Pirates front office defends quest with two words: World and Series
In two separate, one-hour question-and-answer sessions Saturday during PiratesFest at PNC Park, the Pittsburgh Pirates invited people, literally off the street, to sit and chat with three of the four highest-ranking members of the organization.
General manager Neal Huntington, manager Clint Hurdle and president Frank Coonelly spoke willingly and eloquently about their plans, hopes and, of course, payroll. It’s projected to be second-lowest in the majors at $58,925,002, according to spotrac.com, but it does not yet count several pre-arbitration salaries.
Chairman Bob Nutting was out of town on business, Coonelly said. It was an absence noted by an audience member, who said, “not showing up is speaking to us.”
There were lighter moments such as when someone asked Huntington what his walk-up music would be if he ever came to bat at PNC Park.
He chose “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which is less a reflection of his state of mind as Pirates GM than the fact he’s a big U2 fan.
But he did not take kindly to a suggestion from a man who said the team is not in business to win.
“There’s a lot to impact in that question,” Huntington said.
Later, he remarked, “Passion comes across as venom sometimes, but that’s OK.
“First and foremost, I will work to not be offended by the statement that we’re not here to win because that’s the only reason we’re here. To award the fan base with World Series No. 6 and wake up the next day and figure out how to do it again.
“We’re here to let those guys jump around and pour champagne over Clint Hurdle again.”
Huntington unashamedly put the words “World” and “Series” back-to-back on multiple occasions during the Q&A sessions. Hurdle, who has been to three World Series as a player, coach and manager and lost them all, jumped in when the question later was put to him by a reporter.
“If you can’t talk about it, it’s going to be really hard to do,” Hurdle said. “If you can’t look men in the eye and talk about winning a World Series, if you’re just going to kind of get mushy and (say), ‘I just hope we play good baseball,’ where are you setting the bar?
“I think about winning a World Series at the start of every season. You want to send the right message to your players.”
Whether that’s possible with the National League’s lowest payroll is debatable, but Huntington — as he’s done on previous occasions — said spending doesn’t always equal winning.
“When you sign a free agent, you have automatically outbid everybody else to get him 95, 99 percent of the time,” he said. “You have theoretically overpaid to get that free agent.”
The Pirates were postseason participants in 2013-15 with payrolls that ranked 27th, 27th and 23rd in the majors.
“Historically, we have proven you can win with a bottom-10 payroll,” said Huntington said, noting the Indians, Royals, Brewers, A’s and Rays also have done it.
Coonelly correctly pointed out the Pirates’ payroll is down this year because of the presence of several core players on the 25-man roster who are not eligible for arbitration.
“Spending gives you a larger margin for error and what GM wouldn’t want a larger margin for error?” Huntington said. “It does not guarantee you anything other than you spent money. The upgrade is not guaranteed.”
The Pirates won’t go to spring training for another 2½ weeks, and the season opens March 28, so the payroll has room and time to grow. In fact, Huntington opened the door slightly for roster and payroll adjustments if a slow free agency market leaves some talented players jobless on the eve of the season.
“We’ll see where the free agency market goes,” he said.
Hurdle credited his players for not worrying about matters that the front office should handle.
“They don’t get caught up in payroll,” he said. “They’re not going to get caught star-gazing at the names on the back of other teams’ jerseys.”
He suggested that coming from the bottom of the ladder in payroll puts a chip on his players’ shoulders.
“More often than not, that makes that edge a little bit sharper,” he said.
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jerry at [email protected] or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.