SOUTH HILLS – Perhaps the most interesting – and entertaining – event during the Pirates’ Fan Fest is the “Ask Pirates Management” Q & A. The occasion is one the few times during the year the public does not need a middle man (we the media). A chosen few can ask questions directly to Neal Huntington, Frank Coonelly and Clint Hurdle, who were seated perhaps a bit awkwardly and uncomfortably a few feet away from the audience on an elevated stage in the city’s convention center Saturday afternoon.
I was particularly interested in this year’s Q & A since Andrew McCutchen was signing autographs a few hours before the session, after having been discussed in trade talks. Had Adam Eaton not been traded to the Nationals, there’s a decent chance McCutchen is a Washington National today. I thought this figured to be an interesting session after the Pirates’ struggles in 2016, after a quiet offseason to date.
At the winter meetings, Huntington thought there was a portion of the fan base that understood what the Pirates were trying to do. He also thought there was a portion that was never going to be happy. Saturday offered a small sampling of public opinion from each perspective. What I took from the Q & A is there likely is a significant portion of fans that understand the limitations of the budget – though that doesn’t mean they like the budget – they understand the value of young talent, and they understand shopping McCutchen. While I suspect the majority of #BucNation has little patience for another bridge season, I do think fan bases across the game are more informed than ever. But, of course, there’s a lot of sentiment and nostalgia out there, too.
To begin the Q & A, Ray from Ross Township stepped to the microphone stand, which was placed in an aisle in the middle of the audience. He prefaced his question by saying he had been a fan of the club for 50 years and had seen many great players perform at a high level into their mid 30s. Then he began.
“Ready for this one, Mr. Huntington?” said Ray in a Pirate cap and jersey.
Ray asked – rather, implored – McCutchen be extended
“Sign ‘Cutch, please!” he said in conclusion.
Huntington noted in his response that few players spend their entire careers with one team. (There’s almost a 100 percent chance McCutchen is not extended for a variety of reasons. Sorry, Ray).
The next question was about why runners insist on sliding head first and why doesn’t Hurdle do something about it. (Odd choice for a fan’s one question.). Hurdle responded by noting he often tells his children to do something, though they do not comply. Then a fellow from Charleston, W. Va. wondered why teams are still employing these dastardly pitch counts.
In a moment of comedy, a young girl named Lydia asked Hurdle where Starling Marte will play in 2017. Hurdle wondered if Lydia was handed question.
“No!” responded Lydia.
(Good question, Lydia)
About six or seven questions in, we arrived at the issues irritating the fan base. Nolan from Plum asked about the Francisco Liriano trade. Nolan was not agitated. He was tactful, noting he supports the general idea of building around young talent and understands the economics of the game. But he could not understand trading prospects to rid the club of a salary. Huntington explained it was a “parallel” trade. Yes, it was in part designed to clear Liriano’s remaining $18 million owed. Huntington said the Pirates felt the league had “figured out” Liriano, which we documented after the deadline. But Huntington also insisted the Pirates like Drew Hutchison. Huntington noted Hutchison was stuck behind a talented Toronto starting rotation. Toronto did lead the AL in starting pitcher ERA.
The public has its doubts.
Perhaps the most interesting response was elicited from one fan asking about the competitive nature of each man on the stage. The fan noted he always thought THIS, THIS TIME RIGHT NOW, would mark the window of contention: McCutchen still under control with the club’s top pitching prospects joining him.
Coonelly offered the most interesting response:
“I’m so tired of the narrative. As these gentlemen can explain to you, there’s nobody more competitive than the three men on this stage. … We need in the media, and otherwise, to talk about a lot of things. But the narrative that we don’t care about winning is just flat wrong.”
I’m sure other fans would have liked to speak with Bob Nutting, to have heard his answer to that particular question, but he was not on the stage.
THOUGHTS AND OBSERVATIONS …
>>It was logical for the Pirates to explore trading McCutchen, and it is also logical not to trade him just trade him. The Pirates are right to demand what they deem a fair return. Bill James’ forecast has McCutchen (.864 OPS) as the Pirates’ most productive hitter in 2017.
>>So now that Huntington said the club will likely “hold” McCutchen — a trade still possible but much less likely with the apparent the top suitor (Washington) having filled its need — what should the Pirates do?
Instead of selling assets should they look to add?
>>ESPN’s Dave Schoenfield writes that the Pirates are one team that has the assets to acquire White Sox borderline ace Jose Quintana.
Unable to deal Andrew McCutchen, maybe they flip the switch and decide to add a veteran. Even the Pirates can afford Quintana, and they have a highly regarded farm system. The White Sox would want right-hander Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows, ranked eighth and ninth on MLB.com’s top 100 prospects, and the Pirates have other interesting prospects, such as first baseman/outfielder Josh Bell and shortstop Kevin Newman.
For me, Tyler Glasnow would not be off-limits in a Quintana deal. Then it gets trickier. While Bell has his defensive issues, if I’m the Pirates I’d hate to deal him after witnessing that blend of plate discipline, bat-to-ball skills and power. Would you move Glasnow and Austin Meadows (or) Kevin Newman in a deal? It’s expensive but that’s what it would likely require.
>>Glasnow recounted a story to reporters Sunday how at a bowling event on the Pirates caravan tour a fan told him it would be nice if he could throw strikes – on a baseball field.
Glasnow is a major wild card in 2017. A breakout, or a continued inconsistency, could have a significant impact on how the Pirates perform. Glasnow seemed uncomfortable in dealings with media last season, and as others have suggested, perhaps this is an example of him becoming a little more comfortable in his own skin.
>>Newly married Gerrit Cole said he will begin his offseason throwing program this week. Perhaps one reason behind Cole’s 2016 struggles is he did not have a normal offseason program, sustaining a rib injury in January. Perhaps Cole was always playing catch up in regard to his throwing motion and he never caught up.
>>Tony Watson watched Andrew Miller‘s postseason deployment with great interest but told reporters Saturday he doesn’t think that sort of role is sustainable throughout an entire regular season. Perhaps the workload even caught up with Miller in Game 7. Or was it just one poor performance that now is allowing everyone to revert back to conventional wisdom?
>>Joey Cora said he believes the Pirates have the team speed to be an effective base-running club. It sounds like he will be aggressive, too. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but Rick Sofield made too many errant decisions.
>>John Jaso at third base? It’s going to get a look this spring. It’s a thing. I don’t doubt Jaso will work at it, I do doubt his feet and range for the position.
‘CUTCH SAID IT
A throng of reporters gathered around McCutchen on Saturday afternoon. Here’s some of what he had to say …
Is McCutchen motivated to prove the doubters wrong?
“Motivated? (For 2017). I don’t even know there’s quite a word to look for. Something a lot greater.”
‘CUTCH SAID IT II
Was McCutchen injured in 2016?
“I just didn’t have it. I had nagging injuries … There wasn’t anything that hindered me.”
McCutchen has had about 100 opportunities to exercise the injury-related excuse option and he has yet to go there other than saying his thumb was bothering him for a period last season.
‘CUTCH SAID IT III
“I’d be lying if I said none of this (trade talk) bothered me.”
Huntington and McCutchen had a talk before Pirate Fest. McCutchen said it went well. You can understand McCutchen being upset, but you can also understand the Pirates’ logic. I don’t suspect this will affect McCutchen’s 2017 in a negative way. McCutchen needs to play well to get a mega-contract after 2018. And the Pirates need McCutchen to play well to contend.
Each year the Pirates have made the playoffs, McCutchen (and Cole) have been pretty good. They will need to be good, if not great, again in 2017.