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Kovacevic: Nutting must get past first base

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Tuesday, April 1, 2014, 10:33 p.m.

Met up with Bob Nutting on Monday morning in a PNC Park office, and much to my chagrin, he wasn't flipping through bundles of bills with one hand, flicking cigar ashes with the other. He wasn't letting out Vincent Price cackles while scheming to buy ski lifts for Seven Springs. And no, he wasn't vetoing stacks of proposals from the Pirates front office to upgrade first base.

What a crushing disappointment.

He was still just … Bob.

He's always Bob, really. He has a water-level demeanor, an easygoing smile and the open-buttoned casual shirt to match.

Which is why, no matter how much more compelling those above scenarios might make for a column — or talk show or Twitter debate — I generally prefer the somewhat antiquated approach of, you know, asking the guy what's up from time to time. No reason not to. He's accountable and eminently approachable, doing more interviews in a month than Art Rooney II does all year or Mario Lemieux does in, what, a decade?

And so we got to work on the latest Nutting narrative. That, of course, is that he isn't spending enough on the Pirates' payroll and, as a result, the ignominious duo of Gaby Sanchez and Travis Ishikawa are sharing first base.

That's issue No. 1, right?

If it isn't right now, it most assuredly will be as soon as the Pirates take their first loss.

I'll share my views in a bit, but first, Nutting's answer when I opened by asking about the offseason: “We had a solid offseason because we ended up in a very good place. I'm enthusiastic about the roster. Were there areas where we could have had, perhaps, a bigger impact? You know, possibly. Do we have a team that will be competitive in a very tough National League Central? Absolutely. These guys, I think, can play with anyone.”

Be sure that the context for the “bigger impact” was that of first base. Fairly candid stuff.

Naturally, I followed up by asking why he, as owner, wouldn't insist on that first baseman: “Yeah, I really think that's a counterproductive role for me to play. I have faith in our leadership team. That starts with Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington, but it's also the team they've surrounded themselves with. These are really good, smart people … all contributing to those decisions. The last thing we need is any one person — especially me — coming in and overriding their collective judgement.”

Next question was about whether payroll, $73 million if removing the Houston Astros' payment to Wandy Rodriguez, has room to grow should moves come later: “Absolutely. And I think we've always had that flexibility to react appropriately to the situation, whether it's now or an add at the trading deadline, or as we saw last year, well after the trading deadline.”

That was a reference to August 2013 acquisitions Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau. There are other precedents.

Overall, here's what I see on this front: Nutting isn't doing enough.

When the Brewers' payroll is $104 million in a Milwaukee market that's two-thirds the size of Pittsburgh, falling $30 million short of that is indefensible no matter the explanation. It's embarrassing, actually. And it has to change soon to maintain public faith and, yeah, to compete.

The Pirates' primary free agent target for first base was James Loney. By all accounts, their best two-year offer was competitive with the Rays. But when Tampa Bay went to three, the Pirates were out. Huntington told TribLive Radio's Ken Laird and Guy Junker on Monday, “We choked on the third year for James Loney. He's a good player. For a number of factors, it was the final step we couldn't take. Time will tell if we should have. At the time, we felt like it was not the right thing for this organization.”

See, that's when the owner needs to step up. Because that's not a pure baseball decision. It's about money. Clearly, the Pirates front office liked Loney. Just as clearly, they were concerned about guaranteed money three years down the pike. There's no way that should have even been a consideration, with Andrew McCutchen in his prime and a 94-win season in the rearview mirror.

Nutting has done extremely well to stay focused on the draft and Latin America, the latter initiative for which he never can get enough credit. And part of the reason both have worked is his long-panned patience and prudence. He's a huge part of the Pirates' revival.

But the time for a push at the major league level is now, and the owner has to be more than a passenger. Those other areas are first base, and what's here now is ... well, first base.

Anyway, back to the office: I wrapped up by asking Nutting about the insane money that has been thrown around of late to Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw and others.

Where will that leave the Pirates?

“We've always done our best to focus on what we can control,” Nutting said. “We have certain resources, and we have to apply those as effectively as we can. We need to be disciplined. We need to be consistent. To a great degree, some of those outside contracts are noise that simply don't affect us. And if we allow that to become a distraction or an excuse, I think we get away from what we do best.”

Insert maniacal laughter, I guess.



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