Meeting the Pittsburgh Pirates’ President

Image credit nj.com

When I heard Pirates’ President Frank Coonelly would be in attendance at a recent Pirates’ Winter Caravan stop, I knew I couldn’t miss it.  I was probably the only fan braving the blizzard-like conditions that evening just to see him.  While others probably envisioned an autograph from Garrett Jones or handshake from Jose Tabata, I thought about meeting a guy in a suit and talking financials.

*$%&#!

As I crested the hill to Dick’s Sporting Goods- that night’s Caravan stop- I couldn’t believe what I saw.  Only days before a Steelers’ Super Bowl.  The Pirates with eighteen straight losing seasons.  Complete blizzard whiteout conditions.  Every other parking lot in the strip mall was deserted, yet Dick’s had at least 70 cars.  And I was early.  Even though I knew the better part of my evening would be spent waiting in line, I couldn’t help but marvel at the dedication of Pirates’ fans.  We’re hungry for a winner.

My hopes sank when I entered the store, as I saw new first base coach Luis Silverio sitting where I expected Frank Coonelly to be.  Ready to leave, I asked a passing cameraman if Coonelly made the trip.

“Sure- he’s at the back of the line signing autographs.”

Yessssssss.

Image credit espn.com

As I approached the Pirates’ President, I didn’t have any delusions of tripping him up with some Perry Masonesque cross-examination.  I knew Frank Coonelly would have good answers for everything I asked, because he’s heard them all before, and you don’t earn his position without having suave people skillz.  (<– “z” implying extra skill)

To be brief, Mr. Coonelly gave me a good 10 uninterrupted minutes of his time.  His answers were fairly direct, and although some people think he’s a bit of a BS’er, I didn’t see it.  Rather, I think he’s just very good at taking any question and relating it to something positive the Pirates have done.  Which is a feat in itself, all things considered.

Only one answer surprised me.  I asked him why GM Neal Huntington spent the offseason acquiring more veteran stop gaps, when Huntington previously stated the Pirates would no longer be doing so.  Coonelly mentioned “bridging the gap” between now and when future prospects arrive, and that Lyle Overbay in particular “only cost five million.”

Only five million.

…Now in fairness, I wasn’t writing for iSports at the time.  Perhaps if I had been, Mr. Coonelly would’ve answered some questions differently.  But I thought the perspective of “only five million” dollars was very poignant for a rebuilding team like the Pirates.  Consider this:

 

1.  Lyle Overbay will be 34 next season.  He has failed to post even an .800 OPS (minimal production out of an MLB first basemen) in 3 of the past 4 seasons.

2.  He primarily replaces Garrett Jones, who is 4 years younger, has a career OPS only 24 points lower than Overbay, and only made $425,000 last year.  Jones may not be starting first base material, but at this point in his career, Overbay may not be either.

3.  Huntington also signed OF Matt Diaz, who will make $2.55MM each of the next 2 years.  Diaz will be 33 this season, and posted a .739 OPS- including a questionable .302 OBP- with Atlanta in a part time role last year.

4.  The Pirates non-tendered Lastings Milledge to make room for Diaz.  Milledge will only be 26 this season- 7 years younger than Diaz- and although he may never reach his once vaunted potential, still posted an On Base Percentage 30 points higher than Diaz in 2010.

Image credit baseballanalysts.com

5.  A week or so after non-tendering Milledge, GM Neal Huntington spoke of the importance of the Pirates starting to use platoons…apparently forgetting that Milledge had a .926 OPS against lefties last year, making him a potentially perfect platoon partner.

6.  Now here is where it becomes troubling for me.  In the 2008 draft, the Pirates surprised a lot of people when they drafted highly-touted pitcher Tanner Scheppers in the second round.  It was considered a steal of a pick by Huntington, provided the Pirates could sign him.  They failed to seal the deal, rumored to have drawn the financial line somewhere between $500,000-$750,000 lower than what Scheppers’ agent was asking.

7.  The Rangers drafted Scheppers in the 1st round the following year, and in 2010, Scheppers was ranked the 42nd best prospect in baseball by Baseball America. It’s debated whether Scheppers will remain a starting pitcher in the Majors (versus a move to the bullpen), but the Pirates still missed out on one of the top 50 prospects in baseball for only 10-15% of what they will be paying 34-year old Lyle Overbay this year.

Image credit DiarioLibre.com

8.  In September of 2009, the Pirates blew a golden opportunity to sign Dominican phenom shortstop Miguel Sano.  Sano had a strong interest in being a Pirate, and the Pirates’ $1.8-2MM offer was the only one on the table.  But there it stayed, with Sano’s agent- Rob Plummer- wanting slightly more.

“Up your offer to lock him in before another team gets involved!” I yelled in vain at my computer for days.

Sure enough, the Twins did come calling.  And after an embarrassing gaffe in which the Pirates were caught trying to cuckold Sano’s agent and negotiate directly with the family, his camp refused further offers from the Pirates.  He signed with the Twins for $3.15MM, while the Pirates were rumored to top out around $2.5MM.  So for only $750,000- or about 30% the price of 33 year old Matt Diaz- the Pirates missed out on a player that debuted at #60 on Baseball America’s 2011 Top 100 Prospect List.

 

What continues to crush the Pirates year after year is trying to serve two masters: rebuilding and competing. If they aren’t going to spend the money to bring in impact free agents, fine.  But it would behoove them to put those savings towards impact prospects in the draft, and international signings.  Neither Lyle Overbay nor Matt Diaz will be a Pirate when the team finally begins to compete, and neither player is good enough to single-handedly draw fans to games while they are here.  If that is a “bridge”, it’s not very structurally sound.

The Pirates seem to have partially realized the error in their ways, stepping up their efforts to land Mexican SP Luis Heredia, and promising young arms Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie in the 2010 June Amateur Draft.  Still, the system would be so much stronger with Scheppers and Sano also in the mix.  And for only $1.5MM or so combined, the Pirates could have had them.

It’s just a shame that the “only five million” perspective wasn’t in place then.