As I am sure you have seen on some other sites, the Pirates invited a few of us bloggers to PirateFest Friday night for a chance to pick the brains of Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington and Paul Maholm. Charlie Wilmoth and Vlad have shared their thoughts at Bucs Dugout, and you can also read recaps from Kevin Creagh at Pirates Prospects (with audio) and Kristy Robinson at Pirates Booty. Tom Smith of Rum Bunter was also there, as were the folks from Bucco Zone (unfortunately, I did not catch their names). I am not going to go too in-depth, to avoid repeating information already posted on the other sites, but I thought I would touch on a few subjects that came up.
Huntington acknowledged having some level of discussion with the Rays about Matt Garza and James Shields, but noted the Pirates are not quite at the point where they can afford to lose the amount of talent necessary to acquire those players. He also said they would “absolutely” look into trading some of the team’s minor league depth to boost the major league team, especially with the number of players who will be eligible for the next Rule 5 draft. This will be interesting to follow this season, as Huntington’s first draft class will begin reaching Rule 5 eligibility in December. The Pirates will have to find a way to add players such as Chase d’Arnaud, Jeremy Farrell, Matt Hague, Josh Harrison, Andrew Lambo, Quincy Latimore, Brett Lorin, Starling Marte, Jordy Mercer, Diego Moreno, Rogelis Noris, Rudy Owens, Aaron Pribanic, Justin Wilson and Tim Alderson to the 40-man roster, or risk losing them. (Thanks to the Pirates Prospects Guide for that list.) This will be an issue each season moving forward, so expect Huntington to be a bit more willing to deal some of these players. Huntington also mentioned that the team has tried to acquire Chris Archer (recently traded to the Rays in the Garza deal) on two occasions.
I was surprised at the comments from both Huntington and Coonelly regarding the possibility of hard slotting in future drafts. They did not seem to see it as a large threat to their ability to acquire impact prospects, and seemed almost in favor of it. Maybe they were simply saying the right things publicly, or maybe they have a plan to utilize a different draft strategy if hard slotting does become a reality. Both focused on that latter point while providing their responses. They spoke pretty generally without mentioning any specific strategy they planned to employ, but neither seemed at all concerned about the possibility.
During the discussion on hard slotting, both Huntington and Coonelly maintained that they are in favor of anything that is beneficial to the league as a whole. Thinking about it now, I wish I had asked them a follow-up question about this. It seems to me that a hard slotting system would hurt the league to some degree, by encouraging talented high school players to go to college instead of jumping right into professional ball. If these players are generally swayed away from college by over-slot bonuses, I don’t see how teams would convince them to pass up their education without being able to offer those bonuses. It seems this would cause the overall talent in the minor leagues to decline.
Coonelly clearly did not like the poor rankings of the Pirates farm system that were recently released by Baseball America and Keith Law, and you could really see his competitive nature here. He was very high on Owens, and it sounded like he expects to see him in Pittsburgh very soon. Huntington did not seem very concerned with the rankings, emphasizing that the team’s focus is on preparing players to impact the major league roster. He cited the young talent already on the major league roster as a contributing factor to the poor ranking, and also mentioned the numerous injuries to prospects in 2010.
I should also note that Clint Hurdle was the star of the public Q&A session, and consequently did not make it back to our behind-the-scenes roundtable. His answers were passionate and genuine, and he did not sugarcoat any of his responses. The crowd loved him, and one fan stepped to the microphone to declare that his hiring was the best decision the front office has made. He was the anti-John Russell, at least based on personality.
The Pirates deserve credit for agreeing to this event, and thanks to Matt Nordby for organizing everything. (Special thanks is also due to Tom of Rum Bunter for initially getting the wheels moving.) It was a nice gesture, and they seemed open to continuing a relationship with us in the future. Maholm, Huntington and Coonelly were all open and willing to answer any question. As a few people have mentioned, none hesitated to continue chatting past the allotted time.