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Extending manager, GM a curious move by Pirates
The Pirates, like many perennial also-rans, seem to exist in their own universe, insisting that all is well while losing and losing and losing some more.
Here’s one possible reason that manager John Russell is not in danger of being fired even though the Pirates lost their 10th straight game with a six-error performance Wednesday night, falling to a National League-worst 23-42:
The Pirates already have exercised Russell’s club option for next season and extended general manager Neal Huntington’s contract through 2011.
Club president Frank Coonelly confirmed the news, first reported in an earlier version of this column, in a statement released Thursday afternoon.
Previous reports had said that the deals for both Huntington and Russell expired after this season. Coonelly said in his statement that Russell’s added security was not a factor in the team’s decision to stand by him.
“We understand the very difficult job that we have given JR as we have completely revamped an underachieving veteran roster and invested heavily in the acquisition and development of young players who can return the Pirates to winning baseball,” Coonelly said.
“While dismissing the manager when the club is performing poorly is common in this industry, it is not the appropriate response in this case. JR's contract status has played no role in this determination.”
While the Pirates were under no obligation to disclose the contractual statuses of Russell and Huntington, clubs often benefit from revealing such information, particularly about a manager.
The confirmation that Russell is signed through ’11 not only should quell media, fan and even internal speculation, but also sends a message to the players that the manager is not a lame duck and enjoys the support of the organization.
On the other hand, the Pirates are headed for their record 18th straight losing season, and their third straight under Huntington and Russell. Average home attendance has dropped from 19,749 last season to 17,578 this season. The Pirates could face additional backlash after announcing that their management team is staying intact.
Russell, of course, could get fired even if he is signed through ‘11; his salary is not known, but surely is lower than those of two players the Pirates have purged this season – infielder Ramon Vazquez, who was owed $2 million when the Pirates released him in April; and second baseman Akinori Iwamura, who was designated for assignment Wednesday and is owed the balance of $4.8 million.
Coonelly and Huntington say they are not talking about firing Russell. But sentiment exists, above and below them, that a new manager is necessary, sources say. Some members of the team’s ownership group want to make changes to demonstrate to fans the franchise’s commitment to winning. It is not clear whether Bob Nutting, who owns approximately 75 to 80 percent of the Pirates, is part of those discussions.
How can he not be?
How can Russell be this secure?
The Pirates are in the middle of a transition, summoning three of their top prospects — third baseman Pedro Alvarez, right-hander Brad Lincoln and outfielder Jose Tabata — within the past week. Rather than starting fresh under a new manager, the Pirates are allowing those players to absorb their losing culture.
Russell’s .392 winning percentage is even lower than those of his predecessors, Jim Tracy, who had a .417 winning percentage in two seasons; and Lloyd McClendon, who had a .430 winning percentage in five.
The Pirates’ annual flops are all the more incredible considering that – unlike, the Orioles and Royals – they play in the National League, where the competition is less formidable than in the AL.
There is a dubious silver lining this season: The Pirates’ minus-153 run differential, worst in the majors, actually indicates that they are winning more games than they should. Still, it’s difficult to argue that the team is playing to its potential. Some scouts criticize the Pirates’ poor fundamentals; others question whether the players are properly motivated.
Then again, the club at its best is not good.
Huntington, according to one source, is reluctant to fire Russell for the same admirable reason that Brewers GM Doug Melvin has been reluctant to fire Ken Macha: The greater blame, Huntington believes, should go to himself.
The Pirates’ constant turnover under Huntington has forced Russell to repeatedly incorporate new players. Many of Huntington’s trades, most notably the four-player return for outfielder Jason Bay, have proven, at least to this point, unsuccessful.
Huntington even is involved in strategy, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this season that he and his statistical analysts play significant roles in forming the team’s defensive shifts.
The bottom line, according to a source, is that Huntington still believes in Russell, even as questions mount about the manager’s impassive demeanor, communication skills and leadership ability.
There also is this: The firing of Russell would lead to even greater scrutiny of Huntington and Coonelly, once described by Nutting – seriously — as the “single best management team in all of baseball, maybe in all of sports.”
The promotions of Alvarez, Lincoln and Tabata represent hope. The players’ union tacitly endorsed the Pirates’ rebuilding plan – and specifically, their investment in player development and scouting – by declining to force the club to increase payroll the way it did with the Marlins.
Perhaps the Pirates simply need more time, Huntington in particular. But does anyone seriously believe the team will bring back Russell if he loses 95 or more games for the third straight season?
If the Pirates will not at least consider a managerial change, they indeed are operating in a faraway universe, uncertain to return.
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