Kovacevic: Something for Nutting
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Friday, July 13, 2012, 11:44 p.m.
Bob Nutting had nothing to do with this.
When the Pirates un-paused their season Friday night in Milwaukee, they did so at a two-decade high.
When fans cheered Andrew McCutchen's MVP first half, they cherished it all the more knowing he's Pittsburgh property through 2018.
When Starling Marte is called up, sometime very soon, he'll be the first to make it from the Pirates' new Dominican academy, as well as their first Latin amateur of any kind since Jose Castillo, class of ... uh, 1997.
But no, the man with three-quarters control of the franchise's ownership group, the chairman of the board, the intimately involved boss of the entire process, that guy had zip to do with any of this.
I guess that's the public consensus now, right?
Has to be.
How else to explain not a sliver of credit being sent Nutting's way?
Ask me, and the Pirates' change began with a baby step in summer 2007.
That's when Nutting, fresh off taking over from Kevin McClatchy in January of that year, learned of the terribly underfunded Latin American operations. He boarded a plane for the Dominican to see for himself, and what he found was the island's worst major league facility.
"And I wouldn't call it major league. It was inadequate at best," Nutting was telling me the other day, snapping off that last sentence. "It was a single field, urban setting, everything damaged, chickens everywhere, and it shared a parking lot with a one-room, open-walled school. It was embarrassing."
Seemed like Nutting knew exactly who should have been embarrassed. He dragged along then-GM Dave Littlefield and ordered a tour akin to asking a toddler to look at the mess he just made.
As Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo recalled, "No question who was in charge on that trip."
That would be strike one for Littlefield. Strike two (Daniel Moskos) and strike three (Matt Morris) brought the pink slip that September.
It's ended well: The Pirates spent $5 million on a magnificent academy, and now Marte, signed in 2007 to an $85,000 bonus and groomed there for two years, will be the first real graduate.
"I think Starling provides a fantastic example," Nutting said. "The Pirates used to be No. 1 in that part of the world, especially because of Roberto Clemente. It's a shame the team ever lost that. But now, imagine how much it means to Rene and his scouts to walk into a player's home and tell them about Starling. It's absolutely what we need in terms of a talent stream."
And therein lies the primary reason to tip the cap to Nutting: He's talked about those streams, about building from the ground up, from his very first interviews as controlling owner. More important, he's followed through in the face of relentless, vicious criticism.
If Nutting wanted Pittsburgh to like him right away, it would have been a breeze. He could have just bumped up payroll, even a little bit, and re-signed a few popular players. Anything that would have happened on the field wouldn't have been seen as his fault.
McClatchy fell into this trap, signing Jason Kendall, Brian Giles, Kevin Young and Pat Meares to mammoth extensions, and all he had to show for the first three years at PNC was $30 million of red ink and tons of losses.
Anyone ever call McClatchy cheap?
The only viable path for the Pirates to truly contend, given baseball's unfair economics, is to find elite talent at a young age, then arrange the cash to make the best effort to keep that talent.
Think the Pirates ever could have bid for a free-agent McCutchen?
How about for flamethrowers like Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia once they reach their primes?
It's not about being cheap. It's about spending that makes sense.
Did you know that all three of those pitchers will have their rights owned by the Pirates for six years after they arrive in Pittsburgh?
That's 18 combined seasons of value - potentially - acquired for the cost of one year of Kendall and Young.
Nutting's been demonized like no local sports figure I can recall. What's more, it's been miles off base. He's been cast as a recluse when he's actually highly visible and the main voice in any meeting. He's been accused of pocketing profits, even after the players' union and the public saw the financials. He's been blamed for everything from beer prices to bullpen blowups.
Charlie Wilmoth, veteran blogger at BucsDugout.com, once equated the treatment of Nutting to that of "a cartoon villain." Never heard a better characterization.
The man's paid his penance. It's time to give his due.
But first, hey, since molds aren't easily broken, the usual litany of will-Nutting-open-his-wallet questions:
Would he add to the Pirates' payroll at this trade deadline, as he did last year with $5.7 million for Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick?
Would he prefer to part with cash or prospects?
"One thing we'll never do, that I'll never allow, is giving up our best young players for a short-term gain or a rental. We'd be crazy to do that."
"Well, there also are trades where you can get years of control with a player, so I'd say Neal has some very interesting decisions to make. But Marte, Cole, Taillon, Heredia, they're what gets us over the top."
Nutting called this season "so fun, so gratifying, the way our team has played, the enthusiasm," and added, "I'm just glad we had the conviction to roll through those first couple months."
Right. Nutting was involved there, too, and didn't mind being the bad guy: Back in May, he summoned Huntington and Clint Hurdle to address the then-miserable offense and had to be talked out of pushing for immediate change.
"I really do believe in structure and wanted to hear what they had to say. We had a discussion, and those guys turned out to be absolutely right."
So did the guy who let them be absolutely right.
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