First Pitch: Would a New Owner Really Change Anything?

I think one of my biggest flaws in the early days of Pirates Prospects was not fully explaining my stance on Bob Nutting.

The owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates definitely holds his team back from being more successful. He either doesn’t have the money to invest more in the team at key times, or he is unwilling to make that investment with the money he has.

That said, I’m not sure that a new owner would bring massive changes, as the qualifications for an MLB owner seem to be about making profits over improving your team and the game.

My view of Nutting was locked in during the final years of Neal Huntington’s tenure. When Huntington was fired, Nutting cited a lot of reasons, such as their prospects going on to find success elsewhere, and the team not being on the cutting edge anymore in recent years.

The latter was something I brought up to Nutting two years earlier, when comparing the successful flexible spending patters around the league with the Pirates’ approach of spending to the same budget every year. At the time, Nutting trusted the system the Pirates were using, which was an out-dated system well before Huntington was fired (you may remember my years of articles referencing the Pirates being in “No Man’s Land”).

After Huntington was fired, Nutting expanded his thoughts, and one thing stuck out to me in this article by Jason Mackey at the Post-Gazette:

“I think the investment that we’re making in the Dominican is another place that talent needs to be sourced, and we’ve gotten behind again. Those are areas where we need to absolutely identify, get our foot on the gas and move forward.”

The Dominican falling behind was a key point in 2007 when Nutting replaced Dave Littlefield with Huntington. However, at the time Huntington was fired, the Dominican academy was being praised for having a lot of promising talent.

Alexander Mojica is one example. He made Baseball America’s top 30 list, falling right outside of the top 10, after just one year in the DSL at age 16. This may sound self-serving, as I put together the Baseball America prospect list. However, the addition of Mojica that high was not my call. I don’t like ranking DSL players that high, but the reports between what BA had and what John Dreker had justified the push.

Had there been a minor league season this year, we were looking forward to seeing the prospects coming over from the Dominican, including infielder Juan Jerez, outfielder Sergio Campana, and Mojica, who John Dreker had ranked third behind the other two.

The problem I see is that Nutting doesn’t know baseball. He’s only as good as the people he hires to make the decisions.

The most important hire is the person right under Nutting — the president of the team. The last president, Frank Coonelly, was formerly working with MLB on labor issues. The current president, Travis Williams, was formerly with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Both might know how to run a business from the top, but they don’t have a feel for when the Pirates are falling behind the innovative teams in the league until it’s too late.

The most important position for that is the General Manager. Neal Huntington was ahead of the rest of the league for a few years, then fell behind and never caught up.

It’s early in Ben Cherington’s tenure, and it’s difficult to open your career with a season altered by a pandemic, but so far I haven’t seen any massive differences in strategy.

In my talks with minor leaguers, the Pirates have incorporated analytics and technology into development more this year than in the past, which will definitely help their biggest issue: Development.

They added a new pitching coach, Oscar Marin, who is bringing newer strategies and mechanical adjustments to the big leagues, which will reverberate down throughout the minors.

Unfortunately, these are things that will catch the Pirates up to the innovative teams. The Pirates were winning when they were one of the innovative teams, ahead of most of the league. I’ve yet to see anything to show they’re ahead of anyone else, and I’m not confident that the combination of Nutting, a former president of an NHL team, and a GM that seems very similar in style to Huntington can get to that point.

MLB teams are treated like a business first, second, third, and at every point along the way until you reach the point at the very bottom where “Winning for the fans” comes into play. The qualifications for an owner are to have the most money, rather than having the most experience. We’re seeing that now in New York, where Alex Rodriguez would probably bring a better baseball perspective to the Mets, but Steve Cohen brings more money.

Cohen might have the advantage of a bigger budget, which will allow for more mistakes to be made. That’s more a product of the market, since the Mets have more local revenue available to them.

Nutting is a business man. He’s not a guy who is in touch with the latest trends in MLB. He was behind by a few years in reacting the last time the Pirates slipped. In fact, you wonder if Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows would still be in this organization had he opened his eyes earlier to the Pirates being in No Man’s Land, relying on hope and chance in the short-term, while slowly hoping for exponential growth in the long-term in a league where good players are only going to be with the Pirates for a limited time.

Here’s the problem: If you replaced Nutting, you’d get another business man. You’d get another owner who had the most money to buy the team, and who would treat it like a business. You’d get another owner who didn’t understand the future of the game, with the hope that they would hire people under them who do understand the future of the game. And you’d get another owner who would be business first, second, and third, with winning last — only within the means of the Pittsburgh market.

I’m not counting out Travis Williams and Ben Cherington just yet. I will say that I have less confidence in them due to the person doing the hiring. Nutting hasn’t shown anything that would give him the benefit of the doubt on bringing in the best people for the job in today’s MLB. Even if they are innovative enough to get the Pirates back to the forefront, I’m not confident that Nutting would spend properly at that point to give the Pirates their best chance at winning.

Perhaps that’s the best argument for a new owner. In the article by Mackey, Nutting mentions that the Pirates have fallen behind in being innovative. Unfortunately, they fell behind at a time when the innovation was also including how to spend the owner’s money in a way to maximize chances when the team actually had a chance. Nutting has yet to show that he would be innovative in that sense, departing from the “business as usual” approach of spending to the budget each year, and avoiding deficit spending in any year.

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First Pitch