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Nutting, Coonelly weigh in on state of Bucs

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, Oct. 11, 2009

Bob Nutting took over as the Pirates' principal owner in part because he was discouraged by what he considered a haphazard player-acquisition process under former owner Kevin McClatchy.

Although Nutting assumed control of the franchise a bit more than two years ago, the Nutting family has been part of the ownership group since McClatchy bought the team in February 1996. The value of the team has more than doubled since then, even though the Pirates have posted 17 consecutive losing seasons.

Nutting says he is committed to long-term ownership of the team. He believes a lower-cost route of systemic player acquisition and development eventually will pay off with playoff appearances.

Frank Coonelly, hired in September 2007 as team president, guides the club's daily operations. He brought in general manager Neal Huntington, and, together, they revamped the front office and hired manager John Russell.

Last week, Nutting and Coonelly sat down for separate, 30-minute interviews with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Are you satisfied with where the franchise is at and where it is headed?

COONELLY: Two years ago, we knew we had to take some pretty dramatic steps to build the talent level in the system. We're very pleased with the amount of talent we've added. We can never stop acquiring premier talent ... But having said that, the overhaul of the roster that's taken place the past two years is over. We have upgraded the core of this organization to where we can move forward without having to trade veterans for multiple young players.

NUTTING: Everyone at every level in the organization is disappointed (and) should be disappointed with the on-field performance, particularly in the second half of the year. What I am focused on is the plan we put in place. We have a clear direction, and we are clearly a stronger organization today.

Considering the team's struggles during and after the roster overhaul, do you have any second thoughts about the process?

COONELLY: No. We made the moves we thought were necessary to build a winning organization. It was disappointing to see — and it wasn't because of lack of effort — but there certainly was something missing in terms of our play. We knew we were taking some steps that would leave the major-league club somewhat short-handed for the remainder of the 2009 season. Still, we were extremely disappointed at the way we played. Even before the trades in July, we were not playing good baseball and continued to play very poor baseball in August and the early part of September. Late in September, some of the players stepped up and took some steps forward. Growing pains are somewhat understandable for a young team. Taking a step back to move two steps forward certainly is applicable here. We're beyond that now.

NUTTING: There was nothing easy about the second half of the season. ... The thing I won't do is second guess. We've put a plan in place, and we have to see it through.

There was a palpable sense of dread in the clubhouse as the trade deadline approached and the mood remained uneasy until late in the season. Do you think that was a reason for their poor play?

COONELLY: It's hard to pinpoint why you're not playing well. To say it's because we didn't know who was going to be traded next, I think is putting too much into that.

How do you respond to criticism of the team's payroll, which is among the lowest in the majors, and the trades of popular, veteran players?

NUTTING: The criticism is personally painful to hear. We've made difficult decisions. The proof of the correctness of those decisions won't be shown for some time. The fans have every right to be skeptical. Overall, our fans have been fantastic. People believe the old approach wasn't getting the job done, and it was time to go in a fresh direction.

Was that "old approach" — the course charted by McClatchy — what spurred you to take control of the franchise, the chance to take a hands-on approach?

NUTTING: If I didn't think that I could help, I would not have stepped into where I am now. It is incumbent on me to make sure we have the perseverance to stay with the direction. Half-executed plans have been deadly. A serious problem we've had has been impatience. There was a sense of: "All we need is one more piece. Maybe a veteran pitcher to turn a young staff around." It's shown that you can't take shortcuts. No matter how painful the path is, we've got to do it the right way.

Are the Pirates still paying for mistakes made by the previous management?

NUTTING: I'm not sure it's productive to throw stones backward. As you look back at every leadership group and owner, I'm sure there are things each one would've liked to have done differently. I still respect what Kevin did, because this ballpark would not exist, and I'm not sure the Pirates would still be in Pittsburgh without that leadership. Maybe after we win a championship or two, we'll be more secure looking back.

Has the perception of the Pirates changed for the better among those in MLB — folks in the commissioner's office, the other owners, front-office people, coaches, players and scouts?

NUTTING: It's very important to me that the Pirates are a respected member of Major League Baseball, and I believe that they are now with the other team owners and team presidents.

Some frustrated fans already are asking: "When will Andrew McCutchen be traded?" Are the days of the Pirates trading away players before they become free agents over?

COONELLY: I don't want to get into a situation where, if we're unable to sign a certain player beyond his free-agent years, people say: "You said McCutchen would be here." That being said, Andrew is part of our future. We are at the point where we don't need to trade players as they approach free agency in order to rebuild a system. The plan is to attempt to keep players in Pittsburgh for as long as we possibly can.

Do you plan to keep the front-office team and the coaching staff in place beyond 2010?

COONELLY: I'm very pleased with the work that Neal and (manager) John Russell have done. We put JR in a tough position, leaving him somewhat short this year in order to build for 2010 and beyond. I think he did a commendable job under the circumstances. I don't like talking about contract extensions, only because of the speculation that's raised (such as): "Is this a lame-duck year?" But I've been pleased with the work. JR has been very much a part of building the organization with Neal and his staff. He works closely with Neal on the roster and on the development team, preaching and teaching Pirates baseball throughout the system. I fully expect JR and Neal will be long-time members of the Pirates organization.

The economy is down and the newspaper business, to which your family has deep ties, is struggling. Are you committed to long-term ownership of the franchise?

NUTTING: Nothing about the current economy has impacted my long-term commitment. Despite the economy, the Pirates have gotten remarkably good support from our fans. We were down (only) 1.9 percent in total attendance.

Would you consider adding investors, if it would infuse enough capital to put the team over the top?

NUTTING: I don't think the right question is how we would work the capital structure. I think the more important (question) is, would we have the dollars available to make a strategic signing• ... There is no question we have the flexibility so that when we need to reach out and supplement, we have the ability to do that.

Are fans just wishful thinking if they're waiting for, say, Mark Cuban to ride to the rescue?

NUTTING: I believe that it's never a game that is won purely by dollars. Look at the franchises that have been successful - you have high-dollar payrolls and low-dollar payrolls. Is it easier with the Yankees' payroll• Of course it is. But we cannot ever use dollars or market size as an excuse. We've seen that happen in the past here, and it's simply not a valid excuse for lack of performance in Pittsburgh. We have sufficient resources.

Will payroll go up next year - not only for "natural" raises, such as arbitration and contract increases, but in the larger sense with player acquisitions?

COONELLY: It depends on how you calculate it. The way I look at payroll is the 40-man roster payroll, which was about $54 million going into this season. We'll open next season with a younger roster than we did in 2009. That roster begins to become more expensive. We haven't yet set a budget number for next year, but we do have flexibility to add payroll to the club if we (can get) players in either the free-agent or trade market who have higher (salaries). The good news is, we have a strong financial base. We can afford to add payroll if there are players who can help us win.

NUTTING: We've been opening up and committing dollars to the amateur draft and international signings. We were ready to take a significant stretch (with Dominican prospect Miguel Angel Sano), which was its own unique disappointment. ... When you look at baseball operations, those dollars have grown.

Is the international market becoming more wide-open and difficult to manage?

COONELLY: It's certainly become more expensive. There has been quite a bit of talk of moving to an international draft, like the NHL and NBA have. I'm not sure if that would bring down any of the prices that are being paid to the higher-profile players, but it certainly would provide everybody with an opportunity to use a draft choice on a player from, say, the Dominican Republic if you view that guy as the next best available player on the board as opposed to having that player in a free-agent market.

Was the failure to sign Sano, who signed with the Twins for $3.15 million, a setback for the Pirates in Latin America?

COONELLY: Not a failure, a disappointment. If we could be faulted for anything, it was that we were too aggressive, too early. But in a free-agent market, the last thing you want to be is too late to the game. (Latin American coordinator) Rene Gayo did tremendous work, not only scouting Sano but also developing a relationship with him and his family. We decided that, not withstanding some questions that had been raised about Sano's age, we were willing to aggressively pursue him, and we did it immediately. His (agent) wanted to create a "dead zone" for the period of time that Major League Baseball was investigating his identity and his age. We respected that. The representative was looking to set a record ... for the most money paid to any player this year. The representative found a club whose value on the player matched the record he was looking to set and he did not go back to any other teams to see if they were willing to offer more.

Did the value the Pirates put on Sano exceed $3.15 million?

COONELLY: We made an offer which we thought was consistent with the value of the player, which was more than we paid to sign our No. 1 draft pick this year. What we would or would not have done if the (agent) had come back to us to negotiate, we'll never know. The good news is we demonstrated the seriousness of the Pirates being a player by making a ($2.6 million) offer, which was multiples of anything this organization had ever made in the international market. We said we would be a major player in Latin America, and we certainly demonstrated in the Sano case that we mean it. There will be other players who we will be aggressive with and who we will sign.

What are your expectations for next year?

NUTTING: We need to begin each season expecting to win our division. We'll see how far we can go from there. That's what we're working toward. It's early in the cycle, but we're not going to move from that goal. If our goal had been to reach one game over .500, perhaps we would've taken a different approach.

In the two years since the new front office team arrived, where have you made the most progress and what mistakes have been made?

COONELLY: The cohesiveness of the development people, the scouting people, the other baseball operations people has been really been something that's unique in baseball. They're all working to make the Pirates better. Also, I'm pleased with the acquisition of talent. When we came in here, the talent base was not anywhere near where it needed to be.

In terms of 'teachable moments,' there are many, and if you don't learn from your mistakes, you'll simply repeat them. ... I think we had a tendency to be too transparent at times, in terms of answering questions from (the media), such as: 'What's your budget going to be• What holes to you have to fill?' When we put budget numbers out there or identify holes or say our draft budget is X, there are smart people representing players who say: 'You said your budget is X, and you've only spent Y.' While we always want to be open with the fans and the press, we've got to keep things closer to the vest.

So what are your holes?

COONELLY: (Laughs) That's a good question. Neal made a comment something to the effect that we don't believe we have desperate holes that we must overpay to fill. I've heard from some fans: 'You've got to be kidding me. You telling me you have no holes?' That isn't what he said. We don't want to overpay to fill any hole. If we're overpaying, there's less resources available to get better in other areas. Our fans want us to win; we understand that. In order to do that, we have to be smart with our allocation of resources. No one has infinite amounts of money - we certainly don't.

In terms of specific holes ... we have internal options at some of those areas where we need to be better. We need to have better production out of right field, if Garrett Jones is playing first base. Second base is a question. Shortstop is a question. We still believe in Ronny Cedeno. We still believe Delwyn Young is a dangerous player. Is (Young) the every-day player at second• We'll find out. We need to get better as a team offensively. We need to shore up the bullpen and get Matt Capps right. We have players who can play several different positions. Andy LaRoche is open to playing second base. There are moving pieces.

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