Owner Bob Nutting says he's 'extremely driven' to make Pirates winners in Q&A session
Bob Nutting wants people to know that he gives a damn.
Nutting won't stand up and blurt it out that way, of course. That's not his style.
Soft-spoken and reticent in public, the Pirates chairman often avoids microphones and mini-cams. Three weeks ago during PiratesFest, Nutting mingled for a bit with the players and small groups of season ticket holders, then faded into the background.
After handing control of the franchise over to Nutting in January 2007, former owner Kevin McClatchy said, "Bob's a very competitive person. I think the idea that he does not want to win will go away."
McClatchy was wrong.
Many fans and even some MLB insiders roll their eyes at the Pirates' minuscule payroll. They see management's inactivity in the free agent and trade markets and assume Nutting doesn't much care about winning the World Series.
That irks Nutting. It was among the topics he discussed during a wide-ranging, 40-minute interview with the Tribune-Review.
Trib: Does it bother you that much of the fan base doubts your commitment to winning?
Nutting: To the extent that it bothers me, it bothers me because of the impact on the organization. I am an extremely competitive person. I am extremely driven to see this organization succeed, and that means bringing another championship back to Pittsburgh. A pretty simple measure of success.
I know there are building blocks that we have to go through to get there. I know there are no magic switches, no easy answers or shortcuts. To the extent that there is any perception that I'm not competitive, that I'm not driven or that I don't care, I'm always sorry that impacts the way people perceive one of the great, proud franchises in the history of the game. The Pittsburgh Pirates deserve the commitment, the leadership that I believe we're providing.
Trib: Manager Clint Hurdle jokes about being second-guessed by the folks who work at the supermarket deli counter the day after a loss. Do you get a lot of that when you're out in public?
Nutting: Sure, I get some of that. I also get a lot of people who are very appreciative for the progress that we've made. Because the organization really is stronger than it was a decade ago. We've fundamentally transformed the way this organization is perceived. We've changed the level of expectation. We've changed the level of performance. We've changed the infrastructure. We've changed the leadership. We've changed the dynamic. I believe we are fundamentally stronger, better than we've ever been. Was it more fun in 2013, '14 and '15? Absolutely. Was last season disappointing? Absolutely. But it doesn't shake my faith in our commitment. It doesn't shake my faith in the commitment of every single person in this building to perform for the community, for the fans and for the history of the franchise.
Trib: How much are you troubled by the drops in attendance and local TV ratings over the past two seasons?
Nutting: I really think it's remarkable that we had 1.9 million people come out to the ballpark last year. So you can focus on a drop. I'd rather focus on we had tremendous fan support. I think it is remarkable. It's humbling. It's exciting to have that level of fan support for a team that did not perform at a level that we'd hoped it might. So I'm far more enthusiastic about the attendance that we have right now.
Trib: General manager Neal Huntington has taken heat for listening to trade offers for Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole. Each offseason, it seems there is more talk about which players the Pirates might get rid of than who they might acquire.
Nutting: I think Neal has a wide-open slate. There are more paths and opportunities open right now for the Pirates than we've had in any particular window I can think of. That's where, not limiting his flexibility but making sure as many options and doors are open for him to be able to explore with other general managers, (will) make sure we don't get pigeon-holed as a seller or a buyer. That hurts our ability to make the best deal on the marketplace. The most important thing for the organization long-term is that every one of those deals we optimize every bit of advantage we have.
Trib: Which approach will the Pirates take this winter: buy or sell?
Nutting: It's my belief we need to do both. We have to be focused on 2018. We have to be focused on putting the very best team on the field that we can. And we also have to make sure that we're doing the right thing for the long term of the franchise, that we're not mortgaging our future and we're building a sustainable championship quality team. There is nothing easy about that charge, but that's OK. Those are what the marching orders for Neal will be, have been and should be.
Trib: Sometime early next year, every major league team will get a one-time payout of about $50 million from the sale of MLB Advanced Media. What will the Pirates do with that money?
Nutting: We do not have any decision at this point about what the right use for it may be. I think it will force us, as we have in the past, to really be strategic about what types of investment are important, just as early on we invested in the Dominican (academy), in infrastructure, in (the training complex in) Florida and ... draft and (amateur) talent acquisition.
I'm not sure what the largest impact will be, but I do know we need to focus on the greatest possible impact on the organization overall and those are discussions we've just begun to have. One-time distributions ... really shouldn't confuse the focus of ongoing operations. They should be used as capital.
It will be interesting to see what other clubs do. I think we'll probably be patient. Patient, disciplined, focused, process-driven. None of those are popular words. All of those are the core building blocks for a great organization to be successful. That's what got us in 2013, '14 and '15 to where we were. That's what got us through 2010, '11 and '12. Patience, structure, process, discipline. We cannot lose sight of that. We've done a lot of work to get here, and we need to push it through to its conclusion, which is not only a championship, but a sustainable, competitive team that Pittsburgh is proud of.
Trib: Can the Pirates compete next season in the NL Central?
Trib: What will it take to contend in what should be a rugged division?
Nutting: The margins are close in this game. What we need to focus on is putting a team out there every day that's going to come out with an intent to win that day. That's one at-bat at a time, one inning at a time and one game at a time. I still believe those intangibles are very important. The importance of a leader like Clint Hurdle, the importance of leaders in the clubhouse, the importance of players who can make a difference, I believe all of those are reasons why we can be, will be, must be a competitive team in '18 and every year.
Trib: So much went wrong for the team this past season: Jung Ho Kang's DUI conviction, Starling Marte's suspension, Jameson Taillon's cancer, injuries to several key players, and a second straight losing record. Are you tempted to simply burn the 2017 calendar and get on with 2018?
Nutting: Already have. While the team underperformed and was disappointing, I do think it helped bring out some of the best in Neal, Clint and Frank (Coonelly) as we've refocused on how we're going to react and how we're going to stay committed to putting a championship-caliber team on the field. ... The other (thing) that really did strike me was how much we have a responsibility to the fans because as much as I was disappointed — and I was — the disappointment in the fans hurts more. We don't want to let anybody down.
Trib: Did that go into your decisions to give Hurdle and Huntington four-year extensions?
Nutting: I certainly have a bias towards stability. That doesn't mean you can't make changes. Sometimes, it's better for an organization to make changes. We're not stubborn, but I do believe we have the right people leading the organization now.
Trib: Marte missed 80 games after flunking a steroids test. Gregory Polanco has underperformed. Francisco Cervelli and Josh Harrison missed significant time because of injuries in each of the past two seasons. Does any of that make you want to reconsider your approach to giving multi-year contract extensions?
Nutting: There will be times when it's appropriate to sign great players to multi-year deals. Not every one of those is going to work out. It's not a precise science. You need to make the very best decision you can with the information you have at the time. Frankly, my role then is to make sure Neal and his team know that if they make the best decision they can, we're not going to second-guess it three months or six months or two years later based on something that was unforeseen. We would do all of those (contracts) again. We also have to reassess how we train in the offseason, how we focus on stretching and conditioning, to see if we can minimize some of those injuries.
Trib: There was a long stretch last season when Andrew McCutchen was the only bona fide big league outfielder on your active roster. Kang missed the entire season. Huntington did not acquire anyone via free agency or a trade to fill those gaps. Did he have enough financial resources available?
Nutting: We certainly had a lot of those discussions. On player decisions, I'll defer to Neal. When Polanco was out, it's a short window, and you don't expect the reoccurrence (of injury). With Marte, we really believed he would come back and that he would be in condition to play. I think good decisions were made, based on the information we had.
But if we knew then what we know now, we would have done something different with Jung Ho. We had no idea — maybe we should have — that it would be an entire season (without him). We all live in an imperfect world with imperfect information. That's where nobody works harder than Neal and the team he's put together. We need to outwork and outthink 29 other teams, and I believe we have the right people making those decisions.
Trib: So, you're saying the reason was not financial?
Nutting: We've always been able to be opportunistic. That's the word we've used for several years now. We used it when we've been able to add and when we've chosen not to add. Having that flexibility to be opportunistic is important at any point in the season. It doesn't necessarily mean you should or should not act. The more he has flexibility, the more opportunity that's going to develop in the marketplace.
Trib: Thirty or 40 years from now, what would you hope people say when they talk about your legacy with the Pirates?
Nutting: That there is no question we took a franchise with enormous short-term challenges and we built a sustainable winner. We built a team that competed for and won championships, plural, and reestablished itself as a proud franchise in the National League.
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.