PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Pirates extended the contracts of manager John Russell and general manager Neal Huntington for the 2011 season without making a public announcement during the offseason.
The Pirates were coming off a 99-loss season in 2009 and, amid slumping ticket sales, apparently felt announcing the winter deals might further lessen enthusiasm for this season. Huntington was given a one-year extension through 2011, and the club picked up Russell's option.
Pirates president Frank Coonelly acknowledged the moves Thursday, after a FoxSports.com report that Huntington's contract had been extended. The website's report Wednesday that the team was holding internal discussions about Russell's future apparently prompted the Pirates to disclose the extensions.
Coonelly defended the decision to extend Huntington and Russell without publicly disclosing it, even though major pro sports teams almost never keep such high-profile moves secret.
"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? ' " Coonelly said. "The better policy is direct communication with the employees, making sure they understand the goals and the standards by which their performance is measured."
Huntington and Russell are in their third seasons, and the team has yet to produce a 70-win season under them. Currently stuck in a 10-game losing streak, the Pirates are 19 games under .500 and on pace for a major league record-extending 18th consecutive losing season.
Russell welcomed the extension, but said having an additional year's worth of security won't alter the way he does business.
"Neal and I have said it from day one and we'll continue to say it, whether we have a one-year extension or a 10-year extension, we're not going to change the way we do things," he said.
Russell's stoic personality, refusal to argue most debatable calls and non-swaying patience have discouraged fans who say the club gives the appearance of accepting losing.
"He's a laid-back guy but he's got that fire and drive, he knows the game and he wants to win," outfielder Garrett Jones said. "When we have meetings in here, he gets fired up, he fires the team up with speeches."
With Huntington in charge, the Pirates have dealt off nearly every tradable player with experience over the last two years to rebuild with a core of younger players, including former All-Stars Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson. The club's top four prospects — Pedro Alvarez, Brad Lincoln, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker — have been called up during the past three weeks.
Several of the deals were major busts, including the Bay trade. The Pirates' refusal to pursue talented veteran players on the open market — the team's opening day payroll of $34 million-plus was easily the lowest in the majors — also has upset fans who have waited for a winning season since 1992.
The Pirates' troubles began long before Coonelly, Huntington and Russell arrived; they have won more than 72 games in a season only once in 10 years, averaging 95½ losses over the last five seasons.
Despite the latest slide — one of the Pirates' three longest losing streaks in 42 years — Coonelly does not regret making the extensions.
"We evaluate on a daily basis. But is it difficult to reach the conclusion that a manager is not doing the job when you're turning over the roster so completely, as we have the last two years?" Coonelly said. "And when you're asking him to win with players who are being asked to move from one position to another? And with so many rookies in the lineup? Yeah, it's difficult in that scenario."
Coonelly disclosed the extensions because he felt the debate over Huntington and Russell was threatening to become a major distraction at the very time the Pirates are breaking in new players.
"I continue to believe that internal understandings regarding goals, expectations, standards, performance and progress towards meeting those goals are far more productive than public votes of confidence or public discussions about the years remaining on an employee's contract," Coonelly said in a statement. "(But) it is clear that the desire to ascertain the number of years that remain on our manager's contract has become and will remain a distraction — precisely the result we sought to avoid by declining to discuss such matters."
The Pirates aren't writing off this season because they believe the influx of rookies will result increasingly better play. Several offseason pickups, including light-hitting second baseman Aki Iwamura, have played poorly, and Iwamura was designated for assignment on Wednesday despite his $4.8 million contract. Infielder Ramon Vazquez was let go in spring training despite a $2 million guaranteed contract
"The level of disappointment is so high I can't accurately give you a word for it. Extraordinarily disappointed and frustrated by the level of play," Coonelly said. "We certainly knew that we had challenges this year, but we're excited to attack those challenges. More importantly, we still believe we can turn it around."