Tim Benz: Pirates owner Bob Nutting responds to 3 questions that had to be asked
On Monday afternoon, Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting held multiple media gatherings to address the firing of Neal Huntington as general manager and the hiring of Travis Williams as team president.
In advance of those discussions, I wrote on Monday morning that there were three specific questions I wanted to ask of Nutting.
So I went. And I asked them.
Here’s what those questions were. How Nutting responded. And what I think he really meant after I surfed through the surface-level spin.
“What is Travis’ job exactly?”
In the few days since Frank Coonelly “parted ways” with the team, there have been whispers that he had gotten too involved in the on-field baseball operations aspect of his job. “Meddling in baseball decisions too much,” as it was described to me by someone close to the team.
At one point when Nutting was talking about this topic late in the interview, he took a six-second pregnant pause and said, “I think having some separation is important. It’s important for an owner. I think it’s important for a team president not to be so intently engaged — feeling like they are knowledgeable about baseball so they can second-guess. I don’t need a president to be a second general manager, to be a second set of eyes.”
Yet, when I initially posed this question to Nutting earlier in the discussion, his first response to Williams’ duties was about the on-field product.
“We need to have a fresh direction,” Nutting said. “We need to celebrate what has worked well. But we need to perform fundamentally better on the field.”
Nutting said that tone would be set by the new general manager — who Williams will hire.
Then Nutting got to the business end.
“We need to refocus on our ballpark, on our fans, on our experience and our connection with those fans,” Nutting said. “I think we are in need of communicating on all these issues that we are bringing up far more effectively than we have.
“I want us to be successful and we simply have not done a good job of communicating that.”
I think what Nutting was getting at is, “Until we stumble into another wild-card spot a few decades from now, I need Travis to convince people to start buying tickets again, and talk corporate sponsors into staying affiliated with the club.”
Or something like that.
But, wait. The ballpark? What are you doing to PNC Park?
“We have the best ballpark in America,” Nutting said. “And it’s turning 20 years old. We need to make sure that we are keeping the ballpark fresh. That we are keeping it fun. We are thinking about how fans can re-engage in the ballpark.”
There you have it folks, the Pirates are turning PNC Park into a dome. You heard it here first.
Ok, maybe not a dome. But until they can assemble a pitching staff worth a damn, I hope you enjoy the Wigle Whiskey cocktail bar at the Reed Smith swimming pool in right field under the Rivendale Farms atrium.
“Will you give Williams more money for him to allocate toward on-field baseball-related matters?”
In other words, will you expand payroll?
I asked Nutting that question directly. Unfortunately for those hoping otherwise, apparently a hike in player-spending is not part of “wanting to be successful.”
I’ll pause for a moment to allow you to express your stunned disappointment.
“I think it’s too early to talk about payroll for next year,” Nutting responded. “We need to get a new general manager in.”
No, you don’t. Just say the new general manager, whoever it is, will be working with an expanded budget next year. Maybe you’ll attract a wide range of interested candidates if that’s the case.
But that’s not going to happen because payroll won’t expand.
Want a more nuanced-filled, layered response from Nutting saying he won’t spend more?
Of course, you don’t.
Here it is anyway.
“I think we need to change the discussion from ‘payroll equals success,’” Nutting said. “Because we have seen this year, that it is not the case. We saw in 2013, ‘14, ‘15 that it is not the case. An uneven playing field doesn’t mean that you can’t compete.”
True. But those 2013-15 players are long gone, thanks in part to the Pirates not wanting to pay to keep them.
Yes, it’s true smaller budget teams such as the Minnesota Twins, Oakland A’s, Tampa Bay Rays and Milwaukee Brewers all made the playoffs with payrolls below the league average.
But the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals all finished in the top eight of payroll.
And they combined for 500 wins.
“Why did you fire Neal Huntington when you did?”
This question was asked about 10 times, 10 different ways, and I’m not sure we ever got a straight answer.
This is as close as we got.
“The thinking was, we needed to get Travis in place first,” Nutting explained. “We need to have that done. Then that’s when the ball really starts.”
I’m not quite sure how that would’ve been different than firing all three guys at once the day after the season ended. Then following up by making Williams the first hire of the bunch a month ago.
But, ok. Whatever.
Nutting also said he liked getting the managerial search process going and felt they would’ve been behind the curve on that front if they didn’t have Huntington start the process.
The problem with that idea is if your new general manager isn’t keen on any of the guys Huntington talked to, you’re even further behind than you would’ve been in the first place.
As if such a concept is possible with this franchise.
Good luck, Travis. You’ll need it.