Kevin Gorman: Bob Nutting banking on Travis Williams to save Pirates from sinkhole
Perhaps the perfect metaphor for the state of the Pittsburgh Pirates occurred Monday morning, when a Port Authority bus was swallowed by a sinkhole around the time word leaked general manager Neal Huntington had been fired.
With the Pirates stuck in a rut and exposed for everyone to see, they finally resorted to following an evacuation plan.
Huntington met the same fate as manager Clint Hurdle and president Frank Coonelly, a housecleaning that was clumsily conducted over the course of a month.
That means the men responsible for putting together the Pirates teams that ended two decades of losing are gone, with the exception of the buttoned-down businessman who has become this city’s version of a villain among sporting superheroes. Only Pirates chairman Bob Nutting remains, and frustrated fans who have long blamed Bottom-Line Bob for his penny-pinching ways have to wonder if things will ever change.
Nutting made it clear in a 35-minute interview with the Tribune-Review on Monday afternoon at PNC Park that he wants to change that narrative, so long as it doesn’t require him to spend more money on the major-league payroll.
Good luck with that.
So, I asked this of Nutting: How does he respond to Pirates fans who say it doesn’t matter who he hires or fires if the owner doesn’t change the way he conducts his baseball business?
“I understand that,” Nutting said. “… There’s always going to be enormous disparity in the game and we need a team that can embrace, understand and do the best we possibly can, given our market size.”
That makes his hiring Travis Williams as team president a curious case. Williams comes from the NHL, where he spent a decade as an executive for the Penguins and the past year as president of business operations for the New York Islanders. The Penguins have won three Stanley Cup championships in the salary-cap era. With the Pirates, Williams has to hire a new general manager, who has to hire a new manager, who has to turn a last-place team in the NL Central into a playoff contender in an attempt to end a 40-year drought from winning the World Series.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Williams said, noting the critical need to first make the right hire and build a winning culture.
Working for Nutting could be his greatest challenge, as both men made it clear nothing will change with the Pirates’ payroll or the baseball economics narrative any time soon.
“I like challenges,” Williams said. “Notice, I didn’t say that from a defeatist perspective or as an excuse. The economics of baseball are challenging, much, much different than the economics of hockey. That’s not a secret.”
Finding the secret to success is another story. Williams talked about cracking the code, finding ways to win within the small-market structure. It’s not just about drafting and developing but maximizing the major-league talent. Pirates fans will be happy to know Nutting, without any prompting, expressed his disgust for seeing so many Pirates play in the postseason for other teams. Watching ace pitcher Gerrit Cole lead the majors in strikeouts and star for the Houston Astros in this World Series had to be where Nutting decided enough is enough.
This is where both men started to sound smart and, more importantly, on the same page. Williams insisted this was more of a refresh than rebuild, but allowed that the baseball decisions will be left to the general manager. Nutting said that’s by design, as he doesn’t want his president to second-guess the baseball operations.
Apparently, being exceptional also is part of Williams’ job description.
If the Pirates aren’t going to spend to win, they are going to have to be smarter than your average Cub.
“I think we have deep issues and we need to get back into a dynamic, energetic, innovative, creative path forward because that’s what it’s going to take in a market the size of Pittsburgh to be successful,” Nutting said, adding the Pirates can’t follow trends but get back to being on the cutting edge. “I think Travis is going to start us down that path with the next couple of hires.”
The Pirates are certainly living on the edge. Hiring Williams was a creative choice. The next move requires them to find a general manager who is dynamic and innovative and a manger who can get energy and enthusiasm out of Pirates players. Perhaps their greatest challenge will be to convince Pirates fans to show faith in the new regime that replaces what Nutting once called the best management team in baseball.
The Bucs want you to get back on the bus.
Just beware of being swallowed by a sinkhole.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .