BRADENTON, Fla. – Over the weekend, several players spoke out about the Pirates and the atmosphere on the team the last two years. David Freese said the team lacked a winning culture. Gerrit Cole agreed with what he said and added on some points. Josh Harrison talked more about communication, and the lack of a winning message.
On Sunday, Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle and General Manager Neal Huntington discussed the player comments. The players had discussed their issues with the team long before making public comments, so this was nothing new to Hurdle and Huntington.
“I’ve had multiple conversations with Josh as I’ve had with a lot of the veteran players over the winter,” Hurdle said. “I think those comments come from exactly the reason you think they come from. We didn’t win. You look at reasons why you don’t win. You have the conversations with the people that you need to have them with. You ask them to share thoughts within a group setting. And then you find opportunity to reinforce the demands of the game. When you walk in that door, where’s your focus? The preparation to get ready to win a game. The game starts, do everything you can to win the game. I think it’s really medicinal in a lot of different ways when guys have their feelings and they get them out. The part of coaching that I love is that if everybody is easy to coach, you probably don’t have a good team.”
A lot of the conversations with the team came during the exit interviews at the end of the year, which is when players were expressing some of the same concerns that were expressed this weekend.
“The fun thing about the exit interviews is what a lot of the men share about things that we can do better about an organization, and they can do better as an individual,” Hurdle said. “Because if it’s just someone else you’re pointing out all the time, I think you’re missing the boat. Both of these guys are very self-reflective on what they can do better in the future as well, from either leadership, play, preparation to play. The two guys we’re talking about, their preparation is fantastic. Josh’s energy when the game starts is fantastic, and preparation. Plug into the positives. When you see something that maybe doesn’t fit right, it’s not about calling somebody out, it’s about putting your arm around him and saying it’s enough of that, let’s go.”
One of the most notable comments over the weekend to me was Jameson Taillon saying that it’s a good thing the opinions are being shared, because it allows the Pirates to address the issue, talk it out, and find a solution. And the Pirates have had some time to come to a conclusion on the solutions, long before the comments went public.
“We’ve been talking about them,” Hurdle said. “We’ve had conversations about them. It’s really the way it should work. I don’t ever think it’s a bad thing when people share what they feel they need to share. I’m still a proponent of sharing it when you feel it. When these feelings first came up, was there a time maybe earlier that we could have been talking. One of the jobs I really feel responsible for is eliminating all of the distractions from the players. We’re going to have that done this spring. We may have had it done today. It might have been the closure that we bring it all to a head and just go out and play. I know that’s going to happen. The sooner it happens, the better.”
Huntington repeated a lot of the same points in his press conference, that the team just didn’t win enough the last two years, and that losing will lead to complaints and criticism like this.
“You respect their thoughts,” Huntington said. “Two veteran guys that are intelligent. They’ve seen some things. They’ve earned some things in this game. You hear them. Make sure you communicate and connect with them, and understand the true foundation of the message, and do everything we can to get back to where we were. We didn’t win enough last year. That’s obvious. We didn’t win enough in 2016. We need to get back to the things that we did to win games when we had the second best record in baseball over the course of three years. When you don’t win, it’s hard. And we’ve got to work to get back to where we were before.”
Huntington ultimately put the blame on himself, although he noted that there are things that need to improve beyond the decisions at the top.
“We won a lot of games for a few year stretch with very good players. We didn’t win enough the last two years for a variety of reasons. It starts with me and ends with me,” Huntington said. “There’s no question we need to do some things better in the decision-making process. There’s no question we need to do better in dominating our controllables. And then figuring out a way to minimize the things that are beyond our control that impact us in a negative way. … None of what David said was really a surprise, because we’ve had very candid conversations over his two years here. We want to win. We have the exact same goals they do. It’s to win a World Series. There’s no question about that. That’s why we’re here. It’s why we made the moves that we made, is to put this team in position to win a World Series.”
One issue that has been brought up is the lack of communication, or the breakdown in communication. This is often experienced between the team and the media and fans. The Pirates will say something, and it will immediately be chalked up as spin, or as them not being honest about their plans. Huntington talked about how that played out last year.
“When I asked the question last year what did I do wrong [in the 2016-17 offseason], probably the best thing I could have done last year, which I would never do, is lie,” Huntington said, regarding public communications. “Are you talking about Andrew McCutchen? No. But that’s not the truth. We were candid in our process. We’ve been candid in our process about how we believe small and mid-market teams continue to be successful. That’s our goal, to be in the post-season as consistently as possible.”
This year, Huntington constantly said that the team wasn’t set on trading McCutchen or Gerrit Cole, even though all signs pointed to them eventually making a deal, and even though they eventually traded both players. The comments were viewed as spin, or as Huntington lying about the team intentions for leverage purposes. There was some of the latter, but it seems that there really was some indecision from the Pirates.
“We had the ability to roll this club back out again,” Huntington said. “A slow free agent market creates a slow trade market. We were able to push two trades across the goal line with deals that we felt were the right deals for this organization overall, and recognize that we would get a lot of criticism for that. If they hadn’t been there, we would have rolled this club back out to see if there was a way to supplement and get creative and try to add to some of our weaknesses.”
The Pirates went into the offseason wanting to add to their bullpen, third base, and starting pitching. They did that through the trades, whether that was out of coincidence, or a specific plan. And that has put them in a position where they feel they can still compete, even if the chances don’t look good from the outside. Huntington said that while the veteran guys have spoken out, he’s had conversations with those players who love the young guys who are on the team.
“A lot of the guys that are here love this young group,” Huntington said. “Interesting as I talked with David over the offseason about what the options were for David, or for Sean [Rodriguez]. They both were strong. They want to help this team win. They love these young guys, and they want to be a part of turning us back into a winning Major League team. That’s encouraging.”
The big issue here seems to be that there is a breakdown in communication, both with the fans and the players. The latter is the more important thing. There appears to be communication, but the players also don’t appear to be getting the message that the Pirates want to send out.
“Obviously we’re missing something with the message,” Huntington said. “We’re working to find out what that is. The candid conversation isn’t always me to them. There are times where the candid conversation is you listen, and you’re taking in what they had to say, and trying to understand what they had to say.
“There are some things that don’t work publicly. There are some criticisms that would be awfully hard to regress in a very public, very meaningful way. The transparency on offseason plans. We genuinely went into this offseason with the idea that we can roll this team back out, we can get creative, or if the right deals are there, and we think it’s the right thing to do long-term. We didn’t go into this offseason knowing we had to do X, or Y, or Z. We had the flexibility to be opportunistic. We had the flexibility to do what we felt was the right thing to do. That’s been criticized pretty heavily as spin. Say we had gone into the offseason with the idea that we needed to trade Andrew and/or Gerrit, and I come out publicly and say that. How does that help in any way, shape, or form? If we’re transparent, we’re going to get much less in return.
“The lack of transparency is not intentionally misleading, or misrepresentation. It’s working to be the best we can be in terms of an organization.”
It’s not a problem for the Pirates to lack transparency to the fans, as long as their plans are obvious in the end based on their moves. It is a problem to lack transparency to the players, and that’s an issue the team needs to correct going forward, to avoid what we’ve heard over the weekend.