If there’s one thing to be said about the Pittsburgh Pirates this year, at least they are riding the Titanic to the bottom of the icy blue while at least trying to rearrange those piloting the ship. Faced with a 15th consecutive losing season, long overdue change has come to the front office of Pirates organization.
Last week, Bob Nutting let general manager Dave Littlefield go, and before that, CEO Kevin McClatchy stepped down from the helm. It’s enough for any true Pirate fan to ask what in the name of Roberto Clemente is going on here?
Over the weekend, Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com broke the news that the Littlefield firing was a precursor to the hiring of Frank Coonelly to fill the vacated CEO seat left by McClatchy. Rosenthal writes:
Coonelly is Major League Baseball's chief labor counsel, and draws high marks for his intelligence, with one executive describing him as a "phenomenal" choice.
Well, “phenomenal” might mean different things to different people, and who knows, maybe that exec will be right.
Thing is, his selection would mark yet another addition to the long list of incestuous moves by MLB.
If the name Frank Coonelly doesn’t ring a bell, it should. He’s probably the biggest power broker you never heard of in MLB. He’s a senior vice-president of MLB and acts as their chief labor negotiator. He’s front and center when it comes time to deal with collective bargaining, or dealings with the unions that represent the umpires (see comments by Coonelly in regards to an agreement by the minor league umpires union over background checks). He was at the table at 245 Park Ave, MLB’s New York headquaters, when Jason Giambi met with officials over his comments to USA Today that seemed to allude to steroid use.
In terms of a possible Pirates hiring, it should be noted that Coonelly has been dealing with MLB’s financial matters when it comes to assigning “slot” money to draft pick signings. There have been none-too-quiet rumblings that Selig and MLB headquarters lobbied extremely hard for owners to adhere to suggested values to draft picks. It’s been mentioned that the slotting system was Coonelly’s brainchild. That “system” would seem to violate the Collective Bargaining Agreement and smells extremely close to collusion. What do you think the direction of the Pirates will be when it comes to signing above the recommended slot? Think they’ll go above? Not if Coonelly is still selling the same wares that he has been while working for MLB.
Plainly put, Coonelly has been the “Scott Boras foil”.
As mentioned, Coonelly deals with matters of labor, and a large part of the labor negotiation process is salary arbitration. He’s battled agents, but maybe none as heated as the ones he’s conducted with Boras who has been notorious in the past for backing general managers into a corner on draft pick deals. As mentioned in a Jon Heyman article on SI.com,"There isn't a correlation between overpaying and productivity," Coonelly says. "There is a fairly long track record of clients Scott represented who signed 'above slot' who haven't panned out."
So, when an executive says that the selection of Coonelly is “phenomenal” he’s probably speaking in terms of holding the line for the ownership brethren.
All this is, of course, great if you’re an owner. He’s going to stick it to agents and be a good soldier for Selig and Co. Bob Nutting will have a tour de force guy modeled straight out of 245 Park.
This doesn’t seem to paint a picture of a flashy general manager hiring where the Littlefield replacement comes in and immediately starts altering the perception of the Pirates as a club that seems to be taking revenue sharing dollars, paying down debt, and doing little else. Whoever is pegged for the GM position, it seems pretty obvious that he will be a guy that plays by Selig’s rules by way of Coonelly.
On the other side of the coin, Coonelly is no dim bulb. He’s almost universally noted as a powerful figure in MLB, and was recently ranked the 12th most influential executive in baseball by USA Today. That would seem to trump Kevin McClatchy at nearly every turn.
In other words, the capacity for real action within the Pirates front office seems much better than with the regime that was installed prior. It’s just that the actions seem almost certain to fall under Selig’s parameters. Don’t look for a Jim Hendry-type to get the GM position. Backloading long-term contracts? You must be joking.
So, it’s difficult to place your finger on the selection of Coonelly within the Pirates front office. Look, a zebra can’t change its stripes, so to think that somehow the Nuttings were going to go “maverick” would be folly. It would boggle the mind if the Pirates switched gears and became wildly aggressive, and suddenly became a mover and a shaker for high dollar key free agents.
But all that said, it seems pretty clear that we probably wouldn’t have witnessed the Matt Morris deal, or at the very least, not seen it structured so incredibly lopsided in the Giants favor. Coonelly would seem to have put the kibosh on any deal like that. I think we can get an amen from the Pirates fan congregation that the Morris deal was bad, and so with Coonelly in the mix, the odds of a transaction like that going down would be minimized in the extreme.
If I’ve painted a picture with two sides to it, call me guilty. It’s all a matter of perception. Coonelly is shrewd, intelligent, and formidable. He’s also played the part of a “Selig guy” to the hilt. Either way, the Pirates aren’t bringing in the milquetoast. If the Pirates do tap Coonelly for the CEO position, they’ve brought in a real power player and someone that can make things happen.
Whether those actions that occur are positive for Pirates fans, or simply ownership’s bottom line will be the question.
Maury Brown is the founder and president of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football and The Biz of Basketball (The Biz of Hockey will be launching shortly). He is also a contributor to Baseball Prospectus.
He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted here.