Pirates president looks to ‘crack the code,’ build a winner
The new president of the Pittsburgh Pirates is confident owner Bob Nutting is committed to winning.
Travis Williams, who succeeds Frank Coonelly on Nov. 1, says his job is to put the right people in place to help the Pirates climb back into contention. His first order of business will be finding a general manager after the team dismissed Neal Huntington.
Williams’ relationship with Nutting began more than a decade ago, when he was the team’s outside legal counsel.
“I pay attention to what the commitment and the passion is,” Williams said.
Williams believes that if Nutting was focused on the status quo, he wouldn’t have ordered an overhaul of the management structure following a last-place finish in the NL Central. Manager Clint Hurdle and Huntington had two years left on their deals. Coonelly had been a front-office fixture since 2007. All three were highly respected by Nutting for steering the franchise out of 20 years of losing to three straight playoff appearances from 2013-15.
Yet after a second-half collapse resulted in a 93-loss season, Nutting parted with all three, the last act coming Monday when Huntington was fired29 days after Hurdle was let go and less than a week removed from Coonelly’s departure .
The easier and more fiscally prudent path might have been giving Coonelly, Hurdle and Huntington at least another year to see if they could figure out it out. Instead, Nutting cleaned house and tasked Williams with charting a new course.
“I know it really eats at Bob and really frustrated him how the season turned out,” Williams said. “I know he wants to make a fundamental change. With that commitment and his support, I know we can make it happen.”
It’s the how that will be tricky. Williams spent 10 years in the front office with the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, rising to chief financial officer as the team won three Stanley Cups between 2009 and 2017 and evolved into a model franchise.
Unlike baseball, the NHL has a salary cap. Unlike the Pirates, the Penguins marketed themselves around superstar players Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and an ownership that spent aggressively each year.
The Pirates don’t enjoy the same advantages, though Williams is quick to point to the success of small-market clubs like Oakland and Tampa Bay as proof that a sky-high payroll and a roster stuffed with high-profile players isn’t the only path to the postseason.
“We’re not going to flip the switch and all of a sudden have a winner on the field,” Williams said. “It’s going to take time. We’re going to put a plan in place starting with getting a GM in place, starting with putting a winning tradition in place, a winning culture, getting the right baseball mind in the role in order to take us forward.”
Though he’s not a “baseball guy,” Williams points out he wasn’t a “hockey guy” when he joined the Penguins in 2008. That didn’t stop him and CEO David Morehouse from finding the right people to help the Penguins become the only NHL team since 2000 to win back-to-back Stanley Cup titles (2016, 2017 ), a rise that began when the club hired Jim Rutherford as general manager in 2014.
Williams and Morehouse trusted those around them — namely owner Mario Lemieux — to find the right candidate while also understanding their roles as outsiders wasn’t entirely a bad thing. It worked with the Penguins. He sees no reason why it can’t with the Pirates.
“I’m confident in our ability to put a process in place, run a process like this,” Williams said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to find the right person to lead this franchise into the future and put it in a much better place.”
Nutting stressed the team is in far better position now than it was when Coonelly and Huntington came on board in 2007. Williams will be challenged with what he called “cracking the code” to help make sure Pittsburgh’s next run of prosperity — whenever it occurs — is more sustainable.
“It will be a little bit of a journey,” Williams said. “We’re going to ask everybody to join us on that journey. We’re going to make it fun and exciting. It’s going to be a fun place to play.”