The Pirates held a short interview session for bloggers Friday night at PirateFest. Vlad and I represented Bucs Dugout, and also present were Kevin from Pirates Prospects, Matt from Pittsburgh Lumber Co., Tom from Rum Bunter, and Kristy from Pirates Booty. (There were a couple other people there too, but everything happened really fast so I'm not sure who they were. Sorry about that. If I missed you, let me know in the comments.)
We were told we were going to talk to Neil Walker, Clint Hurdle and Neal Huntington, but it ended up being Huntington, Paul Maholm and Frank Coonelly. It was a pretty loud environment, but I took copious notes, so here it is in bloggy form. I think Vlad will weigh in in the morning, either as an addendum to this post or in a new one.
-P- I think the reason we didn't get to talk to Hurdle was because he spoke to the general audience first, and they loved him, so they had him stay there and meet people. He came across as very dynamic, which is probably a nice change from John Russell, and he had a very visceral vocabulary that included liberal use of words like "butt-thumping." This made Vlad's and my inner 13-year-olds giggle a little bit, but overall, Hurdle wasn't really saying much of substance. That was a shame, because I would have really liked to know what he plans to do with certain players. (He did say he would emphasize pitching inside.)
-P- Later, Coonelly said that Hurdle was "extraordinarily effective" in recruiting players - that he could relate to them as a former player and a former top prospect. (Hurdle evidently played a big role in luring Joe Beimel to the Bucs.)
-P- Huntington told the general audience that the numbers in the Pirate Report story about Pedro Alvarez's weight gain weren't quite right, without denying that Alvarez had gained weight. Later, I pressed Huntington to give an exact number of pounds Alvarez had gained, and Huntington wouldn't give a number, but said that Alvarez had gained "enough that we have concerns." He also said that how long Alvarez remains a third baseman is up to him.
Maholm on Alvarez: "Let the guy play ... there's plenty of people in baseball who aren't the prototypical athlete... He's a good third baseman. He gets to a lot of balls, he has a great arm ... Don't try to bash him for his weight."
-P- The Wil Ledezma situation isn't the biggest deal, but I asked about that since the media hadn't really explained it thoroughly. Essentially, Huntington said the Pirates just wanted a spot on the 40-man roster, and they thought the structure of Ledezma's contract, which will pay him $300,000 even if he isn't in the major leagues, made him a good bet to make it through waivers. Obviously, that didn't happen. Huntington gave a reason why they didn't reclaim him when that opportunity arose; I didn't quite follow it, but basically, I took him to be saying that they just didn't want to have him on the 40-man.
-P- Huntington said Donnie Veal is progressing well in his comeback from Tommy John surgery and that he's "excited" to get going.
-P- There were questions for both Coonelly and Huntington about the Pirates being placed in the lower half of all farm systems this offseason by Baseball America and Keith Law. Huntington said that he did not agree with those sources, that the Pirates graduated a number of top prospects, that there were injuries to other prospects, and that the Pirates' focus was on "developing players who will help the Pittsburgh Pirates win," not on having players put up big numbers in the minors.
Coonelly was downright indignant about it. Like Huntington, he pointed out that the Pirates graduated several top prospects, but he went further, saying that the Pirates' 25-and-under talent compares favorably with that of the Kansas City Royals (!). (The Royals have the best farm system in baseball right now.) He also said that Rudy Owens' statistics and stuff (with a 93-94 MPH fastball and great command, he said) compared favorably to Kyle Drabek, and yet prospect gurus consistently rated Drabek as one of the better prospects in baseball while ignoring Owens. He also suggested the low ratings were possibly partly due to the Pirates not promoting their own prospects enough to Baseball America.
Coonelly seemed particularly fond of Owens in particular, and later said he couldn't believe Owens hadn't been making top 100 prospect lists.
-P- Coonelly said the Pirates plan to always be big spenders in the draft. However, both he and Huntington were surprisingly ambivalent, or even somewhat positive, about the introduction of a hard slotting system, which would set prices for draft picks and prevent the Pirates from spending big bucks on late-round picks like Zack Von Rosenberg and Colton Cain. Coonelly said that hard slotting would allow teams to use more of their budgets on actual major league players and not on guys who never make it. He also said the Pirates would find "other inefficiencies to exploit."
Huntington said something similar, saying that if hard slotting were instituted, the Pirates would just focus on other areas where they could "maximize their advantage."
Of course, if there are other inefficiencies to exploit, shouldn't the Pirates just be exploiting them now? Market inefficiencies aren't like steady girlfriends, where you'll be cheating on one if you go out with another one. You can exploit all the inefficiencies you like, as long as you can find them! Maybe they meant that the hard slotting system will present its own inefficiencies, but I doubt it, and it sounded like they were willing to give up without a fight on the Pirates' best hope of being competitive. As Vlad pointed out later, it could just be that they're resigned to the idea of the hard slotting system being instituted.
Coonelly also said there would be no chance of the Pirates going completely bonkers and spending an unprecedented amount of money in the last draft before hard slotting, if such a system were to be put into place.
-P- Huntington said that legally, he isn't allowed to share too many details of the negotiations with draft picks who went unsigned last year, like Dace Kime and Jason Hursh. He said, however, that they were "willing to take some chances" on players who might not sign, and that drafting high-upside players in the later rounds (I assume he meant guys like Jared Lakind and Ryan Hafner) gave the Pirates options in case earlier-round picks like Kime fell through.
-P- Coonelly said he doesn't worry about the talent gap between the blue-chip players currently in the majors (Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez) and young pitchers like Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia, because the Bucs need to keep churning players through their farm system and can't leave players in the minors forever. He said the current strength of the farm system was pitchers who are nearly ready - Owens, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson.
-P- Coonelly said that placing Heredia in the Gulf Coast League this year would be "pushing it," but that it wouldn't surprise him if Heredia earned a spot there.
-P- Contrary to rumor, Coonelly says, he did not veto the trade of Jason Bay to the Indians for Cliff Lee and others. That deal was discussed, however, and Coonelly says he did express reservations about dealing for Lee at that time, given Lee's poor performance and the possibility that the 2008 Pirates team could be competitive.
-P- Coonelly says he would like to bring the Pirates' minor league affiliates to PNC Park to play games there occasionally.
-P- In the general audience Q+A, Hurdle made it clear that he wanted his starters to work deep into games to keep his bullpen fresh. In the Q+A with bloggers, Maholm said he would be fine with that, because "I'm not a happy camper if I only go six [innings] ... 110-120 pitches is a normal outing."
-P- Regarding the possibility of being traded in the next year, Maholm said, "I want to be with the team that wins here... I have no control over [being traded] ... If [the Pirates] want to approach me about staying, I'm all for it."
-P- Maholm said he did not adjust his pitching style due to the quality of the defense behind him, and said he was basically trying to get grounders no matter what. He did say, however, that he'd like to get more strikeouts this year, and he jokingly said he was embarrassed that a reliever, Joel Hanrahan, got almost as many strikeouts as he did.
There were a few more subjects that came up, and I added details about those in the comments, because I was taking notes when the questions began and thus am not positive I got the entire context of the remarks. So check the comments for more.
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Anyway, we had about ten minutes with Maholm and probably about 15 each with Huntington and Coonelly, so this is most of what we were able to get. Thanks to Matt Nordby from the Pirates, and I think probably also Tom from Rum Bunter, for making this happen.