By Jim Sankey
Allied News Baseball Columnist
THE REACTION was far from positive when Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting announced he would keep top management — president Frank Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington, assistant GMs Kyle Stark (director of player development) and Greg Smith (director of scouting) and Larry Broadway (farm director).
Huntington’s free agent signings have mostly been busts; Stark’s Navy SEALS-like unconventional training methods have brought more injuries than success; Smith’s scouting has been suspect; Broadway is a first-year farm director who never before held any baseball instructional position at any level, and Coonelly is the one who hired and backed the others.
This year the Pirates challenged through Aug. 6, when they were 16 games over .500, but for a second consecutive year plummeted, going 20 games under .500 after early August.
This column was one of the many outlets that called for Nutting to nix this leadership team, based on their five years’ record that produced fewer wins than did the vilified Dave Littlefield era.
So why did Nutting keep those men in place?
Despite the instant replay of last year’s free-fall, Nutting found enough positives to return the five.
At the top of the list comes the fact that the Pirates had their most successful season since 1992, the Bucs improved 22 games from 2010, fans poured into PNC Park at a rate surpassed only once in team history, and tv ratings improved by one third.
"We clearly have a number of things in the organization that have gone right," Nutting told a group of reporters last week. "It’s taken me a month…to recognize that last year was still the best season that we've had for 20 years and we didn't get there by accident.
“We will not ever, nor should we ever, fall back on scapegoats,” Nutting added. “I will continue to be willing to make changes in personnel when appropriate and necessary. But in anger at the end of a season is the wrong time to judge someone’s body of work and make decisions.
“We considered all kinds of alternatives,” he continued. “At the end of the day, the progress that the organization has made—when you look at the seven game improvement last year, more than 20 game improvement over two years, the rankings of the development system—we do have a much stronger organization than we did."
TV ratings were up, according to Root Sports, whose average rating for local Pirates telecasts was up 32.3 percent. The Bucs were fourth among the 29 regional sports networks carrying Major League Baseball games. The Sports Business Daily said Pirates’ telecasts averaged 6.52, trailing only local broadcasts of the Detroit Tigers (9.13), Cincinnati Reds (8.64), and St. Louis Cardinals (7.68), all of whom qualified for post-season play.
However, Nutting made it clear that changes would be made, starting with the SEALs-style practices that have been almost universally ridiculed by everyone, including some who are organization employees.
“Our primary focus is to develop baseball players to play championship baseball,” Nutting said. “That’s the job of our development system. We are not a paramilitary organization. We should not be running a boot camp. We should be focusing on baseball drills.”
Not only did Nutting put an end to the fraternity-like hazing, but he also added the experienced, respected Bill Livesey as a senior advisor to Huntington.
Livesey most recently worked as a scout with the New York Yankees (2008-2011) after previously having spent 18 years with the Bronx Bombers (1978-1995), involved in all phases of player development and scouting. From 1992-1995, he was vice president of player development and scouting for the Yankees. He also saw time with the Mets, Rays, and Jays.
In addressing two weak links in the Pirates chain of command, Nutting feels that he has altered what he caused the Pirates to fall apart the last two seasons without dismantling the progress. Adding better players will help.
Time will tell if his judgment was sound.
Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for Allied News.