As the 7 p.m. General Public Q&A was starting to wind down, I made my way to side of the stage to meet up with Media Relations Coordinator Matt Nordby of the Pirates. He was gathering the “nerd herd” of bloggers and online media to meet with Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington, and a Pirates player backstage. Present at the backstage event were myself, Charlie and Vlad from Bucs Dugout, Matt from Pittsburgh Lumber Company, Kristy from Pirates Booty, the husband/wife team of Bucco Zone, and Tom from Rumbunter. Special thanks to Tom, as I understand that he was the impetus for this little soiree. These bullet-pointed answers are responses to all of the group’s questions, not just Pirates Prospects.
Originally we were told a few days ago that Neil Walker was the Pirates player we would be interviewing, so it was a surprise to see Paul Maholm at the table. It was a surprise to everyone apparently, as the first 10 seconds of the group interview were dead space. To break the awkward silence, I blurted out about what did it feel like to make his ML debut just 2 days after Hurricane Katrina swept over his family home. That was the polar bear needed to break the ice as the questions came flowing forth from the group:
- On his debut after Katrina — His mind was on his family, but it was nerve-wracking as communication via phone was erratic at best. His wife drove from Pittsburgh, where his debut was rain delayed, to Milwaukee to see his first game. The Gulf Coast is slowly making a comeback.
- On bouncing back — He’s not changing anything about his game. He’s working hard to focus on his fastball command and making sure his sinker is in order
- On Hurdle’s decree that starters will pitch more — He’s “not a happy camper when I’m pulled after 6 (innings) and 80 pitches”. He wants to go 100-110 every time on the mound
- On how Ray Searage is different from other pitching coaches — Searage was his pitching coach in short-season Williamsport (which I did not know), so he thinks the world of Searage. He’s very energetic and knows how to handle the pitching staff.
- On getting hit in the face while in the minors — He has no flashbacks to it and it’s part of the game.
- On trade rumors — Maholm wants to win HERE and feels the fans deserve it. He’s not bothered by the rumors and would love if Huntington valued him enough to talk about an extension.
- On Pedro and his long-rumored move to 1B and his off-season weight gain — “Just let him play”. He feels he plays a good 3B and has no problem with him over there.
Maholm struck me as a leader and a guy who is a positive force in that locker room. His “give me the ball and get out of my way” mentality can pitch in my rotation any day. I hope he does bounce back this year.
Neal Huntington was ushered in next and we were told we had 5 to 10 minutes with him. That ended up being over 15 minutes. I was pleasantly surprised to see him more relaxed than when he was on stage and how friendly and accomodating he was with us.
- On if the farm system could handle a trade like the Garza and Grienke trades — He felt it could, but only when the ML team is ready for those types of players. He did reveal that they “engaged Tampa Bay” on both Garza and James Shields, but ultimately the Rays went with a different package. The Pirates were never in on Grienke, as Huntington said the Pirates equivalent package would have been Tabata, Walker, Moreno, and another player.
- On long-term deals like the Reds did this off-season — They are easier said than done and it takes two sides to make a deal.
- On Baseball America’s #19 ranking of the system — He didn’t agree with it, but did say that graduations (The Core Four) and injuries (mentioned Sanchez, Marte, Cain, Farrell, and Holt) hurt the overall view of the system to outsiders.
- On international signings right now — In past years, the Pirates have used this time of year to sign players like Jorge Bishop, Ramses Pena, and Willy Garcia, so I asked what was going on right now and if Heredia tapped the budget. Huntington said that Heredia was a “special budget exemption” and that the international budget was not impacted by his signing. He said Rene Gayo is all over Central and South America right now looking for players.
- On injured minor leaguers that won’t be ready for 2011 — Last year, Cain, Lorin, and Inman were among the players who weren’t ready at the starting bell. This year, Huntington said that only Donnie Veal (no surprise) is not ready for the start of 2011, but he is bound and determined to beat that June/July timeframe of when he is expected to return.
- On Pedro’s weight — Again, Huntington re-iterated that Pedro’s weight gain is not as dire as reported, but they were disappointed in his conditioning. It is up to Pedro on how long he wants to stay at 3B, as Huntington feels he has all the tools to play there.
The full audio of the Huntington interview in MP3 form is here.
Frank Coonelly is a commanding presence, but I found him to be accommodating and affable during this backstage interview. For those fans who question if the Pirates’ front office has the true desire to field a winning team, sit down with Frank Coonelly for about 15 minutes. His passion for bringing a winner to Pittsburgh is evident, as he was practically spitting some of his answers out on the table in front of us. Not in a Bill Cowher-spittle sort of way, more of a “if we were in a bar I would tell you exactly what I think, but we’re not, so I have to parse my words so I don’t get in trouble with MLB” sort of way.
- On how the losing streak has affected corporate sponsorship opportunities — Coonelly said it was “hard to say” how the streak has affected things. The Pirates “give more eyeballs to advertisers” than any other Pittsburgh team, but he did understand that “brand association” may lead some people away from being linked with the Pirates.
- On “new media” like blogs and online mags like Pirate Prospects — “I’m not saying this just because I’m sitting in front of you, but the level of analysis done by some is better than the mainstream media.” Yes, he means you, Bob Smizik.
- On the next Collective Bargaining Agreement maybe instituting hard slotting in the draft — This was kind of a strange answer to me. Essentially hard slotting will do away with the chance for the Pirates to scoop up hard to sign HS kids, like in the 2008-2010 drafts, but Coonelly did not seem fazed by that possibility at all. Instead he thought it would be good, because agents would no longer be able to steer kids to high payroll teams. The best player will always be drafted in that slot. He also felt it was good as more money could go to ML-level players, because a lot of the over-slot kids just don’t work out. If a hard slot is instituted, the Pirates “will find market inefficiencies” and go forth.
- On the rumor that he personally nixed the Bay to Cleveland trade for Cliff Lee, Franklin Gutierrez, and Kelly Shoppach — This one caught him off-guard, which is good. You always want to keep your subject on his toes! He dispelled the rumor that he vetoed the trade, but acknowledged they did have discussions with CLE about Jason Bay and that Cliff Lee came up. Keep in mind that heading into 2008, Cliff Lee was not CLIFF LEE and Coonelly did say that he reservations about trading for Lee. He also was candid in saying that he thought the 2008 team would not be competitive, but he wanted to give them a chance to show what they had. Ultimately, they hit very well, but couldn’t pitch.
- On if he gets frustrated about fans saying the Pirates abuse revenue sharing — Here’s a good example of what I was saying in the intro paragraph. He wanted oh so badly to mention a certain uber-agent that fueled the fire, and we all know who I’m talking about, but through gritted teeth he did not. He had a great answer about how the offseason after the Yankees won the World Series you heard about revenue sharing, as they are the prime donors, but nary a word this past offseason after the Giants won.
- On relations with agents — The Pirates will deal with any agent at any time, but he did acknowledge that he has to “remind himself not to take it personally” during negotiations.
- On Baseball America’s #19 ranking of the farm system — Again, I would love to know his non-interview answer. He was not happy with the ranking and semi-seriously said that maybe they “need to promote themselves” to these scouting services better. He said that if you match up under-25 talent of the Pirates with the Royals (the #1 farm), it’s virtually even…which is a bold statement. He had a separate monologue about Rudy Owens.
- On Rudy Owens — Rudy Owens is a personal favorite of Frank Coonelly, at least my opinion after this interview. He is stunned that after Owens’ past two seasons he is not a Top 100 prospect by Baseball America. He then went to compare him directly to Kyle Drabek, stats-wise and stuff-wise. He mentioned him numerous other times as a guy who can help the Pirates in 2011.
- On Hurdle — I’ll let you listen to the exact quote in the interview, but he essentially said that he and Huntington must be the most boring guys in the world, because Hurdle was way more effective recruiting people to the Pirates.
- On a Futures Game at PNC Park between minor league affiliates — The Pirates have done this in the past (which I don’t remember), but he would be open to doing it in the future as schedules allow.
For the full Frank Coonelly interview in MP3, click here.