Management holds Q-and-A hour
Pirates management — president Frank Coonelly, manager John Russell and general manager Neal Huntington — just answered a variety of questions at the PirateFest Q-and-A session, which is always one of the most anticipated events at the yearly baseball carnival. Before getting to the highlights, here’s a few things to keep in mind.
Note No. 1: I can only type so fast, so I promise that the transcription of this Q-and-A is 87 percent word-for-word. I tried to furiously type as questions were being asked/answered, but I can only be so quick.
Note No. 2: For those of you who plan on attending Saturday’s session and asking something, please keep the questions short. I’m sure you have vast baseball knowledge or want to make sure your point is heard or want to sound smarter than the next person, but when a question becomes a dissertation, no one follows you. Just saying…
Note No. 3: I paraphrased the questions. Thank me later. And not every question was able to make it in here. Please forgive me.
Why will results change in 2010?
Russell: A lot of the guys last year, even though they had very good individual seasons, they were trying to establish themselves as Major League players. Unfortunately, that’s not really conducive to team baseball. Now the players are really looking forward to playing as a team.
What capital improvements have been made to improve this team?
Coonelly: There are two types of investments you make in a ballclub – operating expenses and long-term investments. The new facility in Bradenton was a huge capital investment. Then we moved to the Dominican Republic where we were renting one sub-standard field and built one of the best academies in the Dominican Republic. That really gives us a competitive advantage in Latin America. Recently, we purchased a Class A team in Sarasota and moved it to Bradenton. That keeps them right in the hub of all our baseball activity. We have made virtually all of our major investments on the baseball operations side because we knew that’s where we had to improve this organization to return to a championship-caliber organization.
Will there ever be a salary cap?
Coonelly: We still have to ask for patience because the only way to build this the right way is to build from within. The good news is we’re two years into it and we’re getting there. In terms of will we stand up to the large-market clubs? It really isn’t a question of an inability or unwillingness to stand up to large market clubs. The rest of the industry is on our side that it would benefit us all that there were some payroll regulation. Our issues is it’s a subject of collective bargaining. The Pirates are certainly pushing internally for changes in collective bargaining [which expires at end of 2011 season]. In the meantime, we have to win under this system. It’s tougher. You have to be more creative. You might not be able to make the mistakes other clubs do, but it can be done.
How did you not sign Miguel Sano?
Coonelly: We were disappointed that we didn’t sign Miguel Sano. Miguel is a 16 1/2 year baseball player, however. It’s no sure thing that he’s going to be an impact player. The Pirates weren’t putting out that we were interested in Miguel Sano. That was the local press. We did really like Miguel and did really want to sign him. The good news is that we were in the game for the first time. We were never in the game for a player who was looking for $250,00 out of Latin America before. We were in the game, but this may be the one time where we were overly aggressive. We wanted the player too much. We moved too quickly. Normally if you wait until July 5 to sign the player you want to sign, he’s already signed. [Signing period begins on July 2]. We wanted to get the player signed immediately and we were aggressive. We understand the importance of Latin America. We will continue to be in the game.
Huntington: I didn’t get it done, quite simply. I relied on the agent to live on his word, which was that he would come back to us after another offer was made. We were the only team that made an offer to him on July 2. We were told he wasn’t ready to sign and that the agent would come back to us when he was ready to sign. We were told that when other issues were resolved, he would be ready to negotiate. We made another aggressive offer, bidding against ourselves. Once again, the agent said we’re not ready to negotiate. We never got a chance to offer our highest bid.
What to do if there’s a logjam at third base?
Huntington: We may make a position change. We may trade players. As we sit here right now, we have one Major League third baseman and that’s Andy LaRoche. As we plan for the future, sure we have ideas about what we’d like to do. But to move a player just because we think somebody is coming isn’t smart. It’s a great sign for the organization when you have too much depth and you have to trade a player. We’ll put contingency plans in place for when we have more than one Major League third baseman.
What challenges could it bring if Pedro Alvarez comes up mid-season?
Russell: It’s a good problem to have. Basically, that’s what we’re striving for. You want quality players, quality depth. You can’t look that far ahead because baseball is a funny game. Pedro is obviously a great player. If he does come here, at this point, we’ll make a decision. As a manager, those are fun decisions to make because I’ll have two quality players.
Can we begin to evaluate some of the recent trades and who among those players is closest to making a significant contribution?
Huntington: The true evaluation on those trades will take years. Statistically, we can project all we want on these players, but to predict the human element is almost impossible. We’ve gone through a talent accumulation mode. It’s my job to give John Russell and our Major League staff a better group of players. We need to give them better players.
Why did you commit money to free agents this offseason if you’re still projected to have a losing season?
Huntington: Closers get paid based on saves in the arbitration process. We tried to retain Matt Capps. We weren’t able to come to an agreement that we thought was fair. We have contractual control for the same amount of years with Octavio Dotel as we do with Capps. If Octavio Dotel and Matt Capps have similar years, Dotel will cost us less money next year than Capps would have. Brendan Donnelly is going to help us shorten a baseball game and help us off the field. In Ryan Church’s case, Ryan gives us insurance that is better than what we had in our minds. The [$5 million] dollars invested in real-world dollars a ton of money. In baseball terms, they are very small investments. It didn’t take away our ability to invest in other players. Those moves were done because we felt like it gave us a better team on the field.
Coonelly: We think that this young core is going to come together. We’re not calling it 70 wins and let’s be done. We want to give them a chance to succeed. We need these young guys to know that these games are going to be closed out at the end. We want to give manager Russell a chance to win these games.
Did you consider getting a veteran starter this offseason?
Huntington: We talked about Jon Garland, Vicente Padilla, Braden Looper. But when we talked about what they would bring and what we had internally, we felt like it was a better investment to give those innings to the winner of the Kevin Hart – Daniel McCutchen battle in Spring Training to let them develop. It’s always a balance between the present and the future. We felt it was a better use of our innings to let these guys develop.
Who is in competition for fifth rotation spot?
Russell: We feel good about our rotation. Charlie Morton in my opinion, he’s going to be fun to watch. This guy’s got tremendous stuff. In my opinion, we’re looking for a fifth starter to step up. We have Kevin Hart, who is a fierce competitor and is going to do everything he can. We have Daniel McCutchen. We have depth. We’ve got guys who can come up and help us win games. We’re very excited about our rotation.
It seems that there was a lack of plate discipline last year. Are you doing anything to cut down on strike outs and make more productive outs?
Russell: I think our plate discipline has improved since we first got here. When you have young players, plate discipline is going to change a little bit. It takes time. It’s tough to really change a guy in a short period of time. If he’s a 20 percent strikeout guy in the Minor Leagues, he’s a 20 percent strikeout guy in the Majors. Yes, you can change that. But it takes some time. I do think our guys have done a better job. We can do it. With young players, maintaining it is sometimes more difficult than we may like.
Huntington: Church and Iwamura are both players that are tough outs. Part of it is bringing in players with a proven track record. In the Minors, it’s selective aggressiveness. A walk is a result, not a goal. We’re not going up looking for a walk. We’re going up looking for our pitch to drive. If we don’t get it, we have to learn to lay off.
Why not get someone for Matt Capps instead of letting him go?
Huntington: In Matt’s case, it was a tough one. His highest value was when we came aboard at the end of 2007. We had an opportunity to essentially trade him for a warm body [early in 2009] and chose to hold him because we figured he would bounce back in the second half. He didn’t have much of a value at the trade deadline. When we realized we weren’t going to be able to come to an agreement, we did make an effort to trade him. No one wanted to risk paying him and give something up for him. No team is going to give up a prospect and pay him that.
Will the organization eventually overpay for talent to keep them in Pittsburgh?
Coonelly: I’m more likely to overpay than Neal. Are we likely to overpay for talent? No. You shouldn’t want us to overpay because every million we overpay player A is not available to us for Player B, C, and D. You should want a smart management team that puts together it’s team most effectively and efficiently. I object to overpaying. I don’t object to a plan of keeping your core players in the organization as long as you can. You should want us to be a smart management team that isn’t throwing away money on one player.
Huntington: What’s exciting about 2010 and beyond is that you hear the optimism, you hear the excitement about the bonds being formed because for the first time in a while, these guys feel like they’re going to be around here for a while. We need to build around this group of players. The reality is that no team keeps all of its player. Baseball has become roster turnover. It’s important to keep your core together, and we’re going to do everything we can to keep players in Pittsburgh that want to stay in Pittsburgh. To overpay, we’re not going to overpay. But are we going to be aggressive to keep players in Pittsburgh? Absolutely.
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