Pirate Roster: What Can Coonelly, New GM Do?

I think there have been enough words written discussing the hiring of Frank Coonelly as president and dissecting his announced philosophies that I can skip out on posting about that stuff here.
If you haven’t already done so, check out this five-minute video clip at the Post-Gazette, this article about the search for a new general manager and the open letter Coonelly wrote to Pirate fans. There’s a bio available, too, but I think we’ve been over most of that.
From those sources, you get a good understanding of what Coonelly says he wants to do in Pittsburgh. No sense in my attempting to rehash any of that when you can go straight to the horse’s mouth.
Rather than put Coonelly’s words under the microscope, let’s consider the hand he’s been dealt and his possible actions. Speculating about what we’d do in his shoes is infinitely more palatable than attempting to determine if this was an acceptable hire before the Pirates have even finished engraving his nameplate.
From where I’m sitting, there are distinct decisions to be made in five areas:
1. A new general manager
2. The glut of first baseman and corner outfielders
3. The long-term futures of Bay, LaRoche, Sanchez and/or Nady
4. Aligning the farm for most efficient returns
5. Piecing together a pitching staff
What Coonelly and his hired help do with this quintet of question marks could determine the fate of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club for the next decade.
1. A new general manager
At this point, resistance is futile: There are simply too many names in the hat to continue handicapping the race. You can, though, separate the GM candidates under two blankets—new school and old school. Will Coonelly pick someone whose decisions are made based on statistical analysis, or will he choose to go a more traditional route?
From the P-G:

We’re looking for the very best general manager who can turn the Pittsburgh Pirates into a winner most quickly,” Coonelly said. “A general manager needs to be able to rely on player evaluations with the eyes and on statistics. I firmly believe that statistics are extraordinarily important.

Coonelly has been stereotyped previously as the Ivy League grad who can crunch numbers and run high-end analyses of players and their value. I’ve written in the past that to get the maximum return on their investment, the Pirates would be wise to pair Coonelly with a general manager whose background is in talent evaluation (such as directing scouting or player development). Get the best of both worlds, the new school analytic tools with the old school paper, pencil and stopwatch.
No matter who the eventual GM is, he’ll be responsible for making the last four crucial decisions:
2. The glut of first baseman and corner outfielders
The Pirates’ roster needs a bit of an overhaul if we’re to go from one of the league’s worst teams to a contender in 2008. All of the decisions concerning the offense will be driven by what’s done with Adam LaRoche, Steven Pearce, Ryan Doumit, Xavier Nady and Jason Bay. In essence, the Pirates have five major-league bats who should be playing first base, left field or right field.
Will a new general manager go the Dejan Kovacevic route and try Nady at third base? If so, that frees up Steven Pearce for regular at-bats in right field.
Will he platoon Ryan Doumit with Ronny Paulino at catcher? The health of the former’s hamstrings might determine how much playing time the latter sees.
Will Bay and LaRoche remain in Pittsburgh through 2008 and into the future?
3. The long-term futures of Bay, LaRoche, Sanchez and/or Nady
It’s a well-known fact that the Pirates have a window of sorts to deal with: Four of their most productive offensive players are set to reach free agency after the 2009 season, and few internal options are available as long-term replacements. The Pirates are faced with a decision: Trade their proven commodities for younger talent while their value is high, or sign them to contract extensions. Allowing Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez and Xavier Nady to walk after the 2009 season in exchange for draft pick compensation would involve making a conscious decision to rebuild in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
The contract statuses of these four go hand in hand with what’s done with the backup of talent at first base and corner outfield. The Pirates could trade Bay, LaRoche or Nady now to free up a spot for Pearce and infuse talent into the minor-league system (or fill another hole at the major-league level).
4. Aligning the farm for most efficient returns
Neil Walker’s switch from catcher to third base was criticized this past off-season because it looked as if the Pirates were determining the fate of a top prospect based on one solid year from a relatively unknown rookie. Ronny Paulino regressed, and now the Pirates have no catching depth in the system.
At the same time, the Pirates can look to their minor-league affiliates and see cause for concern. If nothing’s done soon, they’ll be battling the defensive spectrum; that is, they’ll be trying to force unnatural position changes on players too late in their development processes, and a weak fielding team will result.
Players like Jason Delaney and Jamie Romak could soon be in the same position as Steven Pearce: Their bats may play at the major-league level, but they won’t have a home on the diamond.
It may be wise to try to redistribute prospects in an attempt to bring in depth up the middle or pitching help. Conversely, the Pirates could try to see if either Delaney or Romak can reinvent themselves as third basemen; both have previous (if limited) experience at the hot corner.
5. Piecing together a pitching staff
The Pirates enter 2008 with four rotation spots set in stone: Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Matt Morris have jobs, barring a trade that would send them out of Pittsburgh.
The candidates for the fifth starter’s jobs are many in number but inconsiderable in quality: Zach Duke, John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington, Shane Youman and Sean Burnett all had little success in 2007, and shouldn’t be counted on to produce in 2008.
The Pirates could use another starting pitcher, and perhaps one or two more bullpen arms, too.
Yesterday, Tim Dierkes speculated about the chances of the Pirates trading from their depth to fill an area of need, proposing a deal that would send Steven Pearce to San Francisco in exchange for left-handed starter Noah Lowry. It would be an interesting way of solving a problem, one that would’ve been unlikely under the Littlefield regime—but with a new administration, who knows?
A conclusion
Long story short: The Pirates have a number of question marks, and a chain reaction of sorts is sure to follow. Bob Nutting has chosen Frank Coonelly as his president. Coonelly will choose a general manager, who in turn will choose his own player procurement and development staff. And that crew will make the decisions surrounding these questions that will determine how soon the Pirates are returned to respectibility.
The importance of this off-season is not to be underestimated. If the Pirates make wise, educated decisions, they could right the ship. If they miss calls, we’ll be well on our way to a 16th consecutive losing season, with Nos. 17, 18 and 19 approaching in the rear view mirror.


One Response to “Pirate Roster: What Can Coonelly, New GM Do?”

  1. David Golebiewski Says:

    I certainly like what I’m hearing from Coonley at this point. He has emphasized re-investing in Latin America and no longer being…frugal in the amateur draft.
    With Coonley having a sound understanding of the analytical side of the game (sabermetrics, dollar valuation), I absolutely agree that pairing Coonley with a master talent evaluator (Logan White? Mike Rizzo?) would set the Pirates up for success.
    I’m actually excited about this franchise for the first time in many years.

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