MLB.com sat down for an exclusive conversation with Frank Coonelly, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, between games of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.
MLB.com: Thanks for taking the time for this sit-down, at what must be an extremely busy time for you.
Frank Coonelly: My pleasure.
MLB.com: Whether you've had any interaction the last week with executives of other teams, or walked into a room of dignitaries, are you holding your head a little bit higher, speaking with a voice a little bit firmer?
Coonelly: The reaction from others around baseball is certainly different, but I've held my head high from the time I got here. I'm very proud of Pittsburgh, proud to be from Pittsburgh, proud to be a member of an organization with such a rich history. So my reaction is certainly the same, but you certainly get different accolades from your colleagues.
MLB.com: When you awaken these mornings, do you ever do so with the first thought, "Wow, this is really happening?"
Coonelly: I did Tuesday, I will tell you that. From my career at the Commissioner's Office, I had the good fortune to go to many postseason baseball games, and saw a lot of great crowds ... I never saw anything like I saw Tuesday night here in Pittsburgh.
MLB.com: A matter about a specific player, because he has been so instrumental in the team's success: Francisco Liriano. When that whole issue was in limbo, during the two months between the broken right arm that voided his original deal to when a renegotiated deal was struck, as general manager Neal Huntington tried to work it out, did you ever say, "Hey, Neal, let it go. Let's go somewhere else"?
Coonelly: No. We were intent on bringing Francisco here to Pittsburgh. We understood that once he had the arm issue, the original contract wouldn't work, and once that was cleared, Francisco had other options to pursue with other clubs. There was no contractual obligation to Pittsburgh, and we had none to him. But we wanted him here for all the same reasons we wanted him originally, so we were very intent on bringing Francisco in, while recognizing he had other options.
But we're thrilled that he decided he wanted to be in Pittsburgh. Obviously, he rehabbed extraordinarily hard and got himself back much quicker (May 11) than I think anybody expected, and obviously he's been a difference-maker. He's been a big-game pitcher. He's stopped some losing streaks, kept some winning streaks going. Then he had that outstanding outing in the Wild Card Game.
MLB.com: I've been at some public forums where you, Neal and assistant GM Kyle Stark got a lot of criticism. And people weren't shy about letting you have it in person. How do you not have a sense of, "Ah-ha! How about now?" in you?
Coonelly: I don't. Because this was never a personal journey. If it had been, maybe there would be some of those thoughts. But from the beginning, from day one, this was a collective journey, and for us ... we believed in us, and the plan and the process. And obviously are very grateful that Bob Nutting, the owner, agreed as well that while we finished in a very disappointing fashion last year, the team and the plan were the right ones to go forward.
MLB.com: Was it difficult, after the second consecutive season did not end the way you wanted it, to stay the course and not make any drastic revisions?
Coonelly: It was very difficult going through those two finishes, for sure. We needed to learn from them -- how we could do better, how we could finish strong. But in terms of staying the course -- no, we believed in who we were, what we were about, and where we were going.
MLB.com: Everybody always talks about getting here being one thing, but sustaining a competitive level is more challenging. As you look at the makeup of the team, do you feel secure about the future?
Coonelly: We feel good about where we are and where we are going. As we approached the Trade Deadline the last several years, there were times when some of the players who we think will be large pieces for us in the future were players other teams wanted in trades. We were willing to give up good prospects, this year in particular, but we had finally built up a deep farm system, and we needed to keep the players who will be major contributors to the Pittsburgh Pirates, because this is so much fun, we don't want to do it just one year. We want to have a consistent winner.
MLB.com: It's an ideal situation: You have a team that won 94 games, is in the postseason, and your farm system is consistently ranked among the top six, seven in Major League Baseball. A perfect dynamic, is it not?
Coonelly: It's a good combination. But as the history of baseball shows, year in and year out, you take nothing for granted. The fact we're in it this year doesn't guarantee us anything next year. We start from scratch. As soon as this season is over -- and we hope it's not until we're almost into November -- we need to get to work on next year, because nothing is given you in this game.
MLB.com: Hardball question. You have a couple of core players whose contract situations are coming up in the short term: Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez. Is there any interest in, have there been any conversations about, Andrew McCutchen-type deals with these players (the Pirates center fielder signed a six-year contract in February 2012)?
Coonelly: Both Neil and Pedro will be eligible for arbitration -- Neil for the second time, he was eligible last year as a Super Two player, Pedro this year for the first time. They'll both be members of the Pittsburgh Pirates for the next three years, if nothing happens in terms of long-term arrangements. There have been discussions in the past with Neil, and I suspect we'll have those discussions again, and we look forward to keeping them as key members of the organization.
MLB.com: There are always attempts to define the difference between big-market and smaller-market teams. I imagine team stability and the challenge of keeping players such as them are the prime differences between market sizes?
Coonelly: We know that while we did well in the free-agent market this year, bringing in Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano, that's not where we're going to build a championship-caliber organization. It's by drafting and signing players, and developing them in our system and then keeping those core players as long as we possibly can. So that's certainly been part of the plan from the very outset. And will continue to be for us to be successful.
MLB.com: Are you able to truly enjoy what's happening now? Because you do have so many commitments, and you have to be in so many different places, do you have time to revel in it and enjoy it?
Coonelly: Not revel ... but enjoy. It's a lot of fun. It beats the preparation for the offseason beginning a month earlier. We don't mind waiting a month to begin the preparation for next year.
MLB.com: Thanks very much. We appreciate the time.
Coonelly: My pleasure.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.