The weekend before the trade deadline, the Pirates traded Proven Closer™ Mark Melancon to the Nationals. We liked it, but fans and media were beside themselves over it. It appeared as if the team was waving a white flag on the season. Then on deadline day of August 1st, right at the deadline actually, the Pirates traded Opening Day starter Francisco Liriano and two “prospects” to the Blue Jays for Drew Hutchison.
GET THE PITCHFORKS AND TORCHES READY!! WE’RE NOT STOPPING UNTIL WE GET TO PNC PARK!!
Perhaps talk radio callers, Facebook posters, and Twitter users are not the complete cross-section of Pirate fandom, but rest assured there weren’t a lot of happy people about this trade, either. I read some comments that said “Here comes 20 more years of losing!” and “This is the final straw. I’m done with this team!” Really? These trades, after everything else, is the tipping point? I’m guessing that most of those fans haven’t been fans for very long.
Well, after the Pirates should have shuttered the franchise and sold off all tangible assets on August 1st, how has the team done in the month of August? I bet they’ve been pretty awful without Liriano in the rotation and Proven Closer™ Melancon at the back of the bullpen. Huh? They’ve gone 10-8 in August? They’re 3 games out of the Wild Card, even after a soul-crushing sweep by the Marlins?
While there’s still a fair amount of the regular season left and the playoffs are anything but a lock at this point in late August, the point is that not only are the Pirates surviving, but they’re thriving. And yet again, it’s because of Neal Huntington and his staff of scouts and analysts. Felipe Rivero has been a revelation, far exceeding my expectations, to the extent that with a modicum of control improvement I feel he could be the closer NEXT year. Ivan Nova has been solid and helped stabilize the rotation, along with hyped rookie Taillon and non-hyped rookie Kuhl.
Is Huntington the best GM in baseball? I can’t go that far just yet, because he hasn’t won anything yet. If the Pirates were to make a deep run in the playoffs, possibly. If they were to win a World Series, definitely. The reasoning is that Huntington is doing all of his good work with the equivalent of one hand tied behind his back. The payroll is always going to be lower in Pittsburgh due to lower overall revenues than other teams. Pittsburgh does not have a sweetheart of a local TV deal. They have some of the lowest overall ticket prices in MLB. The ballpark itself is the 2nd smallest in terms of capacity.
But I’ve routinely questioned how much of the available revenue is directed into the on-field 25-man payroll. And that is on the owner, Bob Nutting. Both TPOP and Forbes have estimated the Pirates’ revenues to be around $240M. If you use the common 50% rule-of-thumb, that should be $120M in payroll. Even if you are feeling generous and say 45%, that’s still $108M in payroll. The 2016 Opening Day payroll was right at $100M. Let’s just say the ownership is probably underfunding payroll by $10-$20M. That’s a big deal. That’s a solid #3 level pitcher, in a year when the rotation had a crying need for such a pitcher.
Have you ever looked in your refrigerator and pantry the day before it’s time to good food shopping? Have you looked at a disparate group of ingredients and had to figure out how to cobble together a meal for you and your family? I bet you’ve actually made a pretty good meal every once in a while out of that oddlot of foodstuffs. That is what Neal Huntington and Friends have to do every day.
To go back to the first paragraph, I put prospects in quotation marks. In order to offload Liriano’s $13.7M salary in 2017 (on a guy who was having a wretched year), Huntington had to append two players that would compensate that monetary value in perceived value. Although I agree with Alex that it is a disturbing trend, I didn’t mind it all for these two particular players, because I don’t think either are full-time starters in the Majors. Huntington sold them on hype and pedigree before the bloom came off the rose completely. But he did what he had to do because this front office is continuously put in a box by financial constraints imposed by ownership.
Every once in a while I wonder if Huntington daydreams about working for a large revenue club. Imagine Huntington having an even more robust scouting and analytics budget. Contemplate him with a $150-175M payroll. To put it this way, Huntington would be out of work for about 1 day until some other large revenue club scooped him up. Even if they had a good GM in place, that club would put him on the crew for down the line if they needed to move on from their current GM.
I’m sure that Huntington’s value is well-known to Bob Nutting. I don’t view Nutting as some sort of mustache-twirling villain that others portray him as. Nor do I view him as a Scrooge McDuck jumping into a silo full of money, either. Instead, I just view him as a fiscally prudent bean counter. The bottom line is the bottom line. Debts must be paid and the debt/revenue ratio must never go above a certain pre-ordained threshold. Make do with what you have.
In my view, the 2017 season is as close to a make-or-break season as the Pirates will have for the foreseeable future. McCutchen will be in his final guaranteed year, with only the $14.5M club option in 2018, so the Pirates will most likely be trading him after the 2017 season to recoup some value and get talent back for him prior to his free agency. But after this 2016 season of McCutchen’s struggles, it’s been demonstrated that the Pirates can win without him producing, just not as much as when he was regularly in the top 5 of NL MVP voting. There’s no sugarcoating the fact that the Pirates’ best chance at glory would be with McCutchen on top of his game and the team thriving behind him. That’s why there’s a lot of weight on succeeding in 2017.
With Liriano and his #2 starter potential out the door for 2017 (along with $13.7M of salary), will the Pirates re-invest that money into the rotation for a known quantity of a pitcher? Theoretically, the Pirates’ payroll shouldn’t be less than $110M next year, based off of the revenues discussed above and the continued support of the team by the fanbase. The rotation appears to have two locks in Cole and Taillon. Glasnow, if fully healthy, should be another one. The rest of the current mix is Jeff Locke (strong potential to be traded or non-tendered), Chad Kuhl, and Steven Brault. There’s definitely room for another #2-level pitcher to come in here. But that pitcher doesn’t exist on the barren free agent market this year. The trade market this offseason should have all the same names as deadline time did this year (Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Chris Archer, Sonny Gray), and they are all “Pirate-affordable” pitchers.
If the Pirates are truly serious about a) “going for it” on a World Series in 2017 and b) spending money on the Major League product, then they HAVE to go get a stud pitcher in the trade market this offseason. It will be painful in terms of what teams will ask for in return, but if 2017 isn’t the year (with McCutchen probably on his way out the door), then when will the right time be? There are people that fetishize prospects and fret over them like pretty pink ponies with brushable hair. Prospects fail. A lot. They are good for supplying low-cost talent to the Major League club, but they’re really good for obtaining established Major League talent from teams that are looking to rebuild.
Neal Huntington needs to use his farm system. Bob Nutting needs to take the wraps off Huntington’s working budget, even just a little bit.
When you hear someone grumble about the Pirates, kindly remind them that it’s not the GM’s fault. It all falls squarely on the shoulders of Bob Nutting, owner.