different out of the public view.
"I think I see him easier than most because I'm kind of the same way, a quiet guy who expects to win," starter Paul Maholm said. "J.R. just might not show it in front of the fans, but the players are definitely going to hear about it when we make mistakes. To me, that's more what needs to happen. Every once in a while, would you like for him to get tossed or something? Well, that's entertaining, but he doesn't have to. We know he wants to win."
Blame for the Pirates' miseries is easily spread, and that includes over the heads of Huntington and Russell.
Owner Bob Nutting, who was unavailable for comment, has authorized a $36 million payroll -- officially $39 million-plus by MLB accounting standards because the payment to Seattle in the Wilson trade applies to this year -- that is second-lowest in the sport.
Coonelly was asked how fair it would be to evaluate Huntington or Russell based on major-league results while payroll is so low.
"It's wholly fair to analyze them, notwithstanding a low payroll. Do you take into account that there are payroll limitations an organization has to work under? Yeah, but you don't use the current payroll as an excuse. The San Diego Padres have a payroll lower than ours, and they're managing to be competitive all season long.
The Padres, officially at $38 million, are 38-28.
"This is a results business," Coonelly continued. "When we talk about performance, we don't always talk solely about wins and losses at major league level, but, yes, there is a point in time when this major league club must perform as measured in wins and losses."
Coonelly, too, accepted blame. When Nutting hired Coonelly, he described Coonelly as a "check and balance" against the general manager, and that is how it has worked: Coonelly authorizes all major moves and almost always is engaged in the discussion leading up to them.
He was asked about accountability on his end, particularly for authorizing the trade for Aki Iwamura and signing of Ramon Vazquez, each cut loose this year and wasting $4.93 million.
"Ultimately, I take final responsibility. Not only did I hire Neal, but Neal consults with me on trades. Ultimately, I take all responsibility."
Coonelly expressed optimism not only for the Pirates' future but also the rest of a 2010 schedule that already appears a lock for the professional-sports record 18th consecutive losing season. He cited the recent promotions of youngsters Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker and Brad Lincoln.
"While the play at the major-league level has been very disappointing, we've had real growth and development from players we expected and hope will be the core of the franchise," Coonelly said. "They're all here now, and we see them as being part of the core that turns this franchise around."
First Published June 17, 2010 3:36 pm