WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — On Friday, Pirates third baseman David Freese told his truth in regards to the practices of the Pirates’ front office.
After conversations with a few other individuals with experience in the Pirates clubhouse, it seems more likely that Freese’s remarks represent the truth, and not just his version of it.
In a 21-minute session with the media, Freese hit on a number of topics, but his main complaints were that the Pirates front office and management team had allowed the clubhouse of the team to become one of complacency, where winning was not always prioritized and that the team did not do right by recently traded outfielder Andrew McCutchen.
Manager Clint Hurdle said later on Friday that he sees differently than Freese does, but did not specifically dispute any of Freese’s points, saying that “you can’t argue with somebody about their perception” and that he valued Freese’s opinion.
On Saturday on the other side of Florida, former Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole said that Freese’s comments were spot on.
“I think a lot of things that he said were right,” Cole said in a one-on-one interview with Pirates Prospects. “The demand to win — the word ‘win’ was not used a lot. That was something that was brought up amongst the players a lot. Accountability was another one. Like he said, that falls on everybody. Accountability is like currency. It goes both ways.”
Freese said that the team culture over the last two seasons was a contrast to what he observed as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals when playing against the Pirates in 2013. Cole agreed that the departures of players like A.J. Burnett, Russel Martin, and Neil Walker had an effect beyond their statistical contributions.
“In that regard, for sure,” Cole said. “David’s one of those guys that’s always going to shoot you straight. He’s always going to be honest. Coming from a guy who is one of the best clutch performers of all time, a World Series champion, and a stand-up human being, you respect what he has to say.”
Another point that Freese raised was the way the team treated star center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Freese agreed that the timing was right for the Pirates to trade McCutchen this January, but that the team did not do right by him while he was in Pittsburgh.
“You look at a guy like Cutch, and I think he deserved better, just in the sense that he’s a guy that took this organization from the ground into the spotlight,” Freese said. “He did it, nobody else. He was the center of it. I just hope all the people in Pittsburgh, all the fans, you wish that it had been different for him, surrounding him with a group that just wanted to beat some ass for him.”
Cole referenced the two-plus years of drama and rumors that preceded McCutchen’s departure as a source of contention.
“If they’re going to dangle the franchise guy out there for two and a half years, they’re certainly going to do it to anybody,” Cole said in regards to rumors of trades. “It’s hard not to pick up on the signs.”
Freese also lamented the way the Pirates’ small-market tendencies essentially seal the fate of young players that come up through its system and hinted that it affects the way players perform.
That’s something that Cole is imminently familiar with. As a former first-round draft pick and a player that rose to stardom in the Pirates’ ranks, he was keenly aware that it would likely end with “Cole” and “45” stitched on a different-colored piece of fabric, as it has with the Astros this spring.
“I think when you look at the contracts that have been signed, 32 is a pretty good number,” Cole said. “If you’re older than 32, you probably won’t be over there anymore. … It’s pretty well-known in that clubhouse exactly how it’s going to shake down. ”
Cole said he didn’t feel that his inevitable departure from Pittsburgh — made official by a trade to the Astros in January — was a distraction.
“It’s out of your control,” he said. “I said it a million times when I was over there. If I pitch good, we win ball games and we’ve got a chance to make the playoffs. If I pitch good (and we don’t), maybe some other team wants me. Either way, my job is to pitch good. That’s really all I focused on.”
But he said he might have different feelings if he’d signed a long-term contract with the intention of staying in Pittsburgh.
“I think if you maybe asked someone else that question, that maybe wanted a commitment from the organization, that made a commitment to them earlier, they may give you a different answer,” Cole said. “Especially when you talk to Andrew. He signed that deal. A deal is a deal, business is business, but the idea was to buy into the organization long-term and vice versa and not just have one contract there but play out his time in Pittsburgh. That was his dream and as far as I know, he communicated that from the very beginning.”
Cole and Freese’s contention with the regards to the treatment of McCutchen seems to be that a long-term contract signed at a discount by a star player should come with the promise of building around him, or at least, being honest and up-front about the way things will be handled.
Freese specifically mentioned current Pirates starter Jameson Taillon as a player that will be presented with that decision in the near future. Taillon won’t be a free agent until the 2023 season, but between now and then, he’ll likely be asked to sign a team-friendly deal. Taillon said that the Pirates haven’t approached him about an extension, and that he doesn’t think about it considering the ups and downs of his early career. The careers of McCutchen and Cole certainly present a chilling precedent for Taillon to evaluate.
“Financially, you take care of your business and you’ll be taken care of,” Taillon said in an interview with Tim Williams. “David is coming from the Cardinals, so you see that’s an organization where they’ve taken care of young guys. They’ve kept their own. They’ve promoted a winning culture. So what David is saying about demanding to win and having a winning attitude, we need to find people to keep around and promote that culture. It’s tricky. I know how we have to operate. I understand what’s going on. I respect David’s comments. I think it’s healthy to air it out and address it. Let’s all not shy away from saying it. Let’s address it, let’s confront it, let’s fix it, and get better.”
There are players on almost every team that at some point find them worth more than the organization can afford. That can happen to any team in any sport, even well-funded ones like the New York Yankees, who just let free agent outfielder Todd Frazier walk to the cross-town Mets. It is certainly more common on teams that operate under a smaller budget like the Pirates. But similar complaints of lack of accountability and with regards to the handling of players haven’t been routinely made against other small market teams that also operate on shoestring budgets.
It seems that for whatever reason, there has been a significant erosion of trust between the players and the Pirates front office that some believe has affected the way the team plays on the field. As the Pirates re-build with a new group of players, many of which have been brought in from outside the organization, an opportunity exists to rectify some of these deficits, perceived or otherwise.
“When you accumulate all the information from a lot of different people — especially guys with experience and David would fall into that category — you listen, you find truth and then you talk about opportunities to improve, areas to improve, methods to improve,” Hurdle said.
Those buzzwords may need to be a mantra if management hopes to turn things around in this regard.