Kovacevic: Mr. Nutting, who is accountable?
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Friday, September 28, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Updated: Tuesday, February 19, 2013
Let's be clear about one thing: The Pirates don't belong to Bob Nutting.
They belong to Pittsburgh .
The franchise is a civic institution. Just like our museums, the symphony, the opera, even the neighborhood libraries. It's been that way since the Pittsburgh Baseball Club's founding in 1887, and it will be that way well after we've all moved on to extra innings.
Even though Nutting owns 80 percent of the team's equity and essentially controls every vote on the board, he's still just a steward, a caretaker.
But that comes with responsibility. And accountability. There's no one higher on the decision-making chain, no one else who can address a mess that might be the result of those immediately under him.
Because of that, I went directly to Nutting on Thursday with questions about recent events, particularly team president Frank Coonelly's announcement that general manager Neal Huntington and assistants Kyle Stark and Greg Smith would return in 2013.
And here's what I found out: None of those gentlemen is in imminent danger of being fired, but none -- especially the three baseball men under Coonelly -- should be sleeping all that well, either.
I'd heard Nutting has been steamed with all of them over recent weeks, and I heard right from him Thursday that he is anything but done looking into Collapse II and all that might have led to it.
Including the people atop baseball operations.
"I can assure you I will personally look deeply into every aspect of the situation," Nutting told me. "Every area of the organization should, must and will be reviewed, from the approach to the draft, how we develop our players, our evaluation and acquisition of talent through trades or free-agent signings as well as our execution at the major league level."
That cover everybody?
Here's guessing he won't like what he finds.
I'll be blunt: I didn't like any part of Coonelly's statement Wednesday.
For one, it came across as arrogant when he described his top three men as "dedicated and intelligent." That's a hallmark of this management, this attitude that they're reinventing the game, while everyone else -- including the public - is naively hung up on that silly thing called "results."
For another, how could Coonelly or anyone associated with the Pirates declare that everyone would be back just nine days after Nutting told the Tribune-Review that the team was "going to do everything we can" to address the collapse?
How could any such review possibly have vindicated all personnel in nine days?
It's all on the processes?
Who makes the processes?
Nutting was made aware of Coonelly's statement, but his name appeared nowhere on it. And it turns out there's a reason for that: He's not done.
He plans to begin an intensive investigation after the season.
"I believe this review must be done," Nutting said. "But I honestly believe it's best done with a clear head after the raw nerves of the season have passed. Good decisions and good results seldom come from emotional overreactions."
And the focus?
"Clearly, the management team needs to make changes in certain areas. It's obvious that status quo is not an acceptable option. However, I also feel strongly that we've made significant progress in many areas. And we all saw in the first half of the season the promise and excitement of that progress."
That's always been Nutting's approach, to look at it all coolly.
Some might not like it, and it's easy to see why. It's hard to fathom, for example, how much more he'd need to learn about $15.4 million wasted on four free agents last winter -- Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes, Erik Bedard and Nate McLouth - or Smith's shallow drafts or Stark's "Hoka Hey" nonsense in development.
But that's how Nutting does it, and, as long as he's thorough, I won't take issue.
Moreover, I won't doubt - unlike probably a massive majority of the fan base - that he'll follow through.
Here's why: I saw up close in 2007 how he dug for answers regarding Dave Littlefield. It began in January and culminated in September with Littlefield's firing. Nutting talked to people all through the organization, as well as other teams' officials and veteran baseball men such as the late Chuck Tanner. He even made trips to Latin America to uncover a mess there.
This management team has been in place five years, just like Littlefield's, and it has a lower winning percentage. It deserves no less of a wary eye.
Want one idea?
Nutting should pick a couple of Huntington's stable of numbers-crunchers and have them assemble data to illustrate how the Pirates have fared compared to their peers in, say, free-agent spending or the draft.
(And yeah, assure them they won't be fired if the numbers come out unfavorable.)
I had a slew of other questions for Nutting -- yes, including whether he ever aspires to dream like a hippie -- but he had a busy schedule Thursday, and time was limited.
He did repeat, though, that he's "extremely upset and frustrated" the Pirates have fallen from 16 games over .500 to 76-80 after the 6-5 loss in New York.
That, of course, is two losses shy of serenading The Streak into its 20th birthday.
Make no mistake: That frustration still could result in major change. But it's going to take a while, and it's going to take a lot of work for the only guy empowered - and entrusted - to do it.
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I believe Bob Nutting will make a mistake if he expects the team to contend in 2013 and, when it doesn’t, he decides to clean house and change the strategy of the organization. Why? First, the organizational building strategy used by the Coonelly-Huntington regime is a good one — the only one worth having, really. The drafts were mostly well received when evaluated by the prospect wonk community, as they should have been. Even the 2009 draft class had a sensible rationale behind it. It’s just unfortunate that the highly regarded pitchers taken in that class have mostly floundered. It is also unfortunate that the Pirates failed to sign many of the better pitchers they drafted in the late rounds of the 2010 class. Still, it is also easy to glean the reasons behind Nutting’s dissatisfaction with the draft. The Pirates spent a lot of money on the players they drafted and have yet to see much of a return on that investment at the Major League level. This lack should change in the coming years when Cole, Taillon, et. al. make the leap to the Majors. Patience is a virtue for the small-market teams. Second, the Major League team building strategy has depended on incorporating some of the (average to poor players) players inherited from the McClatchy-Littlefield regime, promoting McCutchen and Walker, supplementing them with players from the 2008 draft class along with those players acquired in the roster cleaning trades and, to use an inelegant but apt term, diving in the dumpsters one can find next to the ball yards in every ML city. As for the latter, the Pirates have signed or traded for veteran players who were recently injured, well-past their prime, not very good to begin with, etc. Most of these players have not worked out as one may have hoped. They mostly have performed as expected. The Pirates got what they paid for. If Nutting wants the organization to acquire pricey free agents or to trade for pricey veterans, he’ll need to pony up the money for that. My advice: Don’t do it, Bob. Build through the draft and by singing international amateur free agents. A World Championship can be had only by walking that path (assuming the Pirates will not be so lucky that, say, the Angels will trade Trout to the Pirates for Jeff Locke). One can read or hear many complaints about Huntington’s work assembling his ML rosters. Mostly these have to do with dismissing his and his Pro Scouting staff’s ability to evaluate talent. The problem, of course, is easy to spot. Huntington and his people must manage to work within their severe budget constraints while addressing a market that rewards (in baseball value) those teams willing to overpay for free agents and veteran trade acquisitions. The Pirates have not recently overpaid much for the veteran players they acquired. Those players, however, were not very good at this stage of their careers, and these players mostly have performed as expected. Could Huntington have acquired better players? If one wants to properly evaluate Huntington’s performance in these matters, one would need to know the quality of the markets he confronted when he made his decisions. That knowledge is hard to come by, and I certainly lack it along with most of Huntington’s detractors. If, say, the Pirates paid the market rate for Barmes, Barajas, McLouth and Bedard but could not afford to pay Edwin Jackson and others enough to come to Pittsburgh to play, then it follows that a critic of Huntington’s cannot rationally criticize him for failing to acquire these better players. Put in different terms, what can one reasonably expect to find in a dumpster? Gems — Garrett Jones! — are few and provide no basis for evaluating a General Manager and his staff. Third, one cannot rationally expect Cole, Taillon, McPherson, Locke and Marte to produce at their peak levels once they reach the MLs. They will take time to learn how to play at this level. Finally, I must qualify what I wrote above by saying that reports of a toxic work environment in the Pirates Front Office, ridiculous attitude about prospect training and my expectations that the Pirates could have had even better draft classes than they had in fact have diminished my support for this Front Office. My hopes, however, are that this Front Office, which Bob Nutting has just given a weak but definite reprieve, will improve in the areas in which it should improve and that Bob Nutting does not adopt an unrealistic attitude about what the organization could have achieved over the last five years.