Williams: It Appears the Lack of Direction From the Pirates Has Been Noticed by the Players

BRADENTON, Fla. – This past weekend provided a crazy start to Spring Training for the Pirates. David Freese, Gerrit Cole, and Josh Harrison all spoke out about problems the Pirates had.

Freese said the team lacked a winning culture.

Cole agreed with Freese, and added some more points about the Andrew McCutchen trade.

Harrison talked about a lack of communication in the organization.

Then, on Sunday, Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington had their say, noting that they’ve already had these conversations with the players well before they were made public issues. They also addressed the possible breakdown in communications.

This situation has been interesting to watch from the reporting side. There are some things that Alan Saunders and I have heard from the players in off-the-record interviews that put some stuff in perspective. There are some interviews where the tone of the interview doesn’t fully match the worst parts of the interview. And there were a lot of vague comments, because players wanted to bring up the issues, but didn’t want to fully go into the details and make them public.

This has led to a lot of confusion on the outside. I’ve seen a lot of common takes over the last few days. People have applied the comments to place blame on one individual person based on their pre-conceived beliefs. That ranges from Bob Nutting to Neal Huntington to Clint Hurdle, and even to the individual players or the players as a whole. I can say that if you’re putting the blame on just one person, then you’re not getting the full scope of what’s happening here. This is not an issue with any one person in the organization. It’s an issue that involves factors from all across the organization in different ways.

I’ve also seen people saying that the real problem was that the players didn’t perform. That they are professionals, and it’s weak of the players to need someone else to tell them to play well. This is somewhat true. It’s true that the players didn’t perform. But the underlying issue is that there wasn’t consistent accountability across the board. It was acceptable for some players to struggle, while other players were held accountable for it. That leads to an atmosphere where some players can struggle with no repercussions, which leads to the players who are trying to perform to wonder why they’re even trying at all if the Pirates aren’t doing anything about the struggling players.

In short, it’s not that the players need to be told to play well. It’s that some of them weren’t playing well and were never held accountable for that, which led to inconsistent treatment among players in the clubhouse.

Alan and I decided that it would be best to run the interviews over the weekend by mostly letting the players, Hurdle, and Huntington do the talking. We wanted to leave analysis out of it, and just present the comments as they were for the most part. And now that everything is out, we wanted to add our analysis to present what we feel are the issues here. Alan will talk more about the communication aspect tomorrow. But today, I want to talk about one of the biggest issues I’ve taken away from this whole situation, and it’s not really a new issue.

For those of you who have been reading a lot of my work over the last year, I don’t know if I need to say what the issue is. I will though, because if there’s one takeaway from this situation, it’s that communication is key. The main issue for me is still No-Man’s Land.

I was listening to Neal Huntington talk on Sunday, describing the communication with the players, with the media and fans, and how that played out with their moves the last two years.

Huntington had the following to say about the offseason plans this year:

“We genuinely went into this offseason with the idea that we can roll this team back out, we can get creative, or if the right deals are there, and we think it’s the right thing to do long-term. We didn’t go into this offseason knowing we had to do X, or Y, or Z. We had the flexibility to be opportunistic. We had the flexibility to do what we felt was the right thing to do.”

I try to be as objective as possible when it comes to these quotes. That means ignoring my pre-existing beliefs, and seeing what kind of reality the new comments make. My pre-existing belief is that the Pirates were set on being sellers from the start, and that any public comments that said otherwise were spin. Huntington even addressed this:

“That’s been criticized pretty heavily as spin. Say we had gone into the offseason with the idea that we needed to trade Andrew and/or Gerrit, and I come out publicly and say that. How does that help in any way, shape, or form? If we’re transparent, we’re going to get much less in return.”

It’s hard to say that public comments about how you’re not going to trade McCutchen and Cole isn’t spin when you follow it up by saying that those comments would hurt your potential return. If you point out the obvious downside to being publicly transparent, then it’s hard to take any comments denying spin as you being serious. But I’m going to leave that alone, because I don’t think it’s a problem at all to lack transparency in your moves to the public ahead of time. Actions speak louder than words.

But let’s go back to those words about the offseason. Let’s assume they’re not spin, and the Pirates were legitimately going into the offseason not really knowing if they’d add and go for it, or trade away McCutchen and Cole. They would let the offers they’d receive dictate that, along with the market. And with the market being slow this year, this meant the process would be long and drawn out, which is was.

Assuming all of that is correct doesn’t mean it’s a good plan. We’re in a time where MLB teams are decidedly heading in one direction or another. Teams are either looking to add and build up to make a run at winning, or they’re looking to trade players away and rebuild. It was no secret that the White Sox were selling last year. It was no secret the Brewers were looking to buy this year. Those teams didn’t need the market to dictate their chances. They just needed to know where they stood.

To be fair, the Pirates were in a position where they could have conceivably added and tried to contend. They still would have been contending for the second Wild Card, and that’s not really desirable, especially when it pushes an inevitable rebuild back a year or two, and makes it more difficult.

The problem with accepting Huntington’s comments as the truth is that it’s a blatant sign that the team is stuck in the middle with no clear direction. Their plan was to be reactive instead of proactive, and they haven’t adopted the trend across baseball that you need to either be all-in or all-rebuild, and that the middle ground is not a desired place.

What concerns me most is that Huntington said they went into the offseason wanting to fill holes at third base, the bullpen, and the rotation. In the two trades they filled holes at third base, the bullpen, and the rotation. Huntington made a mistake when trading Neil Walker and trying to fill a team need at the same time with Jon Niese. It’s concerning that he appears to be doing the same practice again with the Cole and McCutchen trades. It’s concerning because it’s a sign they’re trying to do two things — rebuilding and contending. They may end up contenders, but it’s probably going to be a Wild Card situation again at best, since they’re not going full-rebuild.

So how is this different than the number of times I’ve talked about it before?

It’s different now because we’re learning that it’s causing issues in the clubhouse. If you’re focused on now and the future, then you’re not really all-in with winning right now. That leads to situations where some players aren’t held accountable for their struggles, while others are expected to perform. The players are obviously receiving the mixed signals about whether the Pirates want to win right now, and that’s causing some problems for some of the veteran players.

Huntington and Hurdle both discussed how the team didn’t have these problems in 2013-15 when they were winning. That’s true.

It’s also true that the Pirates had one direction those years. They weren’t trading players away to maximize their long-term returns. When Russell Martin had a great year in 2013, they kept him around for 2014. When he walked, they made it a priority to find a replacement for him. When A.J. Burnett walked, they added Edinson Volquez to replace him. Then they added Burnett to replace Volquez. Francisco Liriano looked like one of the best pitchers in baseball for two seasons, so they signed him back to a three-year deal, which didn’t really work out. But the intent to contend right now was there.

Things changed in 2016. The team added guys like Niese and Ryan Vogelsong, while publicly saying that it would be a bridge year toward their prospects. They added players who simply weren’t good enough to contend, and who were only good enough to play for two months and then be replaced by prospects adjusting to the majors.

They kept Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano for the 2014 season, knowing they wanted to contend that year, even though they could have received a big trade return for either. But when Andrew McCutchen had two years left, and then one year left, they started shopping him around, while still saying they wanted to contend.

Their outside additions during their winning stretches were guys with upside (reclamation projects), or established veterans who had a chance to be starters. Martin, Burnett, Liriano, Volquez. At the deadline they had one focus to add players, rather than trading established guys away and then adding possible replacements to break even.

The last two years their additions have been those low-upside guys like Niese or Vogelsong, or bench and bullpen pieces with lower upsides. Their trade deadline moves have seen them trade away established players, only to try and bring in lesser replacements to make it appear that they’re trying to contend that year.

There’s a reason they didn’t hear these complaints from 2013-15. It’s because they had a clear message during those years. They were trying to win, and there was no doubt about that. You could argue that they maybe didn’t do enough, and didn’t go all-in. There could be a valid argument that they were focused on the future too much, trying to extend their window of contending beyond three years, rather than trading prospects and going bigger during that window. Some of that argument is made in hindsight, and some is valid.

On the flip side, you could argue that so many players struggled in 2016 that it wouldn’t have mattered if they brought someone else in. But perhaps there’s something to that. The 2016 season was a year where almost every player struggled and fell below their projections. Some of that was due to injury, but some of that was just players struggling. But I’m not sure that can be placed entirely on the players.

When the team struggles on that wide of a scale, you’ve got to at least entertain the idea that it’s not just the players, and perhaps it’s the leadership that is impacting things. You’ve got to entertain the idea that when the General Manager comes out and says the 2016 season will be a bridge year, it sends a message to the clubhouse that the 2016 season doesn’t matter. And in that light, maybe it’s not a surprise or a coincidence that most of the roster struggled that year.

The Pirates have a No-Man’s Land problem. They’ve become an organization with no set direction, just reacting to the market and allowing that to dictate their path. This wasn’t the case when they were winning. Not only is this a bad approach to take if you want to get back to winning, but it seems that it’s also a bad approach to take in regards to player morale, as it’s sending the wrong message to the players.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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