PITTSBURGH -- The need for significant change became “crystal clear,” Pirates chairman Bob Nutting said, as he witnessed his club sputter to a 25-48 record in the second half of the season, as he heard about the discord in Pittsburgh’s clubhouse and as he watched players he once employed thrive elsewhere.
So the Pirates completed their management housecleaning on Monday, officially dismissing general manager Neal Huntington with two years remaining on his contract. Huntington’s exit follows those of former manager Clint Hurdle and president Frank Coonelly, with the latter quickly replaced on Monday by Travis Williams.
Within a month after a disappointing and often troublesome 93-loss season, the Pirates’ leadership group has completely changed. Now, it falls upon Nutting and Williams -- and whichever general manager and manager they hire -- to get the Pirates back on track.
“Watching the challenges on the field, on and off the field, in the clubhouse, and frankly watching some of our players that we have drafted and developed perform so well for other teams, there’s a certain point that our fans became tired. I became tired,” Nutting said Monday afternoon. “It was crystal clear that we needed to move in a different direction.”
That meant bringing in different personnel, an idea Nutting first considered in August. The Pirates relieved Hurdle of his duties before the last game of the season. They parted ways with Coonelly last week. With Williams in place atop the front office, Nutting met on Sunday with Huntington -- the National League’s longest-tenured GM at the time of his dismissal -- to make the final move.
Kevan Graves, one of the Pirates’ assistant GMs, will serve as general manager on an interim basis while Williams begins a search for a permanent replacement.
In several statements, Nutting has said the Pirates will use this reset in leadership to “refresh our entire operations,” which means a full-scale reevaluation of the way they do business and baseball.
“We’re going to take a fresh look at every corner of the operation. There’s no question that it’s time on the baseball front,” Nutting said. “As we’ve discussed and you all have seen, we will continue to focus on drafting, development, building talent and seeing elite talent inside the organization. That’s not going to change, but we need to do it better. We’re tired of seeing players who we’ve brought in perform at a high level somewhere else. We need to have the highest level of performance here at PNC Park from those players we’re bringing in and identifying.
“On the business side, I think it’s critical that we also take a fresh look at how we’re keeping PNC Park up, how we’re driving fan experience, how we express our appreciation to the fans. I think we need to build that connection in a more effective and deeper way throughout.”
For now, Nutting and Williams will put their managerial search on hold to find a new general manager. That GM will be allowed to fill out the front office before hiring a new manager, who will have a say in building the Pirates’ 2020 coaching staff.
“We want to bring that culture of success,” Williams said. “We want to bring a culture of winning on the field, a culture of success off the field, focusing on our relationships with our fans, focusing on the ballpark experience and focusing on our commitment to the Pittsburgh community. Those would be three things in my mind that ultimately need to happen in order to return the Pirates brand back to the storied franchise that it once was.”
Coonelly and Huntington embarked on a lengthy rebuilding process that came to fruition in 2013, when they put together a Pirates roster that ended the club’s 20-year losing streak and reached the postseason for the first time since 1992. The '13 Bucs won the NL Wild Card Game, the baseball highlight of a generation in Pittsburgh, only to fall to the Cardinals in the NL Division Series. The Pirates fell to the Giants in the ’14 Wild Card Game and the Cubs in the '15 game, both held at PNC Park, then struggled through losing seasons in three of the past four years.
“I believe that we were innovative and creative and found the inefficiencies in the game, all words I’ve used before, in that era,” Nutting said. “It’s not fair to say we’ve gotten passed by, but I think that it is time for another fresh look. It’s time for another burst of innovation, it’s time for a fresh approach. … The use of analytics, we were way out in front; I’m not sure we are at this point. Our development process, we got way out in front; I’m not sure that we are. The Draft really did change after the last collective bargaining agreement, and I think a fresh look at identifying what those inefficiencies in the marketplace are, how we take advantage of them.”
Cole and Glasnow were also representative of Pittsburgh’s recent struggles in player development and the club’s inability to get the most out of its pitchers, an area in which the Pirates and pitching coach Ray Searage thrived from 2013-15.
“Maybe most importantly … making sure that the players we have in the system continue to develop and improve at the Major League level,” Nutting said. “It’s not that we didn’t have a Tyler Glasnow, it’s not that we didn’t have an Austin Meadows, it’s not that we didn’t have Shane Baz, it’s not that we didn’t have Jordan Lyles, it’s not that we didn't have Gerrit Cole in our system. Are we maximizing their performance when they’re here in Pittsburgh? And I think that is a critical part of where we need to adjust.”
Nutting and Williams spoke only in vague terms about what they’re looking for in a general manager, but you could boil it down like this: They’re looking for the next version of Huntington, someone who can identify and exploit those market inefficiencies while working with a limited budget, but they want to create a successful culture that’s built to last.
Williams mentioned looking at “other teams in other marketplaces like Pittsburgh that are able to do it successfully on a sustained basis” and modeling the Pirates’ approach after them, specifically when it comes to player development up to and in the Majors. Perhaps that will lead their GM search to the front offices in Milwaukee, Oakland or Tampa Bay.
Whoever they pick, the Pirates’ next GM will resume the managerial search that Huntington began. Nutting said Williams reached out to all the candidates the Pirates previously interviewed, and they all remain interested in the job.
“I think the groundwork has been effective and important. I think we’re in a very strong position. I think we will have huge head start when we restart the process,” Nutting said. “The new GM has to have a say and a voice. That’s such a critical relationship. That will be one that we respect.”