Published October 04, 2010
PITTSBURGH – He didn't make the trades or strip the major league roster of so many proven players. In the end, John Russell's resume will always include 299 losses in three seasons, and that was way too many, even for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Russell was fired Monday after matching the Pirates' record for most losses by a manager in three seasons. The only other manager in the franchise's 124-season history with so many losses in so few seasons was Fred Haney, who was 163-299 from 1953-55.
Russell (186-299) had records of 67-95 in 2008, 62-99 in 2009 and 57-105 this season. Only the 1952 Pirates, who went 42-112, lost more games in baseball's modern era than Russell's final team, which was the NL's worst in batting, pitching and defense.
These Pirates were bad from April to October, putting together a 12-game losing streak, four seven-game losing streaks and eight five-game losing streaks. They were 17-64 on the road, equaling the 1963 Mets for the most road losses during baseball's expansion era.
No pitcher won more than nine games on a team that was outscored by 279 runs, or almost 100 runs more than any other major league team. Five pitchers lost 10 or more games, led by 15-game losers Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, and no starting pitcher had a winning record during the franchise's record-extending 18th consecutive losing season.
While Russell was fired, general manager Neal Huntington was retained despite making a succession of poor trades and questionable moves that have left the Pirates with one of the majors' least-talented teams — a pattern that began long before either arrived in Pittsburgh.
Both Russell and Huntington were under contract for 2011 — deals that were worked out a year ago, but weren't announced by team president Frank Coonelly until mid-June. Russell will not be retained in another capacity
"We asked John Russell and his staff to compete against some incredible odds," Huntington said. "We've turned the club over in three years. I'm not shy about taking responsibility for the record. It's not the manager's record. The won-lost record at the major league level goes beyond just the manager."
Russell's stoic demeanor, reluctance to argue most calls and peculiar strategy — such as letting a pitcher bat with runners in scoring position while the Pirates trailed by five runs — made him unpopular among fans.
Russell was praised by his players for his refusal to publicly criticize them and his hands-on teaching. The team's top three prospects — Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker — all had promising, above-average rookie seasons. But the Pirates' talent was so thin and their power, pitching and payroll were so lacking, Russell had no virtually chance to win with a team that surpassed even the cocaine-scandal 1985 Pirates, who lost 104 games, for the most losses by any Pirates team in nearly 50 seasons.
"It's unfortunate, but you learn to deal with it and move on," Russell told MLB Network Radio. "I can't wait to get back in the game in some other capacity because it's what I love."
The 2010 Pirates sustained the worst loss in club history, a 20-0 defeat to Milwaukee on April 22, and had the fourth-worst ERA (5.00) in club history.
"We lost 84 games in the rotation and that's just ... astounding," said Russell, whose team began the season with a major league-low $35 million payroll. "It kind of floors me every time I think about it. That's the bottom line, and everybody knows if you can't pitch, it's going to be very difficult."
The search for the sixth full-time manager to serve during the ongoing losing streak already has begun, but Huntington — a former Indians executive — did not identify any possible candidates.
"It's not about placing blame," Huntington said. "We all feel a sense of urgency to expedite the development process to put this organization on a better track at the major league level. We're doing some incredible things with scouting and development. We're looking forward to having those make an impact on the wins and losses at the major league level."
Russell, a former major league catcher and Phillies minor league manager, was a surprise hire by the Pirates in September 2008. He had been fired as the Pirates' third base coach by previous management only two seasons before, yet was hired by Coonelly and Huntington because of his reputation for being a patient, adept developer of younger talent.
Russell's first team in 2008 was competitive until midseason, when the franchise — eager to stockpile a talent-bereft farm system — began dealing away or cutting productive players such as Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Nate McLouth, Adam LaRoche, Matt Capps, John Grabow, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan. Also traded was 2010 major league home run leader Jose Bautista during a two-year roster purge.
While ownership said Huntington and Russell were hired for their ability to identify and polish talent, no one in the organization recognized that a minor shift in his batting stance might transform Bautista from a utilityman who never hit more than 16 homers in a season into a power hitter capable of hitting 54 homers.
Russell was forced to repeatedly write out lineup cards that included players playing out of position, such as catcher-turned-first baseman Jeff Clement, or who clearly didn't belong in the majors, including offseason pickup Aki Iwamura. Russell also was asked by management to implement radical defensive shifts that repeatedly failed.
Russell's coaches are free to look for other jobs, although it is believed some in the organization want pitching coach Ray Searage retained. A new manager normally chooses all or most of his staff.