First Pitch: The Realities of the Pirates’ GM Search Start to Intrude

When he fired Neal Huntington, Bob Nutting had a lot of high-minded things to say.  The Pirates were going to find a new general manager quickly and set about “refreshing” all their baseball operations.  Of course, the fans, or at least the ones who follow the team closely, figured that meant a complete housecleaning, in particular major changes in the personnel who’ve run a largely unproductive farm system over the last dozen years.  Despite the initial enthusiasm, driven by justifiable impatience with a team that’s obviously been foundering for several years, it’s really going to be a long haul.

One indication is the Pirates’ hiring of a search firm, Korn Ferry, to help with their GM search.  Jason Mackey has an excellent article at the Post-Gazette about the move.  Mackey talked to people around baseball and got good feedback, the main point being that the Pirates are out of touch with the way teams are run now and need the help.  One exec said the Pirates need to get somebody who understands the “collaborative nature of healthy front offices,” adding that “[i]t’s more than a couple of friends at the top making decisions.”  One exec also was “mortified” that names like Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter were popping up, stating that it would be “an unmitigated [expletive] disaster” if the Pirates hired somebody like that.  The people Mackey spoke to also emphasized that hiring a search firm showed the Pirates wanted to cast a wide net.  That sort of thing takes time.

Personally, I thought the news about the search firm was very good, with one significant caveat.  The comments Mackey heard confirmed two things I’d already become convinced of.  First, the Pirates under Neal Huntington in just a few years fell far behind the rest of MLB in front office management.  I think this goes well beyond just pitch selection.  Huntington’s entire understanding of how successful teams are built — such as his obsessions with years of control and quantity over quality — seemed badly at odds with the way successful teams are run.  Second, it’s not likely that Bob Nutting and Travis Williams are equipped to run a baseball GM search on their own.  If we’re lucky, a firm with experience conducting MLB executive searches will be able to help the Pirates find somebody who’s steeped in more advanced baseball management practices than the Pirates have been.  And that should also mean steering the Pirates away from people like Duquette and Showalter, who are the antithesis of that.

The caveat is Korn Ferry’s record with minorities, which led MLB to sever ties with the firm three years ago.  Mackey raises this issue, as well as a related one of the firm consistently pushing candidates with ties to former Indians’ (now Blue Jays’) CEO Mark Shapiro, who evidently had connections to the search firm.  Hopefully, Korn Ferry has learned from the experience.

Another cautionary note is the experience of the Baltimore Orioles.  It took the O’s three months to replace Duquette with Mike Elias.  Hopefully, the Pirates will move more quickly.  The O’s have notoriously been plagued by uncertain lines of authority amongst Peter Angelos’ two sons and Brady Anderson, a problem the Pirates don’t have.  But Baltimore’s “refreshing” of its FO didn’t end with Elias’ hiring.  The team only recently did a major overhaul of its scouting operations, nearly a year afterward.  (Amusingly, the overhaul was greeted by media outrage that the O’s would dismiss longtime employees who’d helped the team become a byword for farm system dysfunction.)

There’s no particular reason that the new GM shouldn’t be able to make changes at the top fairly promptly.  Huntington himself brought in new farm and scouting directors very quickly.  But the typical farm system apparatus has grown much more complex since then.  In fact, to take a different example, pitching in general has become almost its own operation in some organizations at the major and minor league levels.  This is pretty apparent from an article (sub. req’d) by Eno Sarris on potential future pitching coaches.  These guys currently have titles like “assistant pitching coach,” “director of pitching,” “pitching strategist,” and “pitching coordinator.”  The Pirates themselves have a senior pitching coordinator, assistant pitching coordinator and Latin American pitching coordinator, in addition to various pitching coaches.  In the pitching area alone, building a system to reverse the Pirates’ failures is going to be a years-long process.

The good part is that, assuming the Pirates make the right choice with the big decision, it’s going to be interesting watching the new person build a system to address the team’s significant deficiencies.  But it’s going to take some patience, which won’t be easy after the frustrations of the past four years.


Hopefully, Bob Nutting’s assurances about the team’s GM search are more than just . . .



By John Dreker

Eight former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, including a slugger from the 1960 World Series champs.

Dick Stuart, first baseman for the 1958-62 Pirates. He hit 117 homers over his five seasons in Pittsburgh, including 23 for the 1960 champs. His best season was 1961 when he batted .301 with 35 homers and 117 RBIs. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1963 and hit 42 homers and 118 RBIs, which led the league. Stuart then played for five teams over his next four seasons in the majors. He hit 228 homers over ten seasons. Known just as much for his poor defense as his power, he led the league in errors for seven straight seasons at first base.

Kris Benson, pitcher for the Pirates from 1999 until 2004. Benson was the first overall pick in the 1996 draft and debuted in the majors three years later. He had a 43-49, 4.26 record in 126 starts with the Pirates before he was traded to the New York Mets. He won 70 big league games over nine years in the majors.

Todd Ritchie, pitcher for the 1999 to 2001 Pirates. He won 15 games during his first season in Pittsburgh after pitching two seasons in relief for the Minnesota Twins. Ritchie went 35-32, 4.29 in three seasons with the Pirates before being traded to the Chicago White Sox. He went 6-19 in three seasons after leaving Pittsburgh.

Dave Wainhouse, pitcher for the 1996-97 Pirates. In two seasons in Pittsburgh, he made 42 appearances and posted a 6.97 ERA in 51.2 innings. In seven seasons in the majors, he had a 7.37 ERA in 105 innings.

Andy Tomberlin, outfielder for the 1993 Pirates. As a rookie in 1993, he batted .286 in 45 plate appearances over 27 games. He played for five teams over six seasons in the majors, batting .233 in 191 games.

Bill Brubaker, third baseman for the Pirates from 1932 until 1940. He saw very limited time during each of his first four seasons, then started full-time in place of Pie Traynor in 1936 and drove in 102 runs. In his other eight seasons in Pittsburgh combined, he had 122 RBIs. He was a .262 hitter in 466 games.

Ed Mensor, outfielder for the 1912-14 Pirates. He was a backup for three seasons, playing all three outfield spots and even a few games in the infield in 1913. Mensor hit .221 with one homer in 127 games in the majors, all with the Pirates.

The Only Nolan, pitcher for the 1883 Alleghenys. He wasn’t the best pitcher out there, but he thought he was at times. Ed Nolan is forever known as The Only Nolan due to his desire to be the only pitcher for his team. He had a pro career that spanned ten years, with five seasons in the majors for five teams. Back when pitchers finished what they started so their win/loss record told a better story, he went 23-52, including losses in all seven starts for the 1883 Alleghenys.