Hurry Up and Wait – A Pirates Spending Reality Check

I have readers and listeners that span the spectrum of Pirates fandom. From those who say they just want to keep an eye on the team while making sure none of their money winds up in Bob Nutting’s pocket to fans who wouldn’t miss a minute and simply don’t want to hear about the owner in any capacity.

I take that as a personal achievement if I’m honest. It means that I’ve been fair covering this team, you know, the stated intent of our website.

That doesn’t mean I’ll always tell you what you want to hear, today is one of those days. Honestly, if this were all about gaining followers or readers for me I could take the easy route and just give the people what they want, a Nutting bashing that in many ways he deserves, but instead I’m going to be a wet blanket here.

I keep seeing arbitrary deadlines for when we’ll know if Bob Nutting is serious about spending to give Ben Cherington what he needs to finish the job. Most of these tend to be in 4 or 5 years, he better do what is required or I’m done. Or if he doesn’t spend in 5 years then we’ll stop going and then he’ll move the team when the lease is up for PNC Park.

First, the lease is really not going to amount to much. If anything it’ll be a renegotiation of who is responsible for upkeep and improvements. Maybe some form of an increase in rent, but it certainly isn’t some magic date where the team could easily move from Pittsburgh. MLB won’t allow it, and their desire to expand (not relocate) is the primary reason beyond being one of the two oldest ballclubs in the league.

Baseball is financially speaking, a broken sport. That’s not to say that the teams make no money, far from it. It’s to say there are teams that rake it in hand over fist and at the same time teams like the Pirates who don’t.

We’re forced to live in generalities. I say that because not one team in baseball has open books, the only number that is verified in any credible way is the end of year payroll figure that is typically released through Forbes and is universally verified by both MLB and the Players Union.

Every other salary figure you see is an estimate, some far closer than others of course, but estimates nonetheless. For instance if you read Ethan Hullihen’s stuff at all, he’ll probably be closer than anyone you look to at any given point during the season. And I mean he will spend hours figuring out where an extra 200K came from. It’s great work, but even he can’t tell you what the teams make.

Now, that’s all the game itself, nothing really about the Pirates, but this is the environment they play in and unless a miracle takes place and somehow a salary cap is implemented it doesn’t figure to change in any significant way. If anything it’s actually trending toward making it a bit harder on the teams that don’t rake in cash.

Players are going to want to see the number of years players are controlled reduce and MiLB looks to have a seat at the table to try to get the players they represent a bit more of the pie. Hey, I actually support both of those and a cap, weird right, but that’s for another column.

Sure there will be other changes like expanded playoffs and the DH, maybe even more revenue sharing, but the only transformative thing they could do is a Salary Cap and everything short of that won’t change the competitive balance issue the league clearly has.

The school of thought that the only thing that matters is if New York and LA do well can’t really be denied. As long as the other 20+ teams keep playing ball MLB will remain a coastal sport. The league won’t crumble to the ground or see teams start dropping from the league, it just won’t become competitive.

The Pirates are in a market that simply doesn’t make a ton of money. We could take fan control of the club a la Green Bay and pack the park every night for a season knowing every dollar gets spent on the team and see quickly that we still can’t touch the top tier in the league.

That said, they’d be more competitive. You know what it would look like? It would look something like Milwaukee. The ownership in Milwaukee took over and promised they’d spend every dollar they could to make the team competitive and they’ve lived up to it but it still hasn’t been enough.

Oh, they came close, but arguably not much closer than your dear Buccos.

Things can be done right, and that’s what you have to hope Ben Cherington is doing. A team like this has to develop, draft, acquire talent from all areas at their disposal and then do some more. That process can’t ever stop.

If you really want to be honest about what happened in 2016, Bob Nutting’s defining moment for not spending you first have to remind yourself the payroll actually went up from 2015 to 2016. Even while the club lost J.A. Haap to free agency and AJ Burnett to retirement.

This club had NOTHING in Indianapolis to fill the holes. So instead of going out and spending more money on quality arms, they picked up scraps, tried to make a reliever into a starter and traded Neil Walker for a prayer.

It clearly didn’t work. But it wasn’t because they refused to spend anything. It was because they could never spend enough to make up for what they were losing.

This set off a series of bad decisions by the front office and directly led to where we are now.

Where we are now is the very beginning of a build and this is where your expectations for spending start to take shape.

At this very second the only way Bob Nutting or any owner could really spend would be to direct Ben Cherington to go out and get real established players, even if that ultimately means they get moved before the team really arrives. That’s one way they could invest now, but if Cherington is to be believed (and I’m certainly not telling you that you have to) the money they don’t spend now will be available to them later.

I know, me too. But I can’t sit here and deny it’s been said or pretend that’s not the stated plan. Now, maybe that’s all crap and all they’re doing is robbing the fan base from at least having some fun while they try to acquire young talent for the future, I don’t deny this is a path that could have been taken. COULD have, but once they moved who they moved, that thought process should have ended.

Another way he could invest would be to extend someone on the club right now like Hayes. Just to show how fickle this wish is, that used to be a group of at least 3 players, Hayes, Reynolds and Keller. He could certainly extend any of them but man looking at Keller I’m kinda glad they didn’t do that this off season. Not that I can’t see him getting it, just that right now he clearly doesn’t.

Still, an investment like this would be lipstick on a pig. I suspect some folks in that spectrum I talked about would be fairly satisfied with that as ‘proof’ that this time Bob was serious. I’d remind you that he’s allowed for extensions multiple times. Polanco, Marte, Cutch, Cervelli, Harrison, Mercer, shall I continue? Again, this doesn’t mean the club shouldn’t do it, or that it wouldn’t rightly be seen as a positive sign but for the sake of intellectual honesty let’s not pretend it hasn’t happened.

Back to the 5 years down the road theory. Five years from now this team will be loaded with many of the prospects that were recently brought in. Even if they haven’t extended anyone I mentioned they could still be here, contractually speaking they should still be here providing they are part of the winning team. And depending on how they have performed over those five years through arbitration alone they would be making good money. Hell look at Chicago where Kris Bryant is on his final year of arbitration and cashed in for a little over 20 million. That’s a good comp for a player like Hayes if you leave him go unsigned. It doesn’t just become 20 million overnight, it slow walks it’s way there by a few million per season, and yes, he’ll pay it until such a time as they face losing him for nothing, again, if he goes unsigned.

The point of this is that payroll is going to go up, but not as much as you like because the reality is they’ll be surrounded by a bunch of players who are either on their rookie deals or very early arbitration.

I say all this so you understand there is no magic number for payroll that you will feel better or that Nutting has done enough.

If in five years things progress naturally, meaning they continue to build in this fashion the payroll will rest somewhere in the 75-100 million dollar range. Now if that has them one starter short or missing a solid right fielder, yes they’d have to spend but let’s just be honest, that’s not going to be a 30 million a year guy because as I’ve been trying to illustrate, that 75-100 million will on its own increase for the next campaign. Maybe it’s 90-120 now in year 6. The progression continues, and the more prospects come up together, the higher the multiplier when they reach arbitration at the same time.

This is where most teams consider the window open, this is also a place a team like Tampa would never allow themselves to get. See they’d never get to the point where they had a player like Hayes getting that kind of money from arbitration.

That’s the fork in the road here that we don’t know. Is Ben going to go that Tampa route or is he going to hope Nutting spends to help him keep the window open?

I know which one you want.

I also know Tampa is the one that has worked in this system and it still hasn’t resulted in a championship. Close but no cigar. Horseshoes and all that…

So I ask again, what was it you thought you’d see evidence of in five years? See the math just doesn’t work for satisfying what you think you need to see in that time frame. They can do more, and my numbers aren’t without wiggle room but for the most part, I’ll be very close.

Part of me thinks if they win, nobody will care. Part of me thinks a 200 million dollar payroll that falls short would mean more to some of you than a well built 130 million dollar payroll that falls just short.

Payroll is not a competition this club can win and the owner doesn’t matter one bit in this statement.

My belief is that Bob Nutting could hold a press conference tomorrow and announce that he underspent and is going to redistribute what he should have spent back out to season ticket holders and most would still loathe him.

It’s the image he’s created here by not being vocal enough when his former GM was mismanaging the club at the behest of his team president. It’s an image he’s created by never being willing to come close to his top end budget. It’s also not going to go away no matter what he spends.

If a championship is brought home to Pittsburgh one day it will undoubtedly be in spite of him regardless of the payroll number at the time. In other words if it happens to be 100 million it won’t prove him right for being cheap, and if it’s 200 million it won’t make you feel like he finally learned. Mostly because if the economic system doesn’t change, rest assured that 200 million would be a 1 or 2 year peak and not a sustainable figure. Meaning championship pieces would be on their way out of town, again.

For a fan base that is forced to stare into the future as often as we’ve been asked to over the years, it’s hard to understand how this isn’t seen by more people if I’m honest. Maybe it’s because some of our most trusted sports reporters like Bob Pompeani still think and put forward that this is as simple as Nutting not wanting to spend. It’s part of the story, but not all of it and to only push, and if I may be so bold understand part of the story creates segments of the base who simply believe the only thing stopping the Pirates from being the Cardinals is Bob Nutting.

The belief you’ll see undeniable proof in five years isn’t some fringe belief, this is coming from people I respect quite a bit too.

Note that nothing I wrote says they can’t get the job done. Nothing I wrote says you have to settle for less than winning. The only restriction I put on anything was the dream of signing a player for 30 million a year should probably be removed from your Pirates bucket list.

Since 1995 only one team has won the World Series with a payroll outside the top 15, the 2003 Florida Marlins who clocked in at 25th. I can’t sit here and tell you that payroll has no bearing on winning.

In 2015 the Pirates universally accepted best year in modern times they ranked 25th in the league. In 2016 the season Bob Nutting single handedly ‘sold off’ the entire team I say with much sense of irony they ranked 21st. Way back in 1992 the Pirates ranked 1st.

That’s right, 1st. The game has changed, and it wasn’t just having someone cheap buy the team that changed how the Pirates participate in it.

Depressed? Don’t be, because this can be done, it just can’t be done without the pain we’re watching now, and when they arrive next it will have almost nothing to do with money immediately. There will be a time when this club reaches that fork and when they do many of us will be here screaming that it’s coming. Nutting will have decisions to make and while I won’t pretend saying all the right things to Jason Mackey in his sit down mean he’s locked in to making the right call, I certainly will say we’ll know when it comes.

This isn’t an easy sport to win in and bad ownership doesn’t make it easier. I’m making no excuses for ours, and I’m not in any way saying he’s done all he could. I’m simply saying if you have a mental timeline for forgiveness or belief, at least soak in what I’m saying here and consider these points before declaring when the proof needs to be in the pudding.

And that’s the point.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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