Russell relieved of duties as Pirates manager
Pittsburgh begins its fourth search for new skipper since 2000
PITTSBURGH -- After a disappointing 105-loss season, the Pirates decided Monday to make a managerial change.
John Russell was dismissed after three seasons at the helm, which sets into motion the club's fourth managerial search since 2000.
"John was incredibly committed to making good things happen," general manager Neal Huntington said in a conference call with the media on Monday afternoon. "A valid argument could be made that he deserved a better fate.
"This was a very difficult announcement and a very diffuclt decision. This isn't about looking backward or finding fault. That lies mostly with myself and the baseball operations department. It's about what's in the best interest of the organization moving forward and finding a manager to move this team in the desired direction."
Serving as the 38th manager in the team's 124-year history, Russell finished with a record of 186-299. His teams lost 95 games in 2008 and 99 in 2009. Russell was under contract through 2011, meaning that the Pirates will be responsible for paying the rest of his salary. His contract had been extended last October, when president Frank Coonelly picked up the club option on it.
Hiring Russell was Huntington's first major move as the team's general manager. Russell was touted as a superb instructor, which is what the Pirates believed was needed with a team that was going to be anchored by up-and-coming young players. According to Huntington, Russell took the news of his dismissal exactly as he expected him to.
"Disappointed, but with extreme professionalism," Huntington said. "He was looking forward to the challenge of year four, and was looking forward to meeting those challenges. He's disappointed he won't get to meet those."
Russell was often seen giving hands-on instruction with players and appeared to be well-respected in the clubhouse. The perception outside, though, was different. Russell never seemed to connect with the fan base, which was often critical of his even-keeled demeanor.
"The media attention is like none we've ever seen before," Huntington said. "The manager becomes the focal point. The reality of where we are, sometimes managers take the fall. At times, they get too much of the credit, and at times, they get too much of the public blame. This isn't about a fall guy. It's about moving forward and deciding a change was better for the organization."
Regardless of perception, it appears that the regression of the team's win-loss record in 2010 played the largest role in management's decision to move in a different direction.
The Pirates endured eight different losing streaks of at least five games this season. The club finished last in the National League in offense (.242 batting average), pitching (5.00 ERA) and defense (.979 fielding percentage).
No NL team had finished at the bottom in all three of those categories since the 1965 Mets.
And those might not even be the most jarring numbers. The 105 losses were the most by any Pirates team that played a 162-game season. The .352 winning percentage was the franchise's lowest since 1954. And the 64 road losses were the second-highest total in baseball's modern era.
"The last place I'm going to place blame [for] those losses is on the manager," Huntington said. "We all bear the responsibility. We gave him an incredible challenge. It's not about placing blame."
This is a critical time for a Pirates franchise that has endured 18 consecutive losing seasons, and bringing in a new manager can be the first step in providing some consistency for the team's young core of players, which includes third baseman Pedro Alvarez and outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata. Maximizing the talent of these young players will be crucial in helping guide Pittsburgh up in the standings.
"I've been open [about the fact that] we did not anticipate a 105-loss season as we came out of the chute," Huntington said when asked about the disappointment of the 2010 season. "Now, we have to focus on moving forward, on how to accentuate the positive and minimize the negative.
"We're doing things in scouting and player development. and we're looking forward to having that impact at the Major League level that will result in [more wins]. We have a much deeper farm system to move in a solid direction. That's one of the bigger frustrations for someone like J.R. We've gone through a lot in three years, and he [won't] reap the rewards of that."
Where the Pirates will turn for a new manager is unknown. Before choosing Russell in 2007, Huntington was believed to have interviewed five candidates. Two, including Russell, were Minor League managers. The other three were Major League coaches.
The process of evaluating potential successors, which will begin immediately, will be the Pirates' priority before the offseason free-agency period begins. Huntington has not put a timetable on naming a successor.
"It will be a very detailed and very thorough search," Huntington said. "We've got to find the best people available to us. In some cases, it might be some who are familiar to us and some who are outside. In the front office, we've done everything within our power to look outside our comfort zone, outside our familiar ranks."
No decision was made regarding the rest of the Major League coaching staff. Huntington did say that, while each will be considered individually to remain in Pittsburgh, all would be allowed to pursue other opportunities, should they arise.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.