Kevin Gorman: Hard to embrace Bob Nutting’s spin on Pirates’ payroll
BRADENTON, Fla. — Spend an hour asking Bob Nutting questions and the first thing baseball fans want to know is whether even the Pittsburgh Pirates chairman believes his own bull.
The answer is an unapologetic yes.
Nutting puts a politician’s spin on his ownership, with evasive answers that tend to infuriate a frustrated fan base, yet he continues to promise to win a World Series to a city that will celebrate this summer the 40th anniversary of its last baseball championship team.
I believe Nutting is sincere in his hope to win a World Series, but hope isn’t a method. The Pirates aren’t willing to pay for what they are promising, as Nutting made it clear that spending more on payroll isn’t in their plans.
What would have been ideal for Pirates fans was to sign Manny Machado, addressing both the holes at shortstop (or third base) and providing a power bat in the middle of the batting order with a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner in the prime of his career.
This is where Nutting is ineffective communicating his desire. When asked directly about Machado signing a 10-year, $300-million deal with the small-market San Diego Padres, Nutting talked about how happy the Pirates were to have Kevin Newman competing with Erik Gonzalez at shortstop and how such a contract would create an imbalanced payroll and challenge the clubhouse and team dynamics.
That’s nonsense, and we all know it. Signing Machado would have trumpeted that the Pirates were practicing what they are preaching, and propelled them from pretenders to instant contenders. Pirates players would scoff at the suggestion Machado’s contract would have been resented, noting how the arrival of pitcher Chris Archer gave the club credibility not just with the players but with their fans.
That’s what this is about. No matter how the Pirates spin it, their paltry payroll affects attendance at PNC Park, and the attendance dips can’t help but hurt the payroll. Attendance has dropped 41 percent since the record season of nearly 2.5 million in 2015, when the Pirates averaged 30,847 a game, to less than 1.5 million last summer.
The Pirates won 82 games but drew 148,083 fewer fans last year than they did in their 105-loss season in 2010.
Signing Machado was never a realistic consideration, much less a conversation within the club. Instead, Nutting insisted the Pirates want to build from within, through the drafting and development of prospects within their system and, more succinctly, the acquisition of free agents within the restraints of one of baseball’s smallest budgets.
With Nutting, there is a focus on the bottom line, be it payroll or production. It’s by design the Pirates are projected to have the second-lowest payroll in MLB. It’s interesting that a year after using the Milwaukee Brewers as a blueprint for building a winner, Nutting avoided any comparisons to the NL Central foe after it made a World Series run last season by going for broke.
Listen to what Nutting said and the construction is clear: The Pirates aren’t willing to outspend their opponents, so they are trying to outsmart them through analytics and player-development resources. They invest in their Dominican academy to find gems like Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, rely on high draft picks like Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell through arbitration and supplement the roster with affordable, controllable complementary pieces.
That’s smart business in baseball’s current economics but it’s more about maintenance than short-term success, a low-risk proposition seeking a high-reward returns. And it’s not going to attract the frustrated fans back to the ballpark, unless the Pirates defy the odds.
“You’re going to need to embrace hard, because it’s not easy,” Nutting said. “It’s not an easy game if you’re a top-two payroll club. It’s a hard game. What we’re asking people to do every day in Pittsburgh is hard. … The last thing I’m going to do in any of these areas is to create an excuse. We’re not an excuse-driven organization. We’re going to embrace the hard parts of it. … That’s what’s going to make us better. I really believe that.”
Somehow, the Pirates believe it, too. Players and coaches are optimistic about their chances for a championship chase.
That might seem hard to believe, but the Pirates are buying what Nutting is selling (which, to the dismay of the frustrated fans, isn’t his ownership stake in the club) without any apologies.
With the Pirates, you have to embrace hard.
Hard as that is to embrace.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .