Kovacevic: Nutting scapegoats Hurdle, keeps failed front office intact


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The Pirates doff their caps to Steve Blass during the seventh-inning stretch Sunday at PNC Park. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Bob Nutting doesn't care about the Pirates.

So why do you?

The man who owns and operates this 133-year-old, once-proud civic institution doesn't care whether they succeed or fail on the field. Now, more demonstrably than ever, he doesn't care.

So why do you?

No, really, why do you?

At 1:53 p.m., Clint Hurdle was formally fired. It was announced via email by, of all people, Neal Huntington, that the team and the manager had reached a mutual parting of the ways. Which was an outright lie. I spoke with Hurdle in his PNC Park office this morning, one-on-one. He sounded very much like a man who had every intention of returning. No, he hadn't been told that, as I reported exclusively late Thursday night. But he wanted to return.

Since they lack the courage to call it what it was, I'll do that: He was fired.

Full context:

At 2:04 p.m., there was another announcement via email, this from Nutting. He offered all the standard platitudes for Hurdle, then made clear -- albeit, again, without explicitly stating so -- that Huntington, the front office and baseball operations would remain intact.

More full context:

This was part of Nutting's statement, and it comes with a warning for those prone to nausea: “While we felt it was time to make a change at the managerial level, I strongly believe that Neal Huntington and the leadership team that he has assembled are the right people to continue to lead our baseball operations department."

This man strongly believes that the GM of a 69-91 team, of eight losing seasons out of 12, of zero division titles, of trading away three potentially elite talents for Chris Archer, of trading away the best pitcher in baseball for four Joes, of all this ...

... he believes those are "the right people" to lead the Pirates.

Hurdle certainly had his shortcomings as a manager, but it would require a complete lobotomy to believe he represented even a fraction of the Pirates' problems when it couldn't be more obvious, with every third-inning call to the pen, with every exasperated trip to the mound, with every futile call-up from Indianapolis, that the real problem is what's in that graphic above.

That's based on research published a week ago by the renowned analytical site No agendas. Nothing personal. Not even any names listed. Just hard data to support what I'd been writing for years: The talent isn't here. And the reason the talent isn't here is that it hasn't been drafted or developed.

Wait, there's more from Nutting: “This has easily been the most difficult season of my tenure. Today, we announced that we are parting ways with Clint, but make no mistake about it, this is by no means a statement that our shortcomings are solely Clint’s fault. The entire organization is accountable and that begins with me."

Really? How?

Want to show actual accountability?

Put the damned team up for sale. Try that instead. Give Pittsburgh a chance to reclaim its baseball franchise. Give someone with some pride a shot to be a proper steward.

Continuing: “Neal and his leadership team are well into an extensive review of every element of our baseball operations. In addition, as an organization, we need to improve in the ways we connect with our fans."

Wait, now this is a PR problem? A perception problem? Because we're all so stupid? Because what we lack is a stronger connection to better understand the brilliance of, say, pounding on the table to project Erik Gonzalez as the starting shortstop?

More: “It is very clear that we need to and will be better. There is no quick fix, but we are absolutely committed to the task. I believe we can and will achieve it.”

Nothing Nutting says means anything. He took controlling interest in the team in 2007. He hired Frank Coonelly shortly thereafter, then Coonelly hired Huntington, Kyle Stark and all the rest. And all that's happened since then is spectacular failure, but for three years in which they made the playoffs through Dave Littlefield's amateur acquisitions -- Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Starling Marte, etc -- plus a handful of smart outside acquisitions recommended by smart baseball men who've since left the Pirates because they felt their voices weren't being heard by the hunkered-down duo of Huntington and Stark.

Nutting's no baseball man, but he knows enough to know that what's in that previous paragraph is the truth.

Want more truth?

Here goes ...

• Nutting has always feared losing Coonelly. In 2011, when he strongly considered firing Huntington and Stark over the 'Hoka Hey' fiasco, he expressed to me one concern above all: If Huntington would go, then so would Coonelly. Why that was a concern, I didn't understand and still don't. But it was. And it clearly applies to this date. Is it because Coonelly oversees the business end and, thus, ensures that profit always comes before anything else? That'd be my guess.

• Nutting can't see beyond the nickel in front of his feet. He's cheaper than anyone can conceive. So, when faced with the possibility of paying Huntington the two remaining years of his contract to not work or, you know, improving the team's general vibe in advance of negotiating mega-lucrative extensions for local TV and stadium naming rights deals ... he bent over for the nickel.

• Huntington, Stark and his people are super-smooth when it comes to cooking the analytics to make themselves look good. One hears it every Sunday on the weekly radio show, when he'll occasionally blurt one out such as the infamous declaration that, if only the Pirates had won one more game each month, they'd be in a better spot. There's zero doubt in my mind that was persuasive in this process.

• It couldn't be more obvious that Jeff Banister will replace Hurdle as manager. That was obvious the day Huntington brought him back after his tenure in that role with the Rangers. Banister's one of my favorite people in sports. But nothing changes so long as Huntington/Stark run baseball ops. Because Banister will be in Pittsburgh while the other two are butchering the drafting and developing and, in turn, ensuring Banister will be calling upon the same trash middle relief that was foisted upon Hurdle.

• The new manager will be told he'll have more say in baseball ops, as I've already heard. Big whoop. Again, the game-day manager for a Monday night at Dodger Stadium doesn't have the time or the energy to solve a mess being made in Altoona.

Ray Searage will be fired, too, but don't be surprised to see the hitting coaches, Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz, retained.

• Huntington, at his press conference a few minutes after the announcements, described what's to come: “We are in the midst of a deep assessment, as we do every offseason, about what is going right, what is going wrong, and we get it right again, and most importantly, how we return the Pittsburgh Pirates to October baseball and better days.” There are those catch-phrases again, the 'get it right again' that's been spouted publicly by Coonelly, too. Because all that counts in their eyes were the three years.

• Huntington was asked what happens next, and hold your nose for what follows: "Honor Clint. Appreciate Clint. Recognize the next person coming in the door has big shoes to fill." These people spent the past two months rolling Hurdle under every bus in the Greyhound garage, but their first priority after getting him canned is to honor him. I can't. I just can't.

• When Huntington was asked what he can do to improve, he opened his reply with this: “We’ve continued to go through the assessment of our draft process, of our player development process." It's the first time in 12 years he's acknowledged this. That's how stubborn they've been about it. That tells me that it came up in conversations with Nutting. But then, that tells me Nutting still didn't care enough about the results to make a change.

• Among Huntington's other areas he plans to examine: "We’ll finish up the season now and assess exactly what went right and what didn’t with this major-league team, where does this direction go in the offseason, how do we do what we’re talking about doing, our pro scouting. We’ll review basically everything – our medical, our mental skills, our strength and conditioning, our decision-making process, our informatics. We are in the midst of assessing everything." Well, good luck with those mental skills and informatics. Sounds like that could represent the real pivoting point.

• Notice that, in the Nutting statement, there isn't even a mention of Coonelly. As if he's somehow excelled to such a degree that he's above it all.

• No Nutting press conference, by the way. No questions for the owner. Must be that accountability he was referencing.

• Hurdle's as good a man as I've known in this business. He'll be missed. I'll repeat from above: He had his shortcomings as a manager. They all do. And the clubhouse issues weren't a good look, whether his fault or not. But he always struck a commanding yet kind presence, always cared about those around him and -- gasp -- whether or not the Pirates succeeded or failed.

• All that matters to this owner is the money. Nothing else. Nothing. And every day that he owns the Pirates is another day they'll have no prayer of winning another World Series.

He doesn't care.

I'll ask it yet again: Why do you?


[caption id="attachment_895792" align="aligncenter" width="1000"] Pirates vs. Reds, PNC Park, Sept. 29, 2019 -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS[/caption]

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