Baseball 2009: Seven minutes that changed the franchise
BRADENTON, Fla. -- The ball had burst off Nate McLouth's bat, followed by what McLouth later described as "the loudest sound I've ever heard at this ballpark." That, remarkably, was a reference to the decibel level at usually docile PNC Park, and it would only ramp up by the ninth inning, when Damaso Marte threw bullets to set down the mighty New York Yankees.
The place, packed with 39,081, fairly throbbed.
"Let's ... go ... Bucs!"
Frank Coonelly, the Pirates' energetic, often emotional president, roamed from one seating section to the next on that night -- July 10, 2008 -- to experience as much as he could. There was not much unusual about that -- he does it during spring exhibitions -- but this was, in many ways, a fresh feeling for this former Major League Baseball lawyer and Philadelphia native.
"I never had a doubt Pittsburgh can be a great baseball city and that these fans have not lost their passion for the Pirates," Coonelly recalled. "Still, while I never doubted, to be able to sit there and feel that passion that night ... those fans were proud."
The Post-Gazette's four-day preview of the Pirates and Major League Baseball• Friday: Five reasons to believe in Pirates ... or not
• Saturday: A bat worth waiting for
• Today: The Jason Bay trade
• Tomorrow: The march begins in St. Louis ... to a record 17th losing season?
PDF: In the room ... Members of the Pirates' baseball braintrust
Neal Huntington, the team's far more stoic general manager, watched from his private box. As always, he was taking notes, tracking the opposition as much as his own players, the better to fill the team's database. When Derek Jeter bounced to first for the final out, he closed his folder, took the elevator downstairs and assumed his standard spot on the couch in manager John Russell's office, preparing for their nightly evaluation.
With a small smile.
"It was great to take two of three from the Yankees," Huntington remembered. "Great to see the place sold out, the buzz, the electricity. A big part of me kept reminding myself, 'That's what it's going to be like. That's why we're doing this. That's why we're putting all this time and energy. And yeah, that's why we make the tough decisions."
The toughest call would come three weeks later.
And it was these two men would execute it -- unflinchingly, unapologetically and, yes, unemotionally, -- and, in the process, set the course of the franchise for 2009 and beyond.
It was July 31, seemingly just another day in what this management team often refers to simply, almost coldly as "the process."
To fully understand what these Pirates hope to achieve, it might be helpful, perhaps even vital, to revisit -- with the help of multiple insider accounts -- the events of that afternoon, with the 4 p.m. trade deadline fast approaching and Huntington still in contact with four teams coveting All-Star outfielder Jason Bay.
Bay's big comeback had made him an integral part of Major League Baseball's most productive outfield, along with McLouth and Xavier Nady, but that and other high points in the season's first half were overwhelmed, in management's eyes, by the abysmal pitching and the glaring need to rebuild the minor league system. Thus, Nady and reliever Damaso Marte were traded to the Yankees July 25 for four prospects, and now, it seemed, Bay would go, too.
Fixtures inside Huntington's office on deadline afternoon were all of his top baseball men: Bryan Minniti, director of baseball operations and rules specialist; Greg Smith, scouting director; Joe Dellicarri, Smith's assistant; Kyle Stark, director of player development; and Dan Fox, his new-age numbers cruncher.
Coonelly was there, too, and pretty much everyone had his own laptop, coffee or diet coke, and sparingly eaten lunch.
Otherwise, the place hummed.
"The public perception of the room is that it's chaos, and it's not. This wasn't," Huntington said. "It was systematic. There really were no emotions in the process."
That is because the process actually began half-a-year earlier.
The Pirates had come close to sending Bay to Cleveland in a five-player blockbuster that would have included catcher Ronny Paulino and netted pitcher Cliff Lee (who would go on to the Cy Young Award last summer), outfielder Franklin Guttierez and catcher Kelly Shoppach. Coonelly, in particular, did not feel it was enough and preferred to see if Bay could rediscover top value. The deal was killed.
By mid-January, Huntington and his staff formed a new plan, one in which his eight special assistants would identify teams that might make a match for Bay, in addition to those who already had expressed interest. Those teams became the focus of intensive scouting, majors and minors, as well as statistical analysis of performance for players as low as Class A. Key players received two or three extra looks.
By July 27, there were firm discussions between Huntington and five teams: The Boston Red Sox wanted Bay almost as badly as they wanted to be rid of Manny Ramirez. The Los Angeles Dodgers wanted Ramirez, so they were one of the two teams trying to join into a three-party trade. The Florida Marlins were the other. The Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves sought Bay independently.
By deadline day, Huntington's office was converted into a trading room. The wide wall opposite his large oak desk bore a wide, white board listing all potential partners, as well as all acceptable packages in returns for Bay or other players. Some of it was compiled by assistants, but most of the handwriting was Huntington's.
"There aren't any surprises, any sudden research you do on that day," Huntington said.
The Red Sox were driving the conversation because they had the main piece, and they were in frequent contact with Huntington. (Always on the cell phone. General managers are wary of speaker phones) Still, the Pirates' feeling at times was that they were closer to a single-team trade, notably with the prospect-rich Rays. Twenty minutes to 4 p.m., the Rays and Braves were the primary parties, but, at 15 minutes till, the Pirates called each to insist upon a specific prospect package and summarily were rejected.
"You could go through a list of the game's top 100 prospects and cross off a really good portion of those that we asked about at some point," Huntington said.
Ten minutes out, and the room's slightly audible exhale signaled that Bay would stay.
"We reached that realization," Huntington said.
There even was a cursory mention of approaching Bay about an extension.
"And we were fine with that, really," Coonelly said. "We knew we had some very valuable commodities. If they were not going to bring us valuable prospects, they were going to remain with the Pirates."
Seven minutes to go, and Huntington's cell rang again. Red Sox again. Their part of the package -- outfielder Brandon Moss and reliever Craig Hansen -- already had been satisfactory to the Pirates, but Boston had been unsuccessful in pushing the only other remaining three-team partner, the Dodgers, into giving more to the Pirates. Third baseman Andy LaRoche was in, but the Pirates wanted a top pitching prospect.
The Pirates' answer to that offer: No. End of call.
Five minutes to go, another call. Still no.
Two minutes to go, no again.
Finally, with less than a minute, Los Angeles, eager for the marquee bat Ramirez would bring, relented and included Class A starter Bryan Morris, a 21-year-old right-hander with pedigree, into the equation. Huntington, without the time or, really, the need to share this out loud with the room, simply approved, flipped his phone closed and ordered the hasty processing of paperwork to be emailed to MLB's offices in New York.
Some quiet congratulations and handshakes were exchanged around the office, before most dispersed.
"We felt really good," Huntington said. "In our minds acquired a major league third baseman, an outfielder who could essentially replace what Nady had done, a back-end reliever and a middle-to-top of the rotation starter with upside in Morris. Are they all going to hit? No."
And if nothing had happened?
"It would have been a lot of work and preparation for naught," Coonelly said. "But you do a lot of that in this business if you want to do things right. We were very pleased with how the process went, especially because of the process. We felt we made a good baseball trade and that we made it for the right reasons."
But, if Bay and/or Nady had stayed, the Pirates would have pushed well above their current $51 million payroll.
"That may have required some other moves in the offseason. And we would have gone right back to work."
Owner Bob Nutting, who last year raised some eyebrows by describing Coonelly and Huntington as "the single best management team in all of baseball, maybe in all of sports," gave no indication of backing off that statement when asked this week about their handling of the Bay trade.
"I've seen that in every process Frank and Neal have instigated, whether it's the Jason Bay trade or the draft," Nutting said. "The level of detail they're willing to dig down and find, whether it's from scouts or statistics, they put a lot of intellectual horsepower behind every decision they make."
It took seven minutes.
Or seven months, from the Pirates' perspective.
Either way, the franchise would not be the same, if only because Bay's departure signaled another -- yes, another -- rebuilding. And, from Huntington's long walk down to the PNC Park clubhouse to tell Bay he would not board the team's waiting bus for the road trip to Chicago to Russell's meeting the next morning at Wrigley Field to address the loss to the 17-37 free fall that followed, just about everything associated with the trade was a negative.
Including, as is most pertinent now, the expectations for 2009.
Add to that this: For all the positives to be culled from a thorough "process," that is not exactly the sort of thing that resonates much in a professional clubhouse. Major league players, especially veterans, tend to focus on the here and now, not on draft picks, prospects, instructional techniques, heightened discipline, high-tech statistical models, scouting additions, Latin American academies or far-flung bids to find talent from Taiwan to South Africa to India.
So, what was Coonelly's primary topic when addressing the full assembly of players here at Pirate City early this spring?
"We talked about the process," Coonelly recalled. "I want them to know that things have changed here. Many of them have been around here for a while, and they know some of the reasons why we have not been successful. Not only is it important that they see things look different at Pirate City or PNC Park or their coaching staff, but they know that things have changed throughout the organization."
Perhaps surprisingly, it appears to have generated a genuinely positive response. And the importance of that probably cannot be overstated, given that, on any successful team, the players taking the field have to have faith in what those above them are doing.
"I think we're over it. Everybody's over it," shortstop Jack Wilson said of the Bay trade. "At the time, everybody's trying to finish the season strong, and we lost our two big bats. Of course, everybody's going to be bummed. But you look at the work this management is doing, and it's hard not to believe."
By all accounts, there are four primary reasons for such resonation, in descending order:
4. The players have seen evidence that the internal approach works.
Not in Pittsburgh but elsewhere, results of a methodical, build-from-the-bottom plan has changed the mindset -- across baseball -- that only teams with nine-figure payrolls can compete for a World Series. Never was that illustrated more powerfully than with the sudden rise of the Tampa Bay Rays last summer.
"It's been proven," outfielder Eric Hinske, a member of those Rays, said.
3. No player questioned the need to upgrade the system or the level of instruction, especially not after watching pitcher after pitcher implode upon being recalled from the minors last season.
"We had to do something to get some pitching," first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
2. The net return for the Bay trade has looked more encouraging this spring, especially with the big bat Andy LaRoche has shown.
"I believe in the trade now mostly because I see these guys here, and I see their potential," reliever John Grabow said. "They can be here for a long time and not cost very much."
1. They feel a part of it.
That sentiment was boosted this offseason with the long-term extensions signed by starter Paul Maholm, center fielder Nate McLouth and catcher Ryan Doumit, all under control through 2012 or longer. Those three, along with closer Matt Capps, often are described within the front office as the Pirates' "big four."
"I think most of us realize that locking up Nate, Doumit and Paul, that was the biggest thing," Wilson said. "And signing Pedro. That was huge, too. That showed us something."
That was a reference to the drafting and $6.355 million signing of first-round pick Pedro Alvarez.
"They went out and spent money on Pedro, who looks like a superstar," second baseman Freddy Sanchez said. "Just his presence around here this spring was huge for us, I think. Would they have picked Pedro in the past? Look at the young talent that's here now."
Alvarez, Morris and elite outfield prospect Jose Tabata, added in the Bay/Nady trades, joined outfielder Andrew McCutchen and pitcher Brad Lincoln in the highly promising category. And those three and nearly everyone else will belong to the Pirates into the distant future, with the team controlling the rights to all but four players on their 40-man roster into 2011 or beyond.
"I don't think a lot of us have ever really felt like we're the core, like we're the group, until now when you can see what's coming," Capps said. "It lets you know -- especially those of us who have been in the organization a while -- that there's finally a direction."
And yet, rather than describing this as a window -- a term often cited by previous management -- it is seen as nothing more than part of the process.
"We're trying to build something sustainable," Coonelly said. "I know some took those trades as if we just made it even longer until we're going to have a winner. Well, we made those trades because we believed they will accelerate the winning. People ask me how we can win in Pittsburgh without premier talent. You can't win without premier talent. And we need a lot of it."
"We believe in what we're doing," Huntington said. "We understand that's going to lead to some fan dissatisfaction. They know the players they see. They're comfortable with them. But we want to give them a great team, a lot of players they like."
In theory, there could be a lot of games they like, too, not just one amid a long summer.
"We recognize that we're going to be judged by results," Huntington said. "But winning is a result. We preach to our players, whether they're 18 or 34, that we all need to focus on the process. If we take care of the process and do each one correctly, redo the ones we do incorrectly, the result will take care of itself."