On Friday, I went down to the Convention Center to represent Pirates Prospects at Piratefest 2011. The goal was to take in the general feel of the event and sit in on the Question and Answer session at 7 pm with the general public, then go back stage at 7:45 for a special blogger Q&A with Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington, and a Pirates player. Because of all the info gathered on Friday, I thought it would be best to break it up into 2 separate posts. This first one will be just from the General Public Q&A with Coonelly, Huntington, and Clint Hurdle.
Hurdle was clearly the belle of the ball on Friday night. Most of the General Public’s questions were directed towards him and he seemed at ease answering the questions in his folksy, down-home way. He has an energy that is constantly bubbling beneath the surface that you can just tell is going to be conveyed towards the players. He is relentlessly optimistic and a walking quote machine, which will make beat writers jobs exponentially more entertaining this year. Here’s some of his answers from the General Public’s questions:
- On his pitching staff — in the bullpen he has “some guys with hairy arms that will let it go”, but every pitching staff’s rotation is “the machine of the team”.
- On pitching inside — Hurdle used the term “focus” quite a bit in his answers and mentioned it with the pitchers. “The pitchers have to have a desire, focus, and commitment to pitching inside.” He referred to himself as old-school and mentioned that he and pitching coach Ray Searage have had many talks about this subject. He’s also talked with some of the pitchers about this already as well.
- On fundamentals — to win the team needs championship-level fundamentals, old school defensive routines, and better baserunnering, according to Hurdle
- On why he took the job — “It’s time.” Those two words brought huge cheers from the audience. He then elaborated by saying that from 1970-1980, the Pirates were the jewel franchise of all of MLB. One of the huge reasons he took the job was its tradition rich history.
- On fixing the road record — While in Colorado, he observed how coming back from road trips to the high elevation of Denver would wear on players. Here in Pittsburgh, he will have every player document their home game routines and their road game routines to self-analyze what they are doing differently. But ultimately, it comes down to playing good, hard, smart baseball.
- On his style — He will “challenge skill sets, encourage them, make them smarter and more resilient.” When asked about bunting and platoons and such, Hurdle responded that he doesn’t sit around his house before the game wondering “how can I screw this up tonight”, so he’ll be wise about both subjects.
- On focus — When Hurdle was a young player, he was getting worn down and his manager asked what was wrong. Hurdle told him his focus was lacking, so the manager said “Go sit on that bench and see if your focus muscle is connected to your backside muscle.” Ronny Cedeno is on high alert right now, I’m sure.
- On when his team will take the field at Pirate City — In response to a gentleman going down for Spring Training with his wife who asked about the start time so that he wouldn’t miss anything, Hurdle said, “What time do you and your wife want us to start?” to the huge laughter and applause of the crowd. (They’ll be moving at 10 a.m.)
Coonelly had the least amount of questions directed towards him by the General Public. But you can see his desire to win burns inside him with the power of 1000 suns. At times, you could sense that he wanted to step out of the corporate mold and give you his real thoughts (more evident in the backstage blogger session). Here’s some of his responses to the General Public:
- On the 2011 Pirates — He is anxious to see this young team grow together and mentioned The Core Four of Alvarez, McCutchen, Walker, and Tabata, but also tossed in Garrett Jones, which I found interesting.
- On Alvarez’s weight gain — Each player is given an offseason diet and conditioning program. The Pirates just don’t say “See you in Bradenton” after the last game of the season.
- On how he evaluates the results of Huntington’s trades and moves — He said that not every trade has to work out, as no one is perfect, but the process and evaluation that led to that decision has to be sound. Coonelly singled out the Dotel trade as a winner already.
- On breakout players for 2011 — Of course he said he hoped they all broke out, but he took it to the minors and singled out the 2010 Altoona staff of Owens (you can tell he’s a huge fan), Morris (“a top or middle rotation guy”), Wilson, and Locke as players who can help the Pirates in 2011.
- On having a winning mentality — A fan specifically compared the Pirates to the 2010 Padres and Coonelly mentioned how during a series when the Padres swept the Pirates there was a rain delay. After the rain delay, the Padres went right out as soon as the tarps were off and got about their business. Their winning mentality is what enabled them to beat the Pirates soundly. Coonelly immediately told himself the Pirates needed that.
Although everyone was, generally, congenial towards Huntington, there were a few questions that were tinged with the barbs of frustration. The difference in Huntington’s demeanor with the General Public (stiff and corporate) and with the bloggers (relaxed, friendly, and funny) was interesting to observe. Here’s the highlights from the General Public session:
- On Pedro’s reported weight gain — It wasn’t 15 pounds as reported, but his conditioning must improve. Pedro has gotten stronger over the winter, so some of the weight is muscle mass.
- On self-reflection of his work — He knows that he has made mistakes as a man, husband, and General Manager. He strives to get better “personally and professionally”. He re-evaluates his decision based on information he had at that time. Some of his moves are “intelligent gambles” because “if you play it safe, you will lose.”
- On Tony Sanchez’s progress — Sanchez is learning how to call a game and how to manage a pitcher when he doesn’t have his best stuff that night. He will be at AA to start 2011 and will be moved up when he is ready, not an artifically-imposed time frame.
- On hiring Hurdle — While interviewing candidates he heard many “bad answers” about fixing the home/road record discrepancy. Hurdle had the right answers and his enthusiasm was evident.
- On the 2011 Draft and Anthony Rendon — His staff has been working on the 2011 draft since some of the HS kids in 2008 went to college. He looks for players who “love the game” and there were scouts in player’s homes right now talking to players. An interesting answer was about Rendon, as he described him as “not in Stephen Strasburg’s class” of player, but one of many they are looking at with the #1 overall pick. The draft is the core function of this team and not one penny of the draft budget is compromised by Latin America signings (Heredia) or ML free agents brought in this year (Overbay, Diaz, Correia).
- On the starting rotation — Huntington expects bounce back seasons from Maholm and Correia, the latter’s peripherals were still good and he may have been coping with the loss of his brother in May. He thinks McDonald will blossom and that Ohlendorf is “not a 1-11 pitcher”. He’s confident Lincoln will be straightened out, too. He also touched on the Morris/Owens/Locke/Wilson quartet and Olsen/Morton.
- On treading water from this offseason’s moves — This was in response to a fan thinking nothing had changed. Huntington feels the defense at 1B is upgraded with Overbay, upgraded in RF with Jones, and a viable offensive platoon in RF with Diaz/Jones. The players brought in will also provide leadership.
Overall, for an event that they probably have some reservations over doing (the equivalent of facing a firing squad), all three men performed admirably in front of the General Public. The next article will detail the backstage blogger interviews with Coonelly, Huntington, and Maholm.