This article is free for anyone to read, but please consider becoming a Patreon subscriber to gain access to the rest of my work and allow me to keep writing posts like this one.
The Pirates have, somewhat quietly, been one of the worst parts of the last two horrid offseasons for players. A year ago, they claimed attendance drops had “a meaningful impact on how we can build a roster in 2018.” For some reason, they felt the solution to those attendance issues involved trading talented, arbitration-eligible starter Gerrit Cole to the Astros for a bleak return, while also sending the most popular player of his era in Pirates’ history, Andrew McCutchen, to the Giants. Oh, Pittsburgh also didn’t sign a single free agent the entire offseason, but denied that they were doing anything but trying to remain competitive.
Don’t worry, there’s another reason to be upset about all of that, in case that wasn’t enough: all of this was done in the same offseason that every team was getting at least a $50 million check from Disney for the sale of BAMTech. That $50 million would have covered the last year of McCutchen’s deal, Cole’s 2018, and a whole lot more. You know, the kinds of things that might have made for a more intriguing Pirates’ team, an actually competitive one, and not led to their worst attendance figures since 1996, which was also the the third-worst attendance in MLB. All of this just three years after they had their highest single-season attendance ever, too.
The Pirates’ offseason activities led to a boycott at the gate (though, not on television), which is how those attendance numbers fell so hard. Of course, teams don’t necessarily need fans to show up to make money these days, so maybe in 2019, fans will have to legitimately cut the Bucs out of their lives entirely to hurt them, or resort to doing nothing besides read about them or watch videos online.
Given the things Pirates’ management are saying out loud with their mouths right now, maybe that kind of future for fans isn’t far off. The Pirates are estimated to enter 2019 with a payroll under $75 million — this after the Major League Baseball Players Association filed a grievance against them for failing to spend revenue-sharing dollars. And yet, general manager Neal Huntington defended the payroll this past weekend:
“I think about winning a World Series at the start of every season. You want to send the right message to your players.”
Whether that’s possible with the National League’s lowest payroll is debatable, but Huntington — as he’s done on previous occasions — said spending doesn’t always equal winning.
“When you sign a free agent, you have automatically outbid everybody else to get him 95, 99 percent of the time,” he said. “You have theoretically overpaid to get that free agent.”
If you or any of your friends are buying that bullshit line, please, reconsider. By Huntington’s logic, no free agent is ever worth it, which just isn’t true for a number of reasons I shouldn’t even have to get into here. And it’s rich to hear the Pirates’ GM talk about how he doesn’t need to spend to succeed: yes, Pittsburgh made the postseason multiple times with low payrolls, and were eliminated early each time. They didn’t try to significantly improve their team midseason or even in the offseasons, relied almost entirely on happy accidents and homegrown talent, and, unsurprisingly, began to spiral as the luck and the string of successful development ran out. None of these points are made through hindsight, either: everyone was waiting for the Pirates to try to capitalize on their core while they had it, and they didn’t — and now they can’t. Why do you think fans are so upset? It’s not because of one or two things, or Bob Nutting’s failure to “sell” the idea of the team, as he claims.
It’s a shame that the Pirates preach this way and act this way, because it’s even impacting how their own players view Pittsburgh’s situation:
“I’d love it if we were in on [Bryce] Harper and Machado just like everyone else,” [Jameson] Taillon said during PiratesFest Saturday. “That’s just not realistic for us.”
The only reason it’s not realistic for Taillon’s team is because everyone running it is a scam artist. The Pirates can afford Manny Machado or Bryce Harper: attendance would jump back up, and so would the television ratings, were Pittsburgh to buck a trend that should have died years ago and actually bothered to try on the free agent market by going after someone more significant than Russell Martin, whose two-year, $17 million deal remains the largest free agent contract in their history.*
*You can argue this is actually Francisco Liriano’s spot, since he signed a three-year, $39 million deal in 2014, but Liriano was also re-signing with Pittsburgh when that went down. Martin was totally new, and that’s something the Pirates just don’t do!
If the Pirates signed Machado, their payroll would likely sit around $105 million for the 2019 season. That’s still $101 million below the lower of two luxury tax thresholds, and only about $5 million higher than their largest-ever payroll from 2016. It’s unclear what it would take to get Harper, but the figures can’t be that much different. Most importantly, it would make these fans believe in the team: no one would have to “sell” them on some idea that, actually, a boring team with no future and no one willing to go to games is good, actually.
The Pirates won’t sign either of those guys, but that doesn’t mean they cannot. There’s a serious difference between those two words, and it’s to the Pirates’ detriment that their management is pretending they’re the same. And hey, if Nutting honest-to-God can’t afford Machado or Harper when their payroll is just $75 million, then it’s beyond time to sell the team to someone who can.
Astros’ owner Jim Crane wants you to know he believes free agency is dead, at least the version of it we knew. He’s probably not wrong, but that doesn’t mean free agency is impossible to revive, either. These things can go in cycles, if the players fight back against this trend.
The Yankees created an Environmental Science Advisor position, and I’m very intrigued: it’s probably just some green capitalism thing, but hey, I’d love to be surprised.
R.J. Anderson spoke to former MLB pitcher and current member of the MLBPA’s pension committee, Chris Capuano, and you should read that conversation.
The New York Times is wondering what is going on in MLB front offices that Harper and Machado can barely generate any interest across the league.
The Society for American Baseball Research unveiled another player biography, and this one is on Sam Nahem, who was a communist and was monitored by the government because of it.
Ken Rosenthal (Athletic subscription required) wrote about the various pain points between MLB and the MLBPA, and how we could very well be heading for a work stoppage in 2021.
I was a guest on Steven Goldman’s podcast, The Infinite Inning, talking about this newsletter, my years in this business, and more. If you just want to hear my part because you’re in a hurry or something, it starts at 37 minutes.
- Baseball players with the same hair as Pokémon is extremely my shit.
Visit my Patreon to become a subscriber and gain access to more articles like this one.