Kovacevic: Nutting correct to seek answers

Pirates owner Bob Nutting on the field at PNC Park before the Pirates faced the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011, at PNC Park. (AP)
Pirates owner Bob Nutting on the field at PNC Park before the Pirates faced the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011, at PNC Park. (AP)
| Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, 11:36 p.m.

On Sept. 7, 2007, Bob Nutting fired Dave Littlefield after five failed seasons as the Pirates' general manager. But he didn't make that call rolling out of bed. He'd spent months asking questions of people inside and outside the organization. He even dragged Littlefield by the ear to Latin America to explain the mess he'd made of operations there.

If you think Nutting isn't asking similar questions now, amid a second consecutive epic collapse, trust me that you're mistaken.

He absolutely is.

Right now.

But let's start with this: Contrary to all the caricatures of Nutting out there, the man is an intensely involved — though hardly interfering — owner. He's at the PNC Park offices more often than not. He's at most home games, plus several on the road and others involving the minor-league affiliates.

Put another way, he's no more or less involved than Art Rooney II or Mario Lemieux.

Nutting doesn't spend as much money as fans would like. But the notion that he doesn't care, based on my firsthand impressions, is flat-out false.

He does care.

He doesn't like what he sees.

And I won't be surprised in the slightest if he takes action once this season ends.

Here are the three main issues being examined, from the best of what I'm able to discern:

1. The draft

No, not the collapse itself, but its likely underpinning.

The Pirates have gotten rave reviews for the major league-high $52 million they've poured into the draft the past five years under Neal Huntington and scouting director Greg Smith. But what seldom gets raised is how little has been reaped.

Yes, Pedro Alvarez is moving toward expectations, and Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are elite pitching prospects. But all three were taken among the top two overall choices, and each cost more than $6 million to sign. Those are called can't-miss picks for a reason.

But where are the rest?

Where's Tony Sanchez, No. 4 overall in 2009?

He was undeservedly promoted to Triple-A this year, then batted .233 with no pop. He's 24.

Where are the picks from rounds 2-5?

Top performer out of that group to date: Jordy Mercer.

Where are all those seven-figure late-rounders?

I sought input from Jim Callis, editor of Baseball America and the sport's preeminent draft expert, about the Pirates' five-year draft output. (Latin America is separate.) He called the core of Cole, Taillon and a couple others “very good,” then added, “Considering they outspent everyone on draft bonuses during the five-year life of the previous labor agreement, you'd hope they'd have more depth or big-league contributions.”

Yes, you would.

Don't underestimate how much this means to the owner.

2. The development

It takes neither a trained baseball eye nor advanced metrics to see that the Pirates' prospects have lacked in fundamentals under Huntington and farm director Kyle Stark. We've seen it for five years, and I've heard complaints about it from major league coaches just as long.

From slide-steps to stealing to bunting to baserunning to strike-zone recognition, these players have arrived in Pittsburgh glaringly unprepared.

I could fill the sports section with examples, or I could simply share what a farm director for another National League team told me Tuesday: “What the Pirates are doing down there is deplorable.”

That sentiment is echoed broadly across the industry.

3. The free agents

However sharp Nutting's baseball acumen might be, few would dispute his knowledge of running a business. And throwing away $15.25 million last winter on Erik Bedard, Nate McLouth, Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas isn't the kind of thing he'll miss. Or appreciate.

And don't make me bring up Aki Iwamura, Ramon Vazquez, Ryan Church, Eric Hinske, Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz …

A team such as the Pirates simply can't afford to flush away a quarter of the payroll.

What will Nutting do about it all?

This is what he told Trib Total Media last weekend about front-office job security: “My approach has always been to fully support the team we have in place, and when it's time to make a change, we make a change.”

It's genuinely too early to predict such change. It's crazy, but even after these miserable two months, the Pirates remain one winning streak away from transforming 2012 into a triumph.

At the same time, I don't see Nutting analyzing it like that. It's not his style. The collapse is a symptom. He'll seek causes.

I believe Frank Coonelly and Clint Hurdle will be retained, though both have questions of their own to answer. Coonelly has done well on the business end, his main focus, but maybe it's time to relinquish the baseball end. Hurdle is the unique personality who has twice guided the team to rare heights, but he'll have to make the case he can avert a third collapse.

Huntington, Smith and Stark should face the hardest questions, based on all of the above.

Among those: What did Smith and Stark do to earn promotions to assistant GM last winter?

The answers better be good.

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