In 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates set a Major League baseball record for the worst finish by a team that was in 1st place in their Division as late in the season as they were. The club finished 72-90, for their 19th straight losing season.
Here in 2012, the Pittsburgh Pirates set another Major League record, becoming the first club in history to finish below .500, after being 16 or more games above .500 at one point during the season. The club finished 79-83 for their 20th straight losing season- once again besting their own record for most consecutive losing seasons by a franchise in North American sports history. (Like 2011, the Pirates would’ve made the playoffs and lifted the losing seasons’ yoke had they simply played .500 baseball down the home stretch of the season.)
That’s 3 colossal records that no franchise should want any part of…and yet the Pirates own all 3. Given such catastrophic season endings, long-suffering Pirates’ fans should’ve seen HUGE changes this offseason, right? There’s no way that the people responsible for these marks could all still have their positions, right?
According to the Pirates, there are no need for changes, and all decision makers have been retained. So since the Pirates themselves won’t hold anyone accountable, we’re going to take a look here at who should be accountable for these disastrous seasons in Parts 1 and 2. Then in Part 3, we’ll rank our results! Here are the major players in the Pirates’ organization, in no particular order. Objectively, we’ll try to give both positives and negatives for each person, at least the best that we can.
Bob Nutting, Owner
The Good: Like Kevin McClatchey before him, Nutting maintained his desire to keep the Pirates in Pittsburgh. While Pirates’ fans have many worries, losing the team to Las Vegas is not one of them. Nutting has become more visible in the media since assuming majority ownership of the team, and at least claims payroll will increase at some indefinite point in the future. He has also doled out MLB records for draft spending, showing that Nutting understands the importance of investing in high-ceiling draft picks.
The Bad: Under Nutting (and McClatchey before him), in any given season, the Pirates still have the lowest or one of the lowest payrolls in all of baseball. This is despite promises of competitive payrolls if the public would finance the majority of building PNC Park- which the public did in the early 2000’s. Further, financial documents have leaked over the years, showing that the Pirates are making huge profits, despite lamenting the apparent financial imbalance of Major League Baseball. The Pirates have usurped MLB’s revenue sharing program by admitting that some of the monies received by more affluent teams are used to pay down the team’s debt, even though that is supposed to be in violation of revenue sharing. At last count, Forbes magazine valued the franchise at $270,000,000, even though the ownership group only paid $30,000,000 for it (assuming $60,000,000 of debt as well).
Despite all of these worrisome traits, Nutting once said that he was “offended” fans would question his commitment to winning.
Frank Coonelly, President
The Good: Before joining the Pirates, Coonelly’s resume included time working for Bud Selig in MLB’s front office. Prior to the hard slotting system implemented in 2012, Coonelly helped initiate recommended draft pick signing levels, intended to make small market clubs more competitive in the June draft (I think it actually did the opposite, but that’s for another time.) At the very least, it is more difficult to directly trace Coonelly to the litany of bad baseball decisions that have hampered the club over the past few seasons.
The Bad: Despite theoretically being the most PR-savvy of the front office, Coonelly has created negative press for the Pirates again and again and again. Unfortunately, he’s established such a negative track record for himself that Coonelly’s lost credibility in the eyes of most dedicated Pirates’ fans. And in the rare times that Coonelly is directly involved in baseball-related decisions, they tend to backfire badly. The short list includes the Pedro Alvarez negotiations with Scott Boras- in which the Pirates would’ve lost Alvarez, had MLB not given them a special signing extension- the botched Miguel Sano negotiations, and missing out on #1 draft pick Mark Appel here in 2012. Finally, while Coonelly may not have had a direct hand in the nationally embarrassing, ill-timed Navy Seal minor league development drills, one could assume he would have to give the exercises his stamp of approval, or could at least have the power to stop the drills, if he assumed they were a poor decision.
Neal Huntington, General Manager
The Good: Huntington has avoided saddling the Pirates with payroll-crippling contracts for underperforming players, and has kept much of the roster liquid from year to year. He has gradually improved at building a bullpen, and for a time, his 2012 club was one of the best stories in all of baseball. Huntington made noteable draft selections of Alvarez, Jameson Taillon, and Gerrit Cole, and traded for pitchers James McDonald and fan-favorite A.J. Burnett. Over Huntington’s career, a core group of players has gradually taken shape, although it should be noted that two of the best of that group- CF Andrew McCutchen and 2B Neil Walker- were acquired by predecessor GM Dave Littlefield.
The Bad: To his credit, Huntington is constantly hampered by some of the lowest payrolls in the league. Yet despite all of his talk about wise allocation of resources, he routinely blows $10,000,000-$15,000,000 in any given offseason on a multitude of terrible, aging veterans, whose best years are well behind them. While none of these contracts have been “crippling”, many have been multi-year deals, forcing the Pirates into playing these underperformers, as seen with SS Clint Barmes and C Rod Barajas in 2012. The money would be much better spent towards 1 above-average player, as opposed to 3-4 well below average ones, yet Huntington continues to make the same mistakes year after year.
Huntington has made terrible trades during his tenure, including the giveaway of OF Jose Bautista, who went on to become one of the best hitters in the game. Despite fawning praise from fans and the media, his overall draft record is woeful. Despite picking at or near the top of the draft in every year of his tenure, Huntington has little to show development wise outside of the 3 aforementioned farmhands, and noteable international signings like Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, and Luis Heredia.
Finally, unlike former GM Littlefield who, despite being one of the worst GMs in history, did hold himself accountable to a timeframe, Huntington does no such thing. Like both Nutting and Coonelly, Huntington’s interviews are filled with vague references to some future time when the Pirates are well-funded and competitive; it’s as if daring to give an actual year would prove Huntington’s failings, even though his track record is already speaking for itself.
Huntington’s clubs still have a worse cumulative W/L record than those of Dave Littlefield, who was fired in 2007.
Thanks for reading. In part 2, we’ll examine the good and bad of Assistant GM Kyle Stark, Manager Clint Hurdle, and the Pirates’ players themselves. Finally, in part 3, we’ll rank them from most influential to least!