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Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If you had Pittsburgh Pirates skipper John Russell as your pick in the Next Manager To Be Fired Pool, well, you better hope the guy who has Arizona's A.J. Hinch can loan you some money.
Despite the fact that his team is mired in an 11-game losing streak, is 20 games under .500 and headed towards a major league record-extending 18th consecutive losing season, with a miserable 152-237 mark in his 2 1/2 years at the helm of the Pirates, Pittsburgh ownership announced on Thursday that Russell's contract had been extended this past offseason.
"I really thought long and hard about the policy," Team President Frank Coonelly said. "I thought it was the right move. I really thought the public discussion of the manager and general manager's contract length just raised constant questions about, 'Are you going to dismiss? Are you going to extend?' The better policy is direct communication with the employees, making sure they understand the goals and the standards by which their performance is measured."
But, then again...
"Contracts are irrelevant," Coonelly added. "If we believe someone isn't getting the job done, a contract won't prevent us from doing what needs to be done. We'll make a change."
Who knows what is going to happen in Pittsburgh, but something within that team has to change. It is hard to blame Russell for what is going on with this club. Miller Huggins would have had a hard time getting anything out of the roster Russell has had to deal with since taking over from Jim Tracy after the 2007 season.
While the Pirates' commitment to a management team is important, they also need to commit to some core players and build around them. This is the only way to get out of the funk that the franchise currently finds itself in.
Are the Pirates on the right track? As crazy as it sounds, I say yes. Andrew McCutchen is becoming a star, Garrett Jones is a legitimate bat, and with top prospects like Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln and Pedro Alvarez in the mix, not to mention veterans like Zack Duke and Paul Maholm heading up the rotation, there is a lot to like about the Pirates.
The problem is, there has always been a lot to like about the Pirates. This is an organization that in the last 10 years has consistently dealt its best players, including the likes of Aramis Ramirez, Nate McLouth, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, among others, for prospects who never panned out or who were ultimately jettisoned as well. It has been a never-ending cycle.
So, why should anyone believe it is going to be different this time around, with this new batch of youngsters?
There has been no stability in Pittsburgh baseball over the last two decades. The only thing that has been consistent is the losing mentality. Maybe the fact that they are going to let Russell ride this out with this group is a sign that things are indeed changing.
Be careful, though. The Baltimore Orioles went down a similar path this season with the recently-fired Dave Trembley. After two awful seasons, Trembley was given another chance with a young roster that some swore was poised to break out.
Trembley just wasn't the guy for that team, and the Orioles are in as bad a situation as they have been in a long time. The losing just took over the entire organization from the fan base down, to players. Once it sets in, it is awfully hard to get rid of that mentality.
The only way to get extinguish that inferno is to blow the whole thing up.
If that situation has unfolded in Baltimore, where not so long ago the team was winning division titles in the ultra-competitive AL East, imagine what the mentality is like in Pittsburgh, where there hasn't been a winning season since 1992 when a skinny Barry Bonds was roaming the outfield of Three Rivers Stadium.
On the other hand, there is Tampa skipper Joe Maddon, who had to endure three losing seasons with the perennially-awful Tampa Bay Rays before he finally struck gold. The Rays have done a 180 into the realm of the MLB elite, because they waited it out and built from within.
Pittsburgh has shown signs of enacting the same approach, though the dividends have yet to be reaped. The Pirates are establishing a core with McCutchens, Jones and Alvarez, and although their payroll is near the bottom of the league, they have spent money on their scouting department and have built a facility in the Dominican Republic.
Nobody expects the Pirates to spend like the Yankees and Red Sox, but there are other ways to field a winner. Tampa Bay and Minnesota have both shown that, and San Diego is winning with a similar approach this year.
Rome wasn't built in a day. It is a process, but the Pirates are heading in the right direction. How fast they get to where they want to be could be determined by Russell, whom the Pirates and their long-suffering fan base need to pray is really the right guy to lead this team.
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