Would a New Owner Help the Pirates? Part Deux

This is a followup to Tim’s piece the other day.  It’s not a response, as I saw nothing to disagree with.  It’s more an attempt to expand upon it.

The basic themes when we discuss Bob Nutting (seen in the bed above) are pretty easy.  He’s cheap.  That’s in case you didn’t know.  And it goes beyond the simple payroll number; as Tim pointed out, there’s also his refusal to engage in cyclical spending, like other teams, to take advantage of the right segments of the success cycle.  And there’s the obvious point that the owner hires the GM.

These obvious points, though, don’t tell the whole story.  The owner sets the tone for an organization, something that shows up in much more subtle ways than just the payroll.  In the Pirates’ case, that’s had a very significant, negative impact.

As a pre-Nutting example of what I’m talking about, consider Kevin McClatchy and the Pirates after the 1997 Freakshow.  The Pirates went into 1998 with expectations that were inflated by their fluky 1997 contention.  They played about as well for most of 1998 as they did the previous year; they were just four games under .500 on August 26.  After that, though, they collapsed to a 5-25 finish amid a wave of injuries.

McClatchy publicly blamed the collapse on playing too many rookies, which wasn’t the problem at all.  GM Cam Bonifay got the message and instead of relying on the farm system, which appeared strong, began dragging in veterans like Ed Sprague, Brant Brown, Pete Schourek, Pat Meares and Derek Bell.  The rebuilding plan fell by the wayside.

The next GM, who proved to be the worst GM in modern MLB history, showed little to no interest in the farm system.  He instead talked incessantly about not doing development in the majors and about the need to add players with major league experience.  The result was luminaries like Ron Villone Jeff D’Amico, Ty Wigginton, Mark Redman, Joe Randa, Randall Simon, Jeromy Burnitz and Victor Santos.  Serial organizational nitwittery like that typically extends from the top down.

A key part of the Pirates’ culture in recent years has been a mind-numbing complacency.  It’s taken a lot of forms.  There was Nutting’s reluctance to dump Neal Huntington or Clint Hurdle.  According to some accounts, if Daddy hadn’t dragged Bob out of his bunker, that duo would still be crushing the spirit of Pirate fans.  There was Huntington’s unwillingness to fix the obvious problems with the development system.  Even after the widely ridiculed fiascos with Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow, there clearly weren’t going to be any changes in Kyle Stark’s fiefdom had Huntington not been fired.

You can see the complacency in a lot of ways.  There were the repeated off-seasons and trade deadlines in which the team made no meaningful effort to improve.  That included the decision to have a bridge year when nearly the entire core of a 98-win team was coming back.  How many teams have ever done that?  There’s the Pirates’ pattern of clinging to non-performing veterans, seemingly out of sentimentality.  We’re even seeing it this year, when the team is so clearly punting.  While the Pirates have been wasting playing time on Derek Holland and J.T. Riddle, Milwaukee had no problem releasing Brock Holt and Justin Smoak, both of whom are far more accomplished players than Riddle.  The team’s behavior for years has been that of one that’s fully satisfied with reaching Nutting’s profit goals.  There’s no other way to explain the lack of accountability.

Somewhat related is the team’s stifling conservatism with roster moves.  Huntington’s obsession with maximizing years of control, often of easily replaceable players, became a running joke.  The idea seemed to be constructing a low payroll that would project several years down the road.  This fits with Nutting’s unwillingess to engage in cyclical spending.  The Pirates’ payroll has seen only very small changes from year to year under Nutting, which is not normal for most MLB teams.  That’s fine if you have a lot of premium players, but if you’re just locking in a .500-ish roster with no depth at all, as Huntington did, it creates the risk of a complete collapse if a few things go wrong.  That’s exactly what happened in 2019.

It was interesting to see Nutting, when he at last cleared out the front office, cite Tampa Bay and Oakland as teams he’d like to emulate.  No teams could be more dissimilar to the Pirates.  The Rays and A’s don’t spend much money, but they’re risk-takers, churning their rosters frequently in an effort to improve.  The Pirates, by contrast, have clung tightly to remarkably mediocre players as if they represented great value.  Huntington’s constant refrain in recent years was, “We like the players we have, we just need to help them play better.”  (Translation:  Coaches are cheaper than players.)  We’ve heard the same thing from Ben Cherington.

This extreme conservatism with the roster almost certainly stems from Nutting’s attitude toward the payroll.  It’s enabled, of course, by MLB’s financial structure, which lets Nutting make a profit primarily from central revenue, leaving him able safely to alienate his fan base.  It’s no coincidence that the Rays and A’s are easily the most successful of the small market teams:  They have serious ballpark and geographical problems that no other teams face, limiting their ability to improve their revenue by doing anything other than winning games (not that winning games has helped them much).  They can’t afford the complacency that’s afflicted the Pirates under Nutting.

None of this guarantees that a new owner would do better.  And the Mark Cuban fantasies just need to stop; Rob Manfred would eat broken glass before letting Cuban into the frat.  But a new owner definitely could be an improvement.

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