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In the past week, the Pittsburgh Pirates have seen a major shakeup in their front office personnel. Longtime president Frank Coonelly left the organization last week, and then, on Monday, general manager Neal Huntington was fired. Both of these changes might seem like reasons to rejoice if you’re a Pirates fan, but don’t worry: team owner Bob Nutting immediately hosted a press conference to tell you that your optimism is unwarranted.
Nutting didn’t say that in those exact words, but why does this outlet exist if not to parse the words of rich dudes who love to lie and imply? In short, Nutting says he and the Pirates don’t want to use the team’s economic situation as an excuse for their poor performance and lack of effort, but also, they are going to use the team’s economic situation as an excuse to change nothing:
Asked point-blank, why not spend more, he said, “I really believe that the fundamental narrative about the economics of the Pittsburgh Pirates and the economics of baseball have been misunderstood. The narrative is not accurate. We need to do a better job of explaining and telling the story of the uneven playing field in Major League Baseball.”
“However, we have to be realistic and we have to communicate more clearly and more directly what those economic challenges that we face are,” Nutting continued. “The idea that we are hoarding cash as a team is simply not accurate, and we will find a more compelling and complete way to make sure that that is an issue that simply is not on the table.”
Asked if fans might interpret a more compelling explanation of the team’s economic challenges as an excuse, Nutting said, “Which is one of the reasons we have not said it. We need to say it carefully. We need to do it effectively and well.”
There are three points I want to pull out from this that all merit attention, none of it the good kind. For one, Nutting is being cagey about finances, as usual, and this is not a great sign following what looks like a regime change in the front office. It’s more likely just going to be a swapping out of office door name plates, since Nutting wants you to know that the financial limitations that are definitely not an excuse are weighing the team and their decision-making down. How is this any different than the story under Coonelly and Huntington? The new president and GM still won’t be authorized to spend, which means different people will be making disappointing decisions going forward. Especially since the Pirates’ best chance at copying the Rays’ low-cost version of success, Chaim Bloom, was just hired by the Red Sox to be East Coast Andrew Friedman.
What Nutting is looking for then, really, is a new spin on an old yarn. That’s what all of the talk about effective, “compelling” communication is about. He needs a new president and GM who will do a much better job of public relations with the fans. He needs people who will do a better job of explaining an exciting vision that’s unlikely to come to pass because of the way Bob Nutting runs his team. Fans had tired of the Coonelly/Huntington duo, who were with the organization in their positions of power for over a decade: a fresh coat of paint and no other discernible changes will surely fix a fan base that’s seen almost nothing but failure and a lack of imagination and effort for multiple decades, a fan base that staged a stadium boycott just last year and is content to watch the team at home on television, though!
This idea of communicating to fans about the financial realities isn’t a new one for Nutting, either. Back in January, with Huntington and Coonelly still in place, Nutting described that the Pirates had failed to “sell” their idea of the team to fans, and that’s why attendance was dropping, which in turn was why they had to send fan favorites like Andrew McCutchen packing, as well as trade off Gerrit Cole — who was always considered a phenomenal talent and is just now showing that off with someone other than the Pirates — for middling prospects before he got expensive in arbitration.
Nutting is obsessed with the idea that fans just don’t get how limited the Pirates are financially, but he also won’t explain what he means by that. The numbers are going to stay hidden, and fans will just have to take him at his word that there isn’t more money to spend. Pittsburgh is extremely weird about releasing financial information: they didn’t even disclose how much their new television deal with AT&T is worth, or for how many years it’s running, when it was announced earlier this month. If no one has that information, then no one can claim the Pirates are failing to spend, right?
That’s what Nutting thinks, anyway. In reality, though, it’s pretty easy to Google what his net worth is — $1.1 billion — and to see what the Pirates are spending each year: in 2019, the team spent $83.7 million on their 40-man roster and player benefits, i.e. the money that counts for luxury tax purposes. That was down from $104 million in 2018, which was down from two seasons of over $109 million. They didn’t sign a single free agent before the 2018 season, even though every MLB team was receiving a check for about $50 million from the sale of BAMTech to Disney. They signed nine players prior to 2019: six of them minor-league free agents, and the other three for a combined $7.8 million, all on one-year deals. They brought in players, yes, in the most literal interpretation of that idea, but they also slashed about $20 million from their payroll in the process. Unsurprisingly, they went 69-93, 22 games back in the NL Central, and were outscored by 153 runs, then had to watch Gerrit Cole tear apart postseason opponents and make his way into the World Series with the Astros.
Are the Pirates hoarding money, or do they really not have any to spend? It’s a question that the Major League Baseball Players Association is seeking the answer to, as they filed a grievance against Pittsburgh (and the A’s, Rays, and Marlins) at the start of 2018 for failure to spend revenue-sharing dollars. Nutting might not like making his finances public, but they’re going to end up that way when this grievance inevitably makes it in front of an arbitrator. MLB claims everything is on the up and up, while the MLBPA believes the revenue-sharing dollars are being used for things like debt service instead of improving the team on the field, which is what that money is supposed to be used for. Gaming that system isn’t exactly a new idea, either.
What we already know, according to Forbes’ data, is that the Pirates had a $39 million operating income in 2018, despite the successful stadium boycott and a TV deal in need of renegotiating, and, maybe most importantly, before their revenue-sharing dollars were added in. That was 12th in the majors: they had money left to spend even ignoring the check from Disney, and they didn’t spend it. Now they’ve got a new television deal, they will still get revenue-sharing dollars, and it’s hard to think they’ll be making less at the stadium going forward considering the boycott didn’t wipe out their local finances. This is a team that could have signed Manny Machado like the Padres did, but that’s not who the Pirates have been or want to be, not when they can rake in $40 million in profits annually for being awful at baseball and talk about baseball’s economics like Bud Selig’s Blue Ribbon Panel is still accepting new evidence 20 years later.
The front office names are changing, but these are still the Pirates, owned by Bob Nutting. Maybe he’ll do a better job of hiring this time around, and the organization will end up with a president and GM capable of running this team the way the Rays do, with a much better eye for talent, scouting, and development than the Pirates ever had under Huntington and Coonelly. That’s his dream, really, to put in minimum effort and finances and come away succeeding just often enough that he’s praised instead of derided or called out as cheap. “Sometimes, we’ll be alright” isn’t much to aspire to, but again, imagination hasn’t been this organization’s strong suit in some time.