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Pirates president Coonelly: Criticism of fundamentals, development personnel "overblown," gives Stark vote of confidence
October 30, 2012 - Cory Giger
(NOTE: Frank Coonelly appeared on my radio show Tuesday afternoon, and most of the comments in the story below are from that interview, with a couple coming from Coonelly during his speech at the event.)
The Pirates were heavily criticized for many things at the end of the season, including the fundamental struggles of young players during their collapse and for the unorthodox tactic of sending minor leaguers through Navy SEAL-type training.
Team president Frank Coonelly believes much of the criticism was "overblown" and also gave a vote of confidence to assistant general manager Kyle Stark, who has come under heavy scrutiny for his handling of the minor league system.
"When we struggled at the end of last year, there were a lot of things that were overblown, in my opinion, because people were rightly frustrated and disappointed in the major league team's play over the last two months," Coonelly said on my radio show Tuesday while attending the Curve Booster Club's annual members-only dinner at the UVA Club.
Pirates broadcaster and former pitcher Steve Blass was the featured speaker at the event, which drew about 150 fans, and broadcaster Greg Brown also attended.
Coonelly made one declaration during the banquet that pleased the crowd.
"[In] 2013 we are going to play meaningful baseball, not only in September, but next year we plan to do it in October," he said.
The Bucs finished 79-83 to endure their 20th consecutive losing season, and Coonelly said that even if the club had won 84 or 82 games, "The season would have been a disappointment" because it wouldn't have been enough to reach the goal of winning the NL Central.
One of the Pirates' biggest problems was poor fundamental play down the stretch, especially in key situations. In numerous instances, the culprit who failed fundamentally was a young player who had come through the minor league system.
"Every time a player didn't get a bunt down in a situation or didn't get from first to third, there were claims that players didn't understand the fundamentals of the game," said Coonelly, who added that all teams deal with players who make those type of mistakes.
He went on to proclaim, "I don't think that there's a team in Major League Baseball that has its minor league players working more hours on the field on very specific baseball drills, getting runners from first to third, moving runners over, getting sacrifice bunts down, hit-and-run situations. ... So it's not a lack of effort, it's not a lack of focus on those skills."
So what's the real problem?
Coonelly suggested it's more mental than anything else.
"We're getting the job done in the minor leagues," he said. "So now, why doesn't it translate in the majors?
"The fact of the matter is, young players, when they get to the major leagues, it's a different atmosphere, it's a different environment. There's adversity that they're not used to facing that they're now facing for the first time, and this year any young player in our system who came up to the major leagues came up in the middle of a pennant race."
Then Coonelly addressed what he thinks is the issue, and his words sounded at least in part like an explanation for Stark's highly unusual implementation of a military-type training regimen for minor leaguers after the season.
"It's mental conditioning," Coonelly said, "the mental toughness that is more of an issue than the player hasn't been drilled, hasn't been trained on these things, doesn't know how to do them.
"It's performing the fundamentals of the game in the highest pressure situation, and so we continue to work with our players throughout our system ... teaching them how to perform well under pressure situations, how to control their emotions, how to be mentally and physically tough so that when they face the adversity, whether it be in the minor leagues or when they come up to Pittsburgh, they're prepared."
The Pirates' late-season collapses the past two years, however, indicate that many of their young players aren't prepared to meet the challenges for the full 162-game season.
When the organization's top young players get to the major leagues and struggle in fundamental areas, it leads to losing. Coonelly, though, said that's one area that has been overblown.
"I know that there was one occasion when Brock Holt didn't get a bunt down, and all of the sudden there was a claim that the Pirates don't teach their minor league players the fundamentals of the game," he said. "Well, nothing could be further from the truth."
Coonelly said every aspect of the organization -- including execution at the major league level, player development, scouting, free agency and everything in between -- will be evaluated this offseason and appropriate changes will be made in certain areas. There don't appear to be any changes coming, however, with the top two developmental people in the system, Stark and player development director Larry Broadway.
"I will tell you," Coonelly said, "that Kyle Stark and Larry Broadway, in my opinion, do a terrific job of developing our young players and work extraordinarily hard on developing first their baseball skills and then also developing them so that they can be good teammates and teammates that have each other's backs so that they develop a winning mentality as a team as opposed to just individually."