Earlier this week, Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting addressed the media for the first time in 2017 in Bradenton as the team began Spring Training. He defended the front office’s frugal spending habits during the 20 win decline in last season’s so-called “bridge year”, saying you need to go backwards to go forwards sometimes.
“You need to have the step back before you take the step forward,” Nutting said. “I love that phrase. We certainly had a step back. We underperformed last year to the abilities of our club. I believe that’s been good for the organization. I believe it’s been good individually for some of the players and its refocused us and improved our commitment.”
“I love that phrase.” I laughed a bit when I read that initially. Nutting has sure mastered his spin doctoring in his 10 years as owner. His statement is coming from the owner of a team that won 98 games the season before, on the heels of the best stretch the franchise has seen since the early 1990’s. He also said the drop off in wins showed the razor-thin edge between a pretty good team and an elite team. If Nutting really thinks the difference between the Pirates and a team like the Cubs is razor-thin, he must buy some cheap razors. And for a penny pincher like he has been over his tenure, this should not be a surprise.
But to Nutting’s credit, the franchise is in a lot better shape than it was when he assumed complete control from Kevin McClatchy in September 2007. Despite keeping the Pirates in Pittsburgh by getting PNC Park built, the team never could create much buzz in the National League. Failed draft picks, terrible free agents signings and lopsided trades marred much of the McClatchy era. Most of this is blame on the incompetence of general managers Cam Bonifay and David Littlefield, who did draft Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen in back-to-back drafts, but still will be known for the worst trades in baseball history when he sent Rajai Davis to San Francisco for Matt Morris and Aramis Ramirez to the Cubs for Bobby Hill. You don’t understand how happy a 15-year old me was when I found out Littlefield had finally been canned. It was the first time in my lifetime that it seemed like the Pirates may turn it around.
Though it did take them another 6 years to realize that goal, the team finally made it back to the playoffs after 20 years of losing. Along the way, Nutting led the construction of a new training academy for the Pirates in the Dominican Republic and upgrades to Pirates city. The front office team he installed in Frank Connelly and Neal Huntington has spearheaded the team’s turnaround. Huntington has completely flipped the Pirates’ minor league system from one of the league’s weakest to one of the deepest. These things are all great and Nutting should be given his due for putting the franchise back in relevancy throughout the majors. But in comparison to the other owners across baseball, he is not allowing his team to reach their maximum potential.
Since 2011, every team that has won the World Series has had a payroll exceeding $100 million, all of which were in the top 20 in their respective seasons. This year will be the first time the Pirates will hit $100 million in franchise history. Unfortunately, there will still be roughly 21 teams ahead of the club in terms of payroll. For the franchise’s previous ownership, there were limited resources to bring in top-flight talent in free agents. It should be different with Nutting, yet the tenth richest owner in baseball refrains from pumping in any additional cash to make a necessary signing. One big signing can push over the razor-thin line. Granted not all these big free agent splashes turn out (look what the Red Sox gave David Price), but any move of significance can infect energy into a fan base. This can lead to a better turnout at the ballpark and more merchandise being sold. Most importantly, it gives you a better shot at getting to a World Series. And to take a step back and look at this from a business perspective instead of from a baseball one, not investing in at least the occasional splash free agency move is a ludicrous decision for any professional sports team’s owner to make, especially when your team has been on the edge of being elite.
And being the owner of the most successful (and only) ski resort in the area, Nutting should know about investing in his current product. In the past he has made upgrades and built new trails in hopes of attracting new visitors to the resort. Like in sports, there is no guarantee these investments will pay off. They could backfire and it can result in lost profits, but that’s the risk of business. Nutting has to start taking the same risks he makes with his other business as he does with the roster of his baseball team.
Pirates’ fans were able to finally taste glory from 2013-2015 after years of being the laughingstock of baseball. Attendance went through the roof, merchandise sales were up and the people of Pittsburgh were once again caught in Bucco fever. Now fans are trapped in the worm hole of being a borderline contender, which means being relevant until the team fades in September. This is what happened to the Pirates last year. As it looks right now, this will be the fate of the team this season. They are unlikely to make any moves before the season begins. And while the front office could bring in a critical piece at the deadline, that is looking more and more like the time the Pirates will be shipping McCutchen out of Pittsburgh.
It is sad to think Nutting could make so much more money off the Pirates in the long run if he would allow the team to sign someone significant in free agency. But hey, I don’t want to tell a billionaire how to spend their money. But if Nutting ever wants to bring the first World Series to Pittsburgh since 1979, opening up his wallet will go a long in making that dream possible. Until then (and don’t hold your breath), expect the Pirates to continue to be on the edge of being a contender or a pretender.