Building Blocks: Nutting's overhaul marked year of change
It was a year ago this week that Bob Nutting, in an introductory interview as he became the Pirates' principal owner, famously took umbrage at those who questioned his desire to win, calling it "completely inappropriate."
Much has changed since then, it would appear.
For one, Nutting instigated a sweeping overhaul of management, including a new team president, general manager, scouting director, director of player development, manager and an all-new coaching staff.
The Post-Gazette's five-part series on the Pirates' bid to reshape the franchise will run each Wednesday until the start of spring training:Jan. 16: Dismantling
Bob Nutting's first year as principal owner brought a complete overhaul of management. But will the team spend more?
Jan. 23: Scouting
Greg Smith, the scouting director, and Rene Gayo, the Latin American specialist, aim to expand efforts to find amateur talent.
Jan. 30: Teaching
Manager John Russell's style of baseball will be taught at all levels of the organization, and Kyle Stark, the director of player development, is charged with creating "cohesiveness."
Feb. 6: Changing
What exactly does team president Frank Coonelly mean when he calls for "changing the culture" of the Pirates?
Feb. 13: Winning
Ultimately, the goal is contending at the major-league level. How long will it take general manager Neal Huntington to put together that type of team?
For another, as he made clear in an hourlong interview yesterday at PNC Park, he no longer is taking umbrage with anyone.
"I recognize that it's probably fair and appropriate that our fans will always wonder about either our commitment or our competence until we actually get the team on the field to execute," Nutting said. "I'm willing to accept that, whatever I say ... it's only words. The proof is going to come through winning baseball games."
"But I also hope that people will look at the amount of change we've gone through over the past year, at the foundation we've built, at the excitement about our future, and that people can begin to believe how deeply committed everyone in the organization is to getting this thing on the right track."
In many of the most palpable ways, though, little has changed about the Pirates since Major League Baseball approved Nutting's takeover Jan. 18, 2007: The team would go 68-94 in his first summer at the helm, marking a 15th consecutive losing season. To boot, the roster for 2008 is essentially the same as the one for 2007, and the payroll will remain in the range of $50 million, third-lowest in the majors.
Still, Nutting describes the past 12 months as being "remarkable," adding that he is "incredibly pleased with what we've done."
Without a doubt, that is because his focus is almost exclusively on the building of the franchise from the bottom up.
"The way I see it, we're putting into place a foundation, just getting started. Our goal is to deliver a team that Pittsburgh can be proud of, and I have faith these guys are going to get it done."
Nutting's overhaul, which he described in detail for the first time, began early last year with an examination of the team's management practices. Without evaluating decisions or outcomes, he simply observed behavior from department to department.
"I was looking at the structure of the organization. I have a decent understanding of how that works from my experience in business."
What he did not like, almost immediately, was what he saw as a lack of cohesiveness.
"You need a group that communicates, respects and understands what all the departments are doing. Everyone needs to be together. It's the same thing that makes any business function well."
Evaluating the baseball end was more complicated, as Nutting had no background in the game before joining ownership and would need help, given that he could not expect objective answers internally. So, he turned to a wide array of other teams' senior executives, as well as some at MLB headquarters in New York, to seek their impressions of the Pirates.
"So many people were extremely helpful," Nutting said. "They had the benefit of seeing, over time, a lot of mistakes that were made and some that were getting repeated."
It was through those conversations, primarily, that he made up his mind to build internally.
He flew to the Dominican Republic in late May and was disappointed enough by the team's academy there that he pledged to build a new one. That plan has been set in motion, with a projected cost of $4 million-$5 million. He also was robustly displeased with the state of the team's scouting, particularly upon finding out that the team lacked a presence in some of the United States' most fertile talent pools such as Georgia and California.
"It was broadly recognized that we were lacking in an inflow of talent," Nutting said.
Kevin McClatchy, the previous principal owner who remained CEO even after Nutting's takeover, announced his resignation in July.
Dave Littlefield, the general manager since 2001, was fired in September.
And, again performing almost completely alone, Nutting conducted the search for McClatchy's replacement and hired Frank Coonelly, lead counsel at MLB headquarters, to be team president. Coonelly and his choice as general manager, Neal Huntington, took it from there.
"It was the first opportunity I had to take a deep look inside the organization, and it came with a really steep learning curve," Nutting said. "What became clear was that we did need leadership change and a new focus on accountability."
Accountability begins at the top, of course, which is why Nutting yesterday was asked:
• How he felt about the roster remaining virtually unchanged this offseason: "Yes, we have a lot of the same players back, but those are some of the same players a lot of people were extremely excited about at this time last year. No one questions that the team underperformed last year. It's easy to go back and second-guess why that happened. Some of it was leadership, the culture and individual performance. But the net result was that we did not perform up to our talent level."
• Why things should be different in 2008: "The organization those players are playing in is much different today than it was then. Having the same players doesn't give me any indication that we're headed for the same result. If I didn't have faith that this team could live up to its potential, you wouldn't see us doing it."
• If the players do their part and contend, whether the Pirates would make a move during the season to upgrade the roster: "I'm not going to try to make baseball decisions, but I'll be there if we need to supplement, if we need to pull in that extra piece or two. There's no question we're in a position to take advantage of that opportunity, and we'll do it."
• How he would feel if management traded away a key player for prospects: "If they see a great opportunity on a transaction where a player can be moved to strengthen the long-term franchise, they know they have that flexibility."
• If the Pirates will ever spend up to the level of the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds, teams with similar revenue streams but payrolls that will be $20 million-$25 million higher in 2008: "When the pieces are lined up for us to contend, it's my responsibility to make sure we can take advantage of it. The answer is yes. We're not going to have any artificial barrier where we can't ever be competitive. The Brewers are a great example. They supplemented only after they had the foundation built. They didn't do it three years ago. They did it last year. It's a very rational, orderly approach, and it's one I'm very comfortable with."
In that introductory interview a year ago, Nutting often seemed defensive and uptight. There was nothing of the sort yesterday. He was cool, calm and sounded immaculately confident.
"I feel very, very good about what we're doing and where we're headed," he said. "And I can tell you this: I feel more committed than ever because I've been more involved. I see the potential. I see how close we can be. Nobody wants to see this team win more than I do. We have great, passionate fans. But nobody wants to see that more than I do."
First Published January 16, 2008 12:00 am