THE PIRATES had earned the National League’s worst record by losing 10 in row in June 2010 when FoxSports.com forced the team to acknowledge the accuracy of a report that manager John Russell and Neal Huntington had received one year contract extensions the previous October from team president Frank Coonelly, who instructed the men to keep mum about the deal.
In admitting to the deal, Coonelly added that a contract extension wouldn’t “…change the decision we make as to whether they are performing up to expectations. If we conclude someone is not, that person will no longer be with the organization,” Coonelly told the media, “even if that means we have to eat a year or two of their contact.”
That statement should serve owner Bob Nutting as motivation for axing Coonelly and Huntington, along with assistant GMs Kyle Stark and Greg Smith and farm director Larry Broadway.
Granted, this requires action from the man who no doubt regrets once calling Coonelly and Huntington “the single best management team in all of baseball, maybe in all of sports.”
Before the 2012 season ended, Coonelly indicated that upper management would return in 2013, despite having a worse five-year winning percentage than that of the Dave Littlefield era.
Reportedly Nutting was “extremely angry” about the Bucs’ two consecutive late-season collapses.
“It’s obvious the status quo is not an acceptable option,” Nutting told Tribune-Review writer Dejan Kovacevic in late September and that he’d undertake a no-job-is-safe organizational review.
“Clearly, the management team needs to make changes in certain areas,” Nutting said.
Stark has been vilified throughout the sports world for his Navy Seals-like unconventional training methods from blasting minor leaguers with water after 5 a.m. wakeup calls to hand-to-hand combat in which, according to two sources, top prospect Jameson Taillon once suffered a knee injury.
Gregory Polanco, one of the Pirates’ top five prospects, recently re-injured a sprained ankle that had cost him his final month of regular-season play. It happened during a drill in which Polanco had to sprint across the outfield, run through an above-ground pool of ice water, then leap into a sand pit.
The highly-respected Kovacevic wrote this about SEALs type exercises: “I continue to hear from prospects worried about injury (some among the team’s most expensive draft picks), from parents who wish their sons had never signed with the Pirates, from angry agents, even from men who answer to Stark and Huntington.
I’ll repeat: The Pirates’ development system is the laughingstock of baseball.”
Although naturally supported by the Acumen Performance Group which conducted the initial training, ESPN Insider Keith Law is one of many national writers critical of the Bucs’ “development” methods.
“It wouldn't have occurred if anyone else were the GM,” Law wrote.” I've spoken to senior execs from multiple other clubs, and not only did they all say they've never even considered this kind of 'training' exercise; they all offered derisive comments about what the Pirates are doing. Assuming the Pirates do make a GM change as a result of this, I would expect player development to be cleaned out. You need a fresh start to re-establish credibility within the industry and with your own players that we're not going to put you at risk or treat you in such a demeaning fashion any more.”
Huntington spent $15.4 million last winter to sign free agents Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes, Erik Bedard, and Nate McLouth—typical of his free agent signings. Broadway never held any instructional position at any level of baseball before this past season. And first-year assistant GM Smith has been in charge of developing players, whose only impact player has been Pedro Alvarez, despite the Bucs’ opportunities to select among the top few players each year.
It would appear that something is going to happen: Although the Bucs knew months ago that coach Gregg Ritchie was leaving, nothing has been done.
The Pirates can’t afford to wait any longer. It’s time—passed time—for Nutting to act.
Jim Sankey is a baseball columnist for Allied News.