Kovacevic: The Streak must end right here
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They can do better.
Those four words stuck in my mind at 4:41 p.m. Sunday, as Starling Marte hacked through high heat from Aroldis Chapman, sealed a 4-3 loss to the Reds and — amazingly, astonishingly, after being 16 games over .500 just two months ago — brought the once-proud Pittsburgh Baseball Club's 20th consecutive losing season.
And a second consecutive collapse, now that the biggest post-July free fall in Major League Baseball history is clinched.
Congrats all around.
Yeah, they can do better. If only because there is no worse.
And maybe that — not whether people deserve to be fired — should be Bob Nutting's foundation for his looming investigation into all aspects of the team's operations:
Could anyone do better?
It's unimaginable that the answer would be no.
The front office of Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington, Kyle Stark and Greg Smith has achieved precious little in five-plus years. Results are results: Dave Littlefield's last team in 2007 won 68 games, and this team has won 77, along with the infamous 82 in the loss column.
That's five years to generate a nine-game improvement.
Coonelly and Huntington will point to year-over-year records, but sorry, no credit for digging out of self-made holes.
It's easy to paint the current minor league system as being dramatically better than the one they inherited — Littlefield had many flaws, and they were great — but again, results are results: Littlefield's system passed along the following prospects: Marte, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Nyjer Morgan, Brad Lincoln, Sean Burnett, Steve Pearce, Ronald Belisario, Alex Presley, Tony Watson, Jared Hughes and Kyle McPherson.
Not exactly barren.
It's doubtful the current crop will produce an MVP candidate such as McCutchen as well as other major leaguers ranging from good to serviceable. The pool is just too shallow. To assume it has better potential is to assume Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon will be Cy Young candidates.
Bottom line: It's not enough to hit only on the $5 million-and-up bonus babies. Anyone with a subscription to Baseball America can do that.
They can do better.
And what of Clint Hurdle, a good man and gifted speaker who now has nine losing seasons out of 10 to his résumé?
This is harder to size up. He's been in place just two years and, although he's presided over the valleys, he's done the same with peaks unseen here in two decades.
But here again, maybe Nutting will find in his review — if he connects with what now can generously be described as a roiling clubhouse — that a change here also is necessary. Collapses tend to make for toxic environments, and it's rarely easy to fumigate.
Nutting might find they can do better here, too.
As for the players, this one's the no-brainer: They absolutely can do better, in performance, leadership and everything else. The best ones need to be retained, and the team needs to be aggressive — not timid, like at the trading deadline — in filling holes. And those players, once found, need to work in the most positive possible atmosphere.
That will require big change.
Listen to this quote from Huntington on his radio show eight days ago: “There are a lot of really good baseball people in the industry who feel very differently than our fans do about what we're accomplishing.”
Does that sound like a group open-minded to big change?
One that's so insular, so arrogant in its thinking that the head of baseball operations publicly expresses that the Pirates' fans aren't savvy enough to grasp the nuances of the team's successes?
After five years, all it takes is a copy of the standings, right?
It's sad that this Sunday marked the 40th anniversary of Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit on the same day the franchise clinched a streak that's lasted half that long. But it also was terrific to see widow Vera and sons Roberto Jr. and Luis at PNC Park for a first-class ceremony at — where else? — second base.
A bit earlier, the first words out of Roberto Jr.'s mouth after we shook hands were about The Streak: “It should stop at 20.”
I asked him to elaborate, and he recalled Nutting opening the team's $5 million Dominican academy in early 2008. The Clementes were there, too.
“I remember thinking back then, in four to five years, this team will be competing to get to the playoffs. At least competing ,” Clemente Jr. said. “But Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, Doug Drabek, Andy Van Slyke … that crew was really the last one that competed. After all this time.”
He shook his head.
“My hopes were high this summer, too. I'm a Pirate for life. But it's sad to say, here we are in late September, another year has gone by, and nothing's changed.”
So why does Clemente Jr. think The Streak “should stop at 20?”
He looked me dead in the eye and replied, “Because it can't get to 21. Not that number.”
No, it can't.
The Pirates must do, to borrow Nutting's own words, “everything we can,” and make sure that doesn't happen.
Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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