Pirates president Frank Coonelly sat down and answered fans' questions on Wednesday in an online chat. The following is the transcript.
scubevol: Do you really think you can compete for a championship against the big-market clubs?
Coonelly: Absolutely. The Pirates will not use economics, our financial resources or the economic system of baseball as a crutch. I absolutely believe that we can build an organization that will compete for championships in Pittsburgh. Last year, three of the four clubs that were in the League Championship Series were clubs in the bottom tier of payroll. There is no reason why the Pirates can't enjoy success with our resources.
la8nce: Like the A's, the Pirates are in a rebuilding mode. However, at least the A's gave their fans a few winning seasons. Why should we suffering fans be any more confident that this regime will do a better job than the previous, tight-fisted management?
Coonelly: la8nce, the Pirates are not in a rebuilding mode; we are in a building mode. We certainly need to build a stronger foundation and that begins with aggressive scouting and exhaustive player development. I would hope that the fans give the new management team an opportunity to prove that things will be different under our leadership. There are exciting things going on with both the Major League club under John Russell and his staff and at the Minor League level, where Kyle Stark and his staff have completely rebuilt the way that we develop our young prospects. Fans should have also noticed that we declined to spend valuable resources this winter on marginal free-agent players. Such signings have, in the past, hurt the club's ability to build a strong foundation.
Thanatos: Frank, congrats on being named president. How will you return the Pirates to a team that their fans can be proud of?
Coonelly: Thanatos, thank you very much, I appreciate the congratulations. We will return the pride and passion of the Pirates in a number of ways. First, our players at the Major League level will work as hard as the Pittsburgh fans that support them do. Second, John Russell and his staff will constantly work to improve our Major League players and to insure that we play fundamentally sound, exciting baseball. Third, we will expand the work that we already do in the community, both in Pittsburgh and Bradenton, Fla. Fourth, we will build a foundation in the Minor Leagues that will provide us with the opportunity to consistently compete for championships. In short, we will build the organization the right way and our players will play the game the right way.
zzxpoc: I have found that customer service has been an issue. I could call three times and get three answers. I know you've been looking at the organization top to bottom. Have you looked at CS?
Coonelly: zzxpoc, I appreciate you bringing your concerns to my attention. I have not heard similar comments from our fans. In fact, most of our fans have gone out of their way to tell me how impressed they are with our customer service representatives, both season-ticket holder representatives and at PNC Park. Given your experience, however, I will redouble our efforts to ensure that our fans our receiving the right answer and receiving it consistently.
bucobill: Is there any chance Steve Pearce makes the team out of Spring Training?
Coonelly: bucobill, there is a chance that Steve would make the team out of Spring Training, but the far more likely scenario is that Steve begins the season at Indianapolis. As you know, Steve went from Class A ball to the Majors last year. For the good of his own development, Steve probably will need to spend some additional time at Triple-A. Steve is, however, a very exciting player and we are excited about the prospects of him playing at PNC Park on a full-time basis.
signdante: How many home runs will the "change in atmosphere" hit this season? And will it be suitable protection for Jason Bay in the middle of the lineup?
Coonelly: signdante, I detect some sarcasm in your question. My guess is that "the change in atmosphere" will not hit any home runs this year. We are hoping, however, that Adam LaRoche, Xavier Nady and others will provide Jason with some protection this year. The change in atmosphere, which you apparently mock, will be seen by all of our fans who enjoy baseball at PNC Park, and I believe will contribute to far greater success in 2008 and beyond.
mjc4480: If the Pirates are in contention at the All-Star break, would this ownership be willing to get an impact player to put them over the top for the second half?
Coonelly: mjc4480, yes. If the Pirates are in contention at the All-Star break, we will certainly evaluate whether there is an impact player available who could help us. We have payroll flexibility to do just that and a firm commitment from ownership to do so if such a player is available and if that player will help us win the NL Central.
ian_smuth: You may have already discussed this, but regarding the amateur draft, how much will signability determine the player that the Pirates select?
Coonelly: Very good question, ian_smuth. Regretably, signability has been a principal factor for many clubs as they evaluate players in the Draft. What the Pirates will do going forward is select the best player available who we believe will help us build the championship-caliber teams we are trying to build. No one can ignore inflated demands by agents or players, but we will not allow signability to dictate our decision making.
piratefan11: How do you maintain this positive attitude if the Pirates tie and/or break the consecutive season losing streak -- basically once you face adversity and fan backlash?
Coonelly: piratefan11, I will be able to maintain a positive attitude even if the club finishes below .500, which I hope and expect we will not, because I am confident we are building the organization the right way and I am equally confident that an organization with our resources can compete under the current economic system. As I have said many times, finances and economics are not and will not be a crutch.
rockolove: Do you believe their failure in recent pasts is more to blame on upper management or the coaches and players?
Coonelly: rockolve, I don't think that it is productive to attempt to place blame on one or more of those groups. Obviously, I decided shortly after joining the organization that a nearly complete overhaul of the baseball operations department was necessary. I am extremely excited by the work that Neal Huntington, John Russell, Greg Smith and Kyle Stark and their staffs are doing. Certainly players must be held accountable for their own poor performance, and John Russell has preached that from the day he was hired.
ian_smuth: Mr. Coonelly, I have played baseball past Little League and possess a 92-mph fastball -- is there an opportunity for me to try out for the team?
Coonelly: ian_smuth, we do plan on putting together a regular tryout schedule and will make sure that we hold one in the Pittsburgh area. Keep your ears open for an announcement.
RoninBuc: I want to commend you on reaching out to Pirate greats of the past to instill some pride of wearing the Pirate uniform and what it means. Please talk about the significance of bringing back Chuck Tanner to assist Neal Huntington. How involved is Chuck?
Coonelly: RoninBuc, thank you. Chuck has been absolutely terrific. He is energetic, positive and, not surprisingly, entertaining every day of the week. He constantly reminds our young players what is was like in Pittsburgh when the Pirates were great, and what it will be like again when we restore that pride in the organization. But Chuck is far more than simply a motivator. He continues to have a sharp eye for baseball talent and a passion for teaching the game and for teaching players to play the game the right way. Chuck has been a valuable addition to our staff, both in evaluating our players and players on other clubs.
pnc307: Frank, what is your opinion on Zach Duke's spot in the rotation?
Coonelly: pnc307, Zach is a candidate for the rotation. It is probably fair to say he is the leading candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation, but John Russell has made clear that no one's position is guaranteed. We are very excited about the way that some of the other pitchers who are competing for the starting rotation are throwing early in Spring Training. Phil Dumatrait, Jaret Wright, Sean Burnett and others have all looked good at times in Bradenton. We certainly are a much better team if Zach Duke is pitching the way we know he can pitch and, if he does, he will certainly have one of the five spots in the rotation.
jpbucco: Any thoughts of moving VonBenschoten back to the field? Ankiel part deux?
Coonelly: No. First, John is competing for a spot in the rotation and a spot in the bullpen. As a result of John's previous shoulder injuries, returning to the field is not a viable option.
RoninBuc: Thank you for participating in a forum like this monthly. For 15 years it has been tough to be a Pirate fan, but I still travel back to PNC Park for vacations all the way from Nebraska. How has John Russell adjusted to his first chance to run a MLB club?
Coonelly: RoninBuc, thank you. I look forward to continuing this the first Wednesday of each month. John has been a remarkably steadying force in Spring Training. He and his staff are highly organized and extraordinarily hard working. I believe John will do a terrific job managing the Pirates. He has a deep passion for the game, for teaching the game and for competing.
philsnut13: As a small-market team, would you prefer a salary cap to level the playing field with every other team in the league? I mean, how can the Pittsburghs and Kansas Citys of the league legitimately compete for a World Series under this current salary structure?
Coonelly: philsnut13, quite frankly, it is not a question of what I would prefer. The reality is that there is no salary cap in baseball. Nevertheless, baseball has an economic system under which the Pirates can certainly compete for championships. The Rockies, Indians and Diamondbacks, all of whom were in the lower tier of payrolls, proved that this is so just last year. We may have to work harder and make better decisions, but we can certainly win with the resources available to our club.
buddysqrl: How is it that the Steelers can pay Big Ben (a franchise player) an amount that is is in the realm of large market teams but the Pirates cannot or will not come up with that type of payment? Go Bucs!
Coonelly: buddysqrl, you need to remember that the vast majority of a contract like the one Roethlisberger just signed are not guaranteed. I believe that roughly a third [$36 million] of Ben's contract is guaranteed. Secondly, the Pirates have in the past (Jason Bay, Jack Wilson and others) signed players to multiyear contracts with that amount of guaranteed money, and I'm sure will do so in the future. The NFL also, of course, has extremely large national TV contracts, the revenues from which are shared equally. MLB also has national TV packages and a local revenue sharing program that provides substantial revenue to teams like the Pirates. As a result, the Pirates can and will sign long-term contracts necessary to allow us to compete and sustain championship-caliber teams. It is unlikely, however, that we will be building those championship teams in the free-agent market where the guaranteed commitments required are often enormous and the returns are often disappointing. That is why we will build our core from within and then try to retain our good young players by signing them to multi-year contracts, like we recently did with Freddy Sanchez.
Coonelly: We have time for one more question...
scubevol: Are you happy with the renovations at Pirate City and McKechnie Field?
Coonelly: I couldn't be more pleased with the renovations made to Pirate City and McKechnie Field. Pirate City now includes a brand new, beautiful building that houses 75 player dorm rooms, five coaches suites, classrooms, recreational areas and our administrative offices. The Minor League players who are living there cannot stop raving about the facilities. McKechnie Field looks more beautiful than ever and will host the first night game in its history this Friday night against the Reds. I look forward to seeing the first night game played in Bradenton. This is another example of our objective of operating a first-division organization.
Coonelly: Thanks everyone for joining today's chat session. I look forward to talking with you again on April 2 and then on the first Wednesday of each month following that.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.