Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington Discuss the Recent Player Complaints

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.

  • I’ll add that I’m fully on board with the goal of regularly getting to the postseason knowing that eventually things will break in your favor to go on a run like the Royals or Giants did from the WC spot. It’s a good debate as to whether this is a better strategy than tearing everything down and trying to create a super team like the 2017 Astros. Both have merits, but I like the plan to contend every year as opposed to the cycle approach. (Obviously we didn’t do enough the last two years to meet this goal, but that’s execution and not process and I trust Huntington and staff have learned lessons about executing their process the last two years.)

  • I’ll put myself in the small minority who remains supportive of Huntington. Has he made mistakes? Yes, and he’s said as much regarding the offseasons prior to 2016 and 2017. I think he’s also been hurt by a loss of front office talent due to their success in 2013-1015. But he’s smart and seems to constantly re-evaluate decisions, so I’m confident that he won’t repeat past mistakes.

    For those who say we should have done more to win the division in 2015, remember that we were just 26-24 at the end of May. I.e., the same group of players that went 72-40 played essentially .500 baseball for two months.

  • I guess you can put this into one word that will make hurdle and Huntington statements clear and that is NAVA.

    • Go to mlbtraderumors.com and look at the transactions that take place daily. There are deals like this completed by every team routinely. Drawing a conclusion for any deal like this, a minor league contract, is pretty lame.

  • Winning cures clubhouse issues. Period. I don’t fault what NH says at all regarding ‘spin’. I wish he would augment his message with more of what they are betting on –
    call it their annual assumptions [and people can openly debate and disagree with, but at least you know what they are thinking].

    “We believe we can be a winning ballclub in the mix for the post season. We believe that our pitching staff as constructed can achieve top 10 results. We believe that some combination of Adam Frazier and Jordan Luplow will yield above average production from LF, and we think Colin Moran can be a top half major league 3B.

    With Marte’s impact from a full year, and Polanco healthy again, we think they will be the players we expected when we signed them to those long term deals. We like our mix of young guys and veterans who will step up to the plate and deliver when called upon.

    We see a team that can compete this year to play in the post season, which enables us to play to win a World Series.”

    • Not sure that is possible. Then fans read things into people that are not mentioned and challenge the assertions that he makes. He does what you are suggesting, in broad strokes. The other aspect is increasing expectations for particular players that may not handle the pressure well. I get that they are professionals, but, it seems to me that the professional athletes of today have fragile personalities and are pretty childish.

  • The value of an AJ Burnette-esque player with some tread left on the tires cannot be discounted. Freese’s comments seem the most revealing. Bucs could use an edgy piss & vinegar personality who simply will not accept losing as the norm.

    • Everyone liked AJ for his attitude, until it became a problem. Then he went to Philly until he recognized what he was missing. AJ had more than his share of mediocrity as a Yankee. Pirate fans seem to forget that when talking about winners. Not sure how he was held accountable there or even what that means. Players have off seasons.

  • This is the part of this article that got my attention…..

    “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.”

    That means that Freese, SRod, JHay, Cole, and to some degree Taiilion were only vocalizing what a bothered a lot of the team.

    • But Dan they went to the media instead of discussing this behind closed doors and threw their young players under the bus and didn’t do anything to help and didn’t take responsibility for themselves and should just shut up and play instead of being spoiled millionaires.

      So I’m told on the interwebz.

      • If the same stuff was discussed before Cutch and Cole were traded, it’s probably legitimate. One article said that there was a lackadaisical – non-fired up (my words as I can’t remember) atmosphere in the clubhouse. At least since a few of the guys put it out there, management has more pressure to deal with it. Although, I think some of it is on the players. Some of the guys could be saying “charge!” 🙂

      • Tell me, what positive purpose does it serve to discuss this with the media after talking to the boss behind closed doors?

  • Either the triumvirate don’t care that we don’t believe them or they think that we are stupid and dumb.

    Either one sucks.

    I may have fun watching the youngsters this year. But expecting a playoff team is really really stretching it.

  • I stopped believing in NH after the hubristic “pitchers should pay us to come here” comment directed at Happ, which resulted in Walker for Niese and then Vogelsong.

    Maybe Musgrove and the other pitchers acquired combine for more WAR than Cole. Maybe Moran is what the Stros think he was and solves our 3b issue. Let’s say all that comes to pass. This team still has a crap OF, two pretty average (or worse) catchers and is weak defensively up the middle for a team that’s still committed to shifts and groundballs. It’s not positioned to win or even compete. Certainly not this year. Probably not next. Which is too bad because it may only take 2-3 additional moves to make that happen.

    I do believe we have a pretty good rotation and an above average pen. But they’re not going to throw shutouts every time out, which seems necessary given the lack of offense and defense.

    • My hope is that by June 2019 tucker is ready to step in and hopefully be a 3 war or better ss. Big qualifier but that would make this team a lot better provided Moran is a real answer at 3b.

      I’m throwing 2017 out window for polanco. I think this outfield could approach average or slightly better.

      But in 2019-20 they should have money to spend even with their minuscule budget. They need to get a good catcher and fill some other holes.

      One thing I do like is as fragile as pitchers are I think we have a pretty good assembly line. Nh has done that pretty well. Now the hitters, smh

      I really hope Meadows turns it around

    • “But they’re not going to throw shutouts every time out, which seems necessary given the lack of offense and defense.”

      My iPhone started smelling like Grandpa’s cattle farm after reading this. Coincidence? I think not.

  • Man, this guy sure knows how to miss a point.

    He thinks this is about the *delivery* of his message, the *manner* in which it’s communicated.

    In reality, it’s the *content* of what he’s saying. The *content* of his message is what players are calling out; why fans are pissed. They’re calling bullsh*t, and yet Huntington perceives this as a matter he can manipulate.

    Huntington thinks this is about “getting in front of the narrative”, not the actual direction he’s taking this organization.

  • ““Obviously we’re missing something with the message,” HMMMMM maybe it has something to do with payroll being 80 percent of what it’s been lately.

    i really do like neal huntington. i think he’s a good guy and a smart guy and had done a good job. but my goodness… to pretend that he doesnt understand why players are confused about the intentions. come on, dude.

    • Yeah, more and more convinced he’s clearly over his head in this role. No doubt he’s a great guy and a good baseball man, but this has to be weighing on him personally. This is a public embarrassment.

      • i dont necessarily agree that he’s over his head. i think he’s probably an average GM.

        but the social skills. my god.

        people always accuse them of “spin.” i dont think i agree. i dont think the Pirates would know a well-spun story if it smacked them in the face.

        Neal Huntington is the *worst* at spin.

        coming from me, who you probably have grown to realize is generally positive about the team and moves they make.

        it’s frustrating to like a move, and then hear the explanation / spin of it totally butchered.

        fine gm. awful public face of a front office.

        so yeah. i guess that’s a part of the job. so maybe he is in over his head.

        i dont know if you live in pittsburgh or care about the penguins, but it’s always sooooo refreshing to hear Jim Rutherford talk. he doesnt pretend like it’s a super secret to the rest of the league the Penguins are looking for X in a trade. “yeah, we’re looking for a center, but we aren’t going to force it.”

        none of the NHL gives a s*** that he says that, but it’s awesome as a fan to just hear stuff like that straight from a GM’s mouth.

        • I’ve been saying this! Neal needs a good mouthpiece like a good wrestler with bad mic skills needs a manager.

        • I agree here. I feel NH is pretty competent, just simply not a good “face of the franchise”. Speak is too robotic, too analytical, not enough passion, not enough competitiveness. Doesn’t make him a bad guy or bad at his job, just makes him bad as public face. And frankly, even as an apologist, a little tiring after more than a decade.

        • Like I said below, my view is that the mealymouthed public comments are a symptom, not a cause, of the frustration right now. There’s only so much window dressing you can put on failing strategy.

          Still though, I can sympathize with your “good moves” frustration comment.

          As for the rest, IMO, an “average” GM with bottom-barrel resources unfortunately falls into the category of being in over his head. Teams have never before valued players more equivalently, and Huntington has proven to have fallen behind in strategy and execution.Nobody would ever confuse him for an expert negotiator, either, which come to think of it might tie back to your “spin” comments.

          • I think the conclusion i’m ultimately coming to is that i’d love for Huntington to stay around in an assistant capacity, and for them to get one of those young Ivy League David Stearns types to be GM.

            • Frankly, he seems more cut out for an ops position at this point.

              • I completely agree. He should be the right hand man of the leader. Suggesting and executing theories but leaving the final decisions up to a more savvy and visionary leader to communicate.

                • Yeah, and he was executive of the year in 2015 if I recall correctly. He would get scooped up as GM or probably Pres of an organization if he were to leave PGH, fans sentiments based on their unrealistic review of 2016/17 notwithstanding.

  • I don’t believe NH when he says that if the trades wouldn’t have been there to push across, he would have added to the team, addressing some of there weaknesses in creative ways.

    Don’t believe that for one second.

  • Closure? Does that mean Freese and Harrison have finished having their pity party and get down to the business of playing baseball. You know, what you were hired, and are paid handsomely to do!

  • Neil Huntington, you are very very wrong. I, as a fan, am not upset that you didn’t do enough as GM to win in 2016 or 2017. I am upset that you didn’t do enough to win in 2013-2015, you know, the years you had a playoff caliber team. When you start to grasp that, then you will understand the outrage from players and fans.
    Hurdle, shut up and retire.

    • one of my biggest gripes with him will always be not pushing more to win the division in 2015.

      i still wish he’d made the rumored Josh Bell for Jon Lester deal.

      after losing the 2014 WC game, and seeing Arrieta on the horizon, how could you not push in some chips to try to win the division?

      would we really be that worse off today… if they had dealt bell…and had to spend 4 million on Matt Adams or 8 million on Yonder Alonso or whatever? not really.

      • The odd thing about the end of the 2014 season was: what were our needs?

        After moving Alvarez to 1B, we only needed to replace Martin which we did with Cervelli. We also got Kang for the bench.

        We had Cole, Liriano, Worley, Morton, and Locke and we added AJ.

        We lost Grilli and Wilson and could have used some help in the pen (we eventually got Soria and Blanton).

        So our “needs” would have been:
        #3 starter
        Back up OF
        7th inning guy
        LH relief

        • sure, but i’m more talking about further into the season when it was clear that a division race was actually happening

        • “We had Cole, Liriano, Worley, Morton, and Locke”

          • I get your point but none of those guys had an ERA over 3.91 in 2014. And we added AJ.

            It is revisionist history to look at the future versions of those guys and pretend they were horrible in 2014

      • I also think you are misremembering 2013 and 2014. We were only three and two games back those years. I think we made good pick ups in 2013 (Byrd, Buck, and Morneau).

        We should have done more in the 2013 offseason instead of heading into 2014 without a 1B or a RF. And we still didn’t address the need at the deadline.

        That left us trying to tie the Cards on the final weekend of the season. And since they didn’t change the rules where all teams play at the same time on the last day. So we burned Cole and Liriano and still didn’t win the division. Then we had to use Volquez in the Wild Card game…

        • Have you looked at 2013-2015 attendance and where it ranked. Our record breaking season in 2015 still left us 15th in MLB. That is the 3rd playoff season playing championship caliber ball for 162 games. Teams spend based on revenue/projected revenue. If 15th in attendance is the best that you get after 3 season having the 2nd best record in MLB you dont project to do more. You have topped out attendance wise and a decline is likely. See 1992. You want more payroll. Go to games.

    • I agree that they could have and should have done more after the 2013 season. That was their missed opportunity.

      I have to disagree that bringing up a player on April 1 vs April 30 is worth a complete year of control -and truthfully, I don’t think you can site an example of a player with no big league experience who was clearly better (on April 1) than the veteran he replaced later that year. (The Cubs held rookie Kris Bryant back when he should have played but that is very rare.)

      Cole wasn’t ready, Polanco wasn’t ready, Bell wasn’t ready, and while Taillon was close they knew he couldn’t handle 6 months of pitching after pitching infrequently the previous two years. And no one is ready this year…

      As for NH, he was in an impossible position. He had a 75-win team. And he said that he wasn’t set on anything and would trade the players if it made the Pirates better – which is exactly what he did. He explored the options and felt that these trades gave us about the same chance of winning this year along with a much better chance of winning in the future. You can argue his success in accomplishing the goal but it doesn’t sound like a lie.

      • You are correct. I was thinking the wait to prevent Super 2 status, but typed the wrong thing.

  • I can’t stand when NH talks. He says he does not like and then makes himself look like a liar with the transparency crap. They had Cutch out there to be traded after 2016 with a much better offer than they got after 2017. I get the one extra year of control, but he was coming off a pretty bad year as well. Cole trade I believe makes sense. They believe they received a good starting pitcher, third baseman, and reliever for a starting pitcher. That’s a good trade to me. Cutch… Basically a comp pick which they had with Cutch and hopefully a reliever in Crick, but they gonna send Giants cash as well! Poor trade.

  • I really liked the part about how David and Sean like these young guys and want to help this team turn it around. They may like these guys, but any GM who thinks they’d be willing to get less playing time in favor of one of the younger guys, is delusional.

    Freese has been an excellent add; Rodriguez not so much for the $7 mil of his contract the Pirates accepted to get a slash of .168/.255/.274/.528 OPS. Can he be DFA’d where the Pirates would only pay 16% of his $5 mil salary if he is not picked up by another team? I think they did that with Jared Hughes last year.

    • Unfortunately I think that’s only possible with the arbitration players. Hughes was a 4th year arb Guy last year. I would certainly agree that Rodriguez is superfluous at this point. Rather see what Moroff could do in an expanded role

    • SRod came back early from what was thought to be a season ending injury. I say give him a chance to show he can be what he was for the team in years past.

      Plus, in case you hadn’t noticed, Pirates don’t need any payroll flexibility this year.

    • It’s pretty well-established that the pirates didn’t sign S-Rod for 2017 right after he came back early from serious injury. They signed him for this year when fully healthy. So dfa-ing him now would not be smart. If he can come close to his 2016 numbers while playing good defense, he’ll be worth it.

  • Hurdle needs to spend more time in the clubhouse, especially now. I find it somewhat encouraging that Neal takes responsibility for the current state of affairs, but talk is cheap. I can understand, to an extent, saying one thing about the organization’s intentions for the upcoming season, then doing a different thing. The Pirates are operating in a highly complex, extremely competitive environment, with fewer financial resources to cover mistakes and competitors who are just as, if not smarter than, the Pirates’ management, and equally determined to gain every advantage for their organizations. Uncertainty is a tactical advantage in that environment.

    If the cultural and communications issues have been addressed since the end of last season, why are we hearing about them now? Is it just the trades? Are there some bellyachers and clubhouse lawyers on the roster? The fundamental basis of human relations, imo, is the answer to the question: Who is Us? Who is Them? Ungrammatical, I know, but if the players start thinking of themselves as us; and team management as them, we are in for a long season.

Menu