Williams: A Track Record of How Bob Nutting Has Negatively Impacted the Pirates

I don’t talk about Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting often.

He’s one of the most popular subjects to write about in this city. A simple “Nutting is cheap” article has been a go-to for many sports writers who have nothing else to say on the Pirates. They’re not wrong, but most of the time the “Nutting is cheap” takes are a drive-by, leaving open some room for the benefit of the doubt to go to Nutting, through a simple bungling of facts, or a razor-thin argument that just points to a random payroll around the game and asks why the Pirates can’t spend the same.

It’s easy to argue that Nutting is cheap. It’s difficult to provide proof, as MLB is designed to give every owner the benefit of the doubt.

I’m not here today to write about how I think Nutting is cheap. There’s been something far more important digging at my mind the last few months, and even extending over the last few years.

Bob Nutting is inept.

January 13, 2007

Back in 2007, there was some mystery surrounding the ownership structure of the Pirates. The face of the ownership group was Kevin McClatchy, who led the charge to buy the team in the late-90s and keep the team in Pittsburgh. Behind that public face was the Nutting family, with no one really sure how they factored into the operations of the team.

That was cleared up at the start of 2007. It was announced that Bob Nutting had become the principal owner of the team, and confirmed that the Nutting family were the majority owners, after quietly buying up shares of the team over the previous years.

To get an idea of the perception of Nutting at the time, here is an excerpt from Dejan Kovacevic’s article back in 2007, from the link above:

For Mr. Nutting, the 44-year-old head of the West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers chain, the move will make him the sixth principal owner in the franchise’s 121-year history. It also will represent the culmination of his family’s gradual buildup in shares of the Pirates’ ownership to more than 50 percent. Mr. Nutting will remain board chairman and add to his duties the official representation of the Pirates in all MLB matters.

The move was made, Mr. Nutting and Mr. McClatchy said, to eliminate confusion about their roles.

“We wanted to have absolute clarity for everyone, including our fans,” Mr. Nutting said.

In what might prove to be the most palpable development, Mr. Nutting vowed yesterday he will be much more visible to the public. Since becoming a board member in 2002 and chairman a year later, interviews and appearances have been rare, drawing intense criticism from the team’s fan base and a widely held perception that he and his family care more about profits than winning.

The bold part is my emphasis. As someone who started following the Pirates closer around this time period, and who didn’t start covering them until 2009, I didn’t know much about Nutting prior to that announcement. It seems that was a common thing, which changed for some reason in 2007, when he finally stepped into the light.

Later in that article, in a profile on Nutting, it’s noted that he had been participating in team and MLB meetings since 2003, followed by a very common statement that we’ve heard from Nutting over the years:

Mr. Nutting and Mr. McClatchy have worked together closely since 2003, with Mr. Nutting often participating in team and MLB meetings. That led many to believe he was being groomed for a day-to-day role, but that is not how it turned out. Instead, Mr. Nutting sees himself as one who, from a reasonable distance, will hold those below him responsible for team results.

“I will say this: I am absolutely committed to having the team win,” Mr. Nutting said. “Baseball teams exist to win baseball games, and the Pirates need to have improved on-field performance. That’s my expectation, and it’s up to Kevin and his people to execute.”

I’m looking back on these comments a little bit different today, armed with some fresh perspective of recent events.

February 22, 2018

The 2018 season may have been the most damaging season for the Pirates franchise in the last several decades.

The team started the year by trading away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. For McCutchen, their face of the franchise, they got A-ball outfielder Bryan Reynolds and MLB-ready reliever Kyle Crick. For Cole, who would later go on to become the best pitcher in baseball, they got a package of mostly MLB-ready players in Joe Musgrove, Colin Moran, Michael Feliz, and A-ball outfielder Jason Martin.

I had been saying for almost a year at that point that the Pirates needed to pick a direction. They needed to either commit to a full rebuild, or go all-in and win with the guys they had while they were still around.

After trading McCutchen and Cole for mostly MLB-ready talent, Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington announced that the team still intended to contend in 2018. Nothing had really changed.

Nutting does an annual meeting with the media during Spring Training. I made it a point that year to question whether he believed the Pirates were on the right track, pointing out that the most successful teams at that time had abandoned the quest to try and contend every year and avoid a full tear-down rebuild. His response:

“Other clubs have taken ‘We’re going to embrace the cycle. We’re going to build for a few years, and we’re going to tank for a few years.’ We believe that we have the better approach,” Nutting said. “We believe we have the better approach to create a championship team. We certainly believe we have the better approach to be competitive year after year. We certainly believe it gives us a stronger opportunity to win games in ’18, than if we simply have said we’re throwing it in this year, and we’re going to break it down.”

I followed up by pushing back with the information that the successful teams in baseball were following a different approach from what the Pirates were following. I used the term “super teams” at the time to describe what the Pirates were up against versus the Cubs and any other team loading up to contend over a short window, rather than trying to sneak into the Wild Card game every year. Nutting’s long response follows, with my emphasis in bold.

“One of the fantastic things about the game is there are going to be 30 different models and 30 different approaches,” Nutting said. “You can put them into some of the buckets, and I think you’re absolutely correct in the way that you’re packaging people up. We need to focus on the approach we are taking. I can assure you that people and process, which we talk a lot about – Neal Huntington thinks broadly, Frank thinks broadly about what the various approaches, models may be. We’re moving forward with a clear direction now. We’re not going to, at this point, rethink the path.

“Do we rethink it each fall? Do we take a step back and have exactly those discussions, look at what’s been successful and be opportunistic as we adjust? Absolutely. We’ve done that several times throughout the last decade as we rotated from an intent focus on bringing talent in through the amateur draft when there was a unique opportunity open with the collective bargaining agreement. We found that opportunity and we put the foot on the gas and we went in full bore. Rotated away from that on the acquisition of talent, really doubling down right now in the Caribbean and the Dominican. We will take various approaches. We are watching carefully. Other teams have been successful. At this point, we’re not going to focus on other successful models. I think we have a path that we believe can be successful in Pittsburgh.”

The two parts I highlighted there were references to the Pirates increasing their spending. The first part is in reference to the draft, when they spent more than any other team from 2008-2011 on amateur draft picks, before MLB changed the rules after they broke the system giving Josh Bell a $5 million bonus in the second round of the 2011 draft. That same draft led to them landing Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow.

The second part was when they started spending more on the international side. It should be noted here that the Pirates spent to their budget every year from 2012 forward on the international side. The international spending budgets went up in the 2017-21 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which almost doubled their budget. The doubling-down that Nutting referenced was really just spending up to their new, league-wide increased budget.

Prior to 2012, they could have spent whatever they wanted on the international side. It was during this time that they were often limiting themselves, which most notably led to the failure to sign Miguel Sano. Their self-imposed budget during this time was around $2 million a year, with additional space provided for the rare players who demanded a seven-figure bonus. Those players were limited to Luis Heredia and Harold Ramirez for most of the early years.

Each of these cases represents a trend. The Pirates did the right thing, but they did it several years too late. They upped their spending on the international side after MLB established international bonus pools that would essentially act as budgets for every team. They didn’t really have a choice to increase spending. They just reached a situation where MLB’s rule changes made it obvious if they weren’t spending all they could possibly spend.

This came around the same time that the Pirates saw their draft spending greatly reduced, due to the draft bonus restrictions, and the Pirates having a lower draft position from winning.

The Pirates increased their international spending several years after they could have really taken advantage of doubling down. As for the draft spending…

July 31, 2007

Almost six months after it was made official that Bob Nutting was the principal owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, their General Manager, Dave Littlefield, made a series of head scratching moves.

First, he went cheap in the draft, opting for a lower-upside, closer to the majors option. The top player on the board was Matt Wieters, a Scott Boras client who would command a big signing bonus. Littlefield instead opted for left-handed reliever Daniel Moskos, who had a projected quicker path to the majors.

This wasn’t new for Littlefield. He didn’t spend money on amateur talent, and often balked at hard-to-sign guys.

I heard stories from people in the organization at the time that he went against his scouts who wanted Clayton Kershaw over Brad Lincoln in 2006, and that his scouts had to beg him to draft Andrew McCutchen in 2005. The common trend with Littlefield was to ignore the farm system and look for quick fixes in the majors. It was never more apparent than in July 2007.

A few weeks after passing on Wieters for the cheaper Moskos, Littlefield let the other shoe drop. After losing 13 of the previous 15 games, and needing rotation help, Littlefield traded for past-his-prime pitcher Matt Morris. The move took on $13.5 million in guaranteed money — more than enough to pay Wieters — while sending away Rajai Davs. Here’s a thought from Dejan Kovacevic at the time, questioning why Littlefield made such a move. Again, the bolded parts are my emphasis:

It could be argued that, because no other team wanted Morris’ contract, an agreement could have been reached between the Pirates and Giants to talk again in the fall. That way, the Pirates would save the prorated $3.4 million they will pay Morris for the rest of this now-meaningless season and could put it to more future-minded use, such as bolstering its still-low signing bonuses for Latin American amateurs.

But that has not been Littlefield’s method, and it would not be this time, either. He had $4 million left in his ownership-allotted budget for 2007 and, just as he did in pulling Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa out of semi-retirement for $10.7 million last year, he was going to spend it at the major-league level.

Eleven years before boasting about their increase in spending on the international front, it was painfully obvious that the Pirates were behind in that area.

This fact led to Neal Huntington increasing the budget when he took over, and the construction of the $5 million Dominican Academy in the following years, in order to catch the Pirates up. It would be almost a decade before they started consistently spending $3-4 million or more a year on international talent.

My emphasis on the quote above is to recall the history of the international spending, but the entire situation raises a question that I don’t think I’ve seen anyone ask: What was Bob Nutting doing in 2007?

It was clear at the time that Littlefield wasn’t the guy for the job. The Pirates had no farm system, and weren’t even faking an interest in the farm system. They were busy wasting money on washed up veterans, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle in any given year, with year after year of evidence that their approach wouldn’t work. It’s a strategy that would be very similar to their failed approach a decade later.

You could argue that Nutting just took over that year as the principal owner, and needed a year to evaluate Littlefield and the team, which seems to be the perception at the time, based on that last link from Kovacevic.

But, then, what was Nutting doing from 2003-2007, when his family owned the team, and when he was sitting in on MLB meetings? He knew what was going on prior to 2007. It’s difficult to claim ignorance on the state of the franchise in 2007 when you’ve been in the loop since 2003.

He was in the loop when the Aramis Ramirez trade was made.

He was in the loop for all of the horrible veteran signings.

He was in the loop for two straight seasons with a .414 winning percentage prior to the 2007 season.

And yet, he gave Littlefield the entire 2007 season as a trial.

The Pirates ended up with Daniel Moskos over Matt Wieters.

They ended up with Matt Morris and his inflated salary over Rajai Davis.

And they spent very little on amateur talent that could help them moving forward.

July 31, 2018

History has a way of repeating itself when you don’t learn your lesson.

At the start of the 2018 season, I was pointing out to Nutting how the Pirates would be better suited going with a clear direction in one path, rather than residing in “No-Man’s Land.” Nutting felt comfortable with the approach the team was taking, which in a way was a more sophisticated approach to what Littlefield had.

The Pirates had a farm system this time around, and they were actually spending money on international players. But they were also going with that “catch lightning in a bottle” approach of trying to win every year, but never really putting forth a solid effort to win, and never really displaying a cohesive plan from the outside.

That was never more apparent than at the trade deadline in 2018. The Pirates made a splash, acquiring Chris Archer from the Tampa Bay Rays for Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane Baz. They also acquired Keone Kela for Taylor Hearn and Sherten Apostel, which may not have the same haunting legacy as the Archer trade.

The moves came at a time when they were 56-52, in third place in the NL Central, and six games back. They didn’t have a strong chance of the post-season at the time, but part of the appeal of the move was that Archer would be with the team for several more seasons.

I liked the move at the time. I’m a Chris Archer fan, and thought he could give the Pirates a boost. I also had hope that the Pirates would be changing directions and would build on these moves, adding to the team to contend in 2019.

They didn’t.

Their big additions that offseason were Erik Gonzalez, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jordan Lyles, Melky Cabrera, and Francisco Liriano. They traded away Ivan Nova to cut salary. It was a combination of Joe Randa/Jeromy Burnitz type veterans, and cheaper guys with lower upsides, and the same hard budget that was keeping them in No-Man’s Land. In the case of Gonzales, Neal Huntington compared him to Freddy Galvis, who was also available at a price that wouldn’t break the bank for a team willing to spend anything.

I’ve always been under the impression that Nutting sets the budget, and the General Manager sets the strategy for the team with that budget. There’s no extra money coming, even if the team is winning. That much has been made apparent by Nutting’s very vocal refusal to go into deficit spending in any season.

The problem here? Bob Nutting has no clue what is going on inside the game of baseball. He’s unable to see how his frugal methods hurt his own organization.

September 29, 2019

At the end of another losing season — this one which saw Chris Archer implode while Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Gerrit Cole had success elsewhere, the Pirates fired their manager Clint Hurdle.

Pirates’ owner Bob Nutting released a statement following the move, with support for Huntington.

“While we felt it was time to make a change at the managerial level, I strongly believe that Neal Huntington and the leadership team that he has assembled are the right people to continue to lead our baseball operations department.

“This has easily been the most difficult season of my tenure. Today we announced that we are parting ways with Clint, but make no mistake about it, this is by no means a statement that our shortcomings are solely Clint’s fault. The entire organization is accountable and that begins with me.

“Neal and his leadership team are well into an extensive review of every element of our baseball operations. In addition, as an organization, we need to improve in the ways we connect with our fans.

It is very clear that we need to and will be better. There is no quick fix, but we are absolutely committed to the task. I believe we can and will achieve it.

Nutting was still saying the same old stuff. It all falls on him. He’s committed to the task of getting better. He strongly believes in their path.

A month later, Frank Coonelly stepped down to return to MLB’s front office.

Nutting is the guy who makes the ultimate decisions with the Pirates. But he relies on the person below him to make sure the General Manager is on the right track. That person was Coonelly, whose expertise with MLB, prior to joining the Pirates, was on labor negotiations, specifically aimed at keeping player salaries down.

Coonelly was replaced by Travis Williams, who is the current president of the team, and former Chief Operations Officer of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He’s most known for his role in getting the Penguins a new arena and negotiating a TV deal.

This move came at an interesting time. One of the worst moves that Coonelly made was an extremely low TV deal, just before the boom of local TV deals hit the league. Coonelly should have known this was coming, since he came to the organization from MLB’s corporate offices.

The TV deal was renewed at the end of 2019, a few weeks before Coonelly stepped down and was replaced by a guy whose biggest accomplishments was negotiating such a deal for the Penguins.

I don’t think we’ve heard much about the details on that new deal. I’m not sure if we know yet the impact Williams had on that deal. What we do know is that both presidents under Nutting — if we don’t count McClatchy as the third — had backgrounds that specialized more in making the team money, and less on knowing how to evaluate the person making the baseball decisions below them.

About a month after saying Huntington was the guy for the job, Nutting fired him. The reasoning for the disarray was all around Travis Williams and when he could join the team. Nutting wanted Williams in place before firing Huntington, as he didn’t want a gap. That didn’t make sense, as there was a gap anyway, with Kevan Graves operating as an interim-General Manager for a short time. The explanation also seems heartless to Clint Hurdle, who was deemed easily expandable, even before the season finished. In short, this reasoning is bad.

The comments that followed from Nutting about the system needs, post-firing, may sound familiar:

On international spending:

“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.”

On their approach:

“We were innovative and creative and found the inefficiencies in the game in that era,” Nutting said of the 2013-15 Pirates. “I do worry that we … it’s not fair to say we’ve gotten passed by, but I think that it is time for another fresh look. It’s time for another burst of innovation. It’s time for a fresh approach.

“I think that many of the ideas that we had in place 10 years ago, lots of clubs are doing now. The use of analytics, we were way out in front. I’m not sure we are at this point. Our development process, we got way out in front, I’m not sure that we are [now].”

It’s hard to take Nutting seriously as the person who makes the final decisions after these types of repetitive comments.

Less than two years before these comments about falling behind, I was pointing out to Nutting how the Pirates had already fallen behind the more innovative teams. His response was that they were spending more in the Dominican. Less than two years later, he admitted that they had gotten behind on a lot of things, including spending in the Dominican.

His comments to justify firing Huntington were comments that you could find everywhere. It was widely known the shape the organization was in, and the direction they were headed. It was no different than the obvious situation that was presented to him when he assumed full control of the team.

Just search for any of my articles from 2017-19 using the term “No-Man’s Land.” Everything that Bob Nutting said in October 2019, when he fired Huntington, was everything that was widely said for the previous three seasons. Everyone knew this for years.

Except Bob Nutting. The guy who makes the decisions.

How Much Has Bob Nutting Cost the Pirates?

I don’t think I’ll ever understand Bob Nutting, the person.

On the outside, he seems like a nice guy. Quiet. Always has a smile. Always says the right thing.

Anecdotal stories over the years paint him as a blue collar billionaire. A guy who walks to work. Cares about the environment. Helps local communities.

I’ve never had anything against Bob Nutting, the person. I’ve barely talked to him, outside of baseball interviews. But I can compartmentalize personal feelings away and say that Bob Nutting, the baseball owner, is completely inept at his job.

The biggest issue: His inaction.

He took over in 2007, despite being in the loop on the team since 2003. He should have known at that point to clean house.

He kept Littlefield around for another year, and it cost the organization Matt Wieters, Rajai Davis, and who knows what else with the money wasted on Matt Morris.

Neal Huntington’s early tenure was met with praise for catching the Pirates up on things that they were obviously behind on for years. I pointed out Dejan highlighting the lack of international spending in 2007. Huntington and Nutting coasted for years on the addition of the $5 million Dominican Academy, without spending on the international sides to the levels where they were spending on the draft side.

Huntington spent big on the draft, which was a complete 180 from Littlefield. He worked to have a cohesive development system, rather than the divided mess that he inherited from Littlefield.

Huntington eventually got the Pirates to the playoffs, going all-in on some of the newest trends around the game. The Pirates weren’t innovators in this sense. They were just early adopters, only as good as their ability to continue to identify the best trends moving forward.

That eventually stopped working, and it became apparent. Nutting waited too long to act.

Imagine where this team would be right now if, following the 2017 season, they implemented a full rebuild like the one Ben Cherington is doing right now. Trading Gerrit Cole for a package of high upside lower level guys. Trading Andrew McCutchen for a similar package, rather than going for Kyle Crick. Not trading Glasnow, Meadows, Baz, Hearn, and Apostel. Trading anyone else, like Josh Harrison, who left as a free agent a year later, for literally any return.

While thinking about that, keep in mind that I pointed all of this out to Nutting at the time, and he responded with confidence that they were going in the right direction.

Where might the Pirates be heading into 2021 had Nutting started this process earlier, and had a General Manager in place at the start of the 2019-2020 offseason?

How many mistakes do we have to see, and how many times do we have to watch the Pirates fall behind the trends, before Nutting is the guy who actually displays real accountability, rather than the same old empty words?

The Ben Cherington Era

So far, what I’ve seen from Ben Cherington has been reassuring. Unfortunately, it follows a long-standing trend.

Cherington is playing catchup.

He’s catching up the amateur spending, because that was allowed to drop when the Pirates were spending more on the MLB team. Nutting never explained why the team had issues spending at the MLB level, and maintaining their level of spending on amateur talent, which is so crucial to their future.

Cherington is blowing up the team and doing a proper full rebuild, similar to what successful teams were doing half a decade ago.

He’s working to fix the issues with the development system, hoping to elevate it from where Huntington left things, just as Huntington elevated it from where Littlefield left things.

I could see the Pirates winning under Cherington. We haven’t seen enough to know whether Cherington will be more of an innovator or an early-adopter, which will ultimately determine when/if the Pirates contend, and how long their window can stay open.

Here’s what I can predict: Under Bob Nutting, the Pirates will hold onto Cherington for too long. He will eventually get to a point where he’s hamstrung by a lack of financial resources from the top. In a league where a small market team needs to spend every last dollar when the window of contention is open, while also perpetually needing to spend every last dollar on amateur talent, Cherington will eventually be left with an either/or choice.

Bob Nutting has the power to change that. He has the financial means to change that. Any worry about deficit spending is absolutely ridiculous when you consider that Nutting could sell this team at any point, and set his entire family up for life. He will have great-great-grandkids who will never have a single real problem in their life, all because of the money he’d get from selling the team. And with that type of long-term value, the team can easily afford one year of deficit spending.

Nutting shows no real drive to win as an MLB owner. He only shows a drive to own an MLB team, and make sure his family always owns that team. A family business run by a family that has run the business horribly for their entire time associated with the business. A family business run by a family whose only qualification to run the business is that their family had enough money to buy the business, thanks to another family business that was started almost 150 years ago.

If Bob Nutting was accountable to anyone, he’d be out of his job right now. He’s making the same mistakes over and over, and his inaction has put the Pirates in a worse place.

The Chris Archer trade is the new Matt Morris trade. A General Manager making a desperate move to win in the next year or two, when the owner should have already identified the team was going in the wrong direction.

A General Manager gets fired and there’s the sudden realization from the owner that they aren’t putting a big enough focus on acquiring amateur talent.

There’s always a vanilla statement about a commitment to winning.

The buck always stops with Bob Nutting, so he says.

At some point, Ben Cherington is going to make his Matt Morris/Chris Archer trade. He’s going to be forced to choose between spending in the majors or spending in the minors. The farm system will take a dip. The spending in the majors won’t be enough to really contend.

And Nutting will fire Cherington, with the same comments we’ve heard after the last two GMs, and probably a year or two after it became obvious to everyone else that a change was needed. The next GM will get instant praise for doing the things that everyone pointed out Cherington wasn’t doing in the end. The payroll will be slashed to a ridiculously low level, and justified with the amateur spending that won’t be maintained when the payroll goes back up.

That’s the biggest problem I see going forward. It’s hard to get excited about what Cherington is doing when you know that it’s long overdue, and when you don’t even know if the Pirates will eventually spend what is necessary to carry this plan out.

It’s hard to get excited about an organization’s future when the owner has well over a decade of history showing he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and doesn’t know how to evaluate what’s going on below him.

As an MLB owner, Bob Nutting is inept. He limits the entire organization. He’s done it before, and his inaction has cost the Pirates actual talent and progress. He will limit the organization again. It’s just a question of when, not if.