Kevin Gorman: Watching ex-Pirates shine in World Series ‘incredibly disturbing’ |
Kevin Gorman, Columnist

Kevin Gorman: Watching ex-Pirates shine in World Series ‘incredibly disturbing’

Kevin Gorman

When Bob Nutting met with the media Monday, the Pittsburgh Pirates chairman made an emphatic opening statement to confront his frustrations that led to firings.

“Frankly,” Nutting said, “I just watched too many times former Pirates achieving success at other clubs, which is also incredibly disturbing both to me and I know to our fans.”

So Nutting and Pittsburgh baseball fans had to be incredibly disturbed to watch a former Pirates pitcher force the final out to win the World Series for the second time in three years.

Then again, maybe Nutting was relieved the hero was Washington Nationals closer Daniel Hudson instead of Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole.

That would have been even harder to swallow.

The Pirates got a better return for trading Hudson than for Cole. Corey Dickerson became a .300-hitting, Gold Glove outfielder for the Pirates, and Hudson quickly was released by Tampa Bay and bounced from the Los Angeles Dodgers to Toronto before being traded to the Nationals.

Hudson’s heroics were reminiscent of former Pirates pitcher Charlie Morton, who was traded to Philadelphia before signing with the Astros. Morton reinvented himself from ground-ball pitcher to strikeout artist and was on the mound for the final four innings of Game 7 to clinch the 2017 World Series title.

For the Pirates to watch players who scuffled for them shine somewhere else is a trend they desperately want to end. Ultimately, the blame was pinned on everyone from Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington in the front office to Clint Hurdle and Ray Searage on the coaching staff.

No wonder Nutting wants the Pirates to be on the cutting edge when it comes to drafting and developing major league talent and finding ways for players to outperform their contracts.

But Cole is an example of one of the Pirates’ greatest problems. They drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011 and developed him into an ace who won 19 games with a 2.60 ERA and 202 strikeouts in 208 innings as a 24-year-old in 2015, only to see him slip over the next two seasons.

That the Pirates traded Cole with two years of arbitration control remaining was a mistake. That they got so little in return magnified that mistake. That they overcorrected by trading for Chris Archer compounded the problem.

“I think we have deep issues, and we need to get back into a dynamic, energetic, innovative, creative path forward,” Nutting said, “because that’s what it’s going to take in a market the size of Pittsburgh to be successful.”

When it comes to narratives, the Pirates in the past have treated small-market clubs like the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland A’s and the Rays as blueprints for success. New Pirates president Travis Williams talked about the need to “crack the code,” as if it’s as simple as solving a riddle.

And it’s too convenient for Nutting that none of the teams that signed superstars to mega-contracts — be it the Phillies and Bryce Harper, the San Diego Padres and Manny Machado or the Los Angeles Angels and Mike Trout — reached the postseason as reason to justify a payroll that ranks among the lowest in MLB.

The Pirates believe there is an “over-focus on payroll equaling success.” And, to some degree, they are right. Signing superstars to bloated contracts doesn’t make you an instant contender. But the Pirates are proof that not spending on major league payroll doesn’t deliver much in the way of winning, either. And fans aren’t demanding the Pirates sign a $100 million player. But is it too much to ask for a $100 million payroll?

Williams called working in a small market a “challenge” but said “it’s not insurmountable.”

“It’s not an excuse,” Williams said. “I didn’t walk into here thinking Bob was all of a sudden going to start signing checks upon checks in order to get us to the Yankees’ payroll level. That was not the expectation. I would actually argue against that. I think it would be silly and foolish to do that.”

“Instead, we’re going to figure out a way with the economic structure that we have in baseball, within the marketplace that we’re in, looking at how we’re spending our money, whether we’re over-indexing on player development versus payroll, looking at how we’re maybe spending it on outside analytics payroll. … Let’s figure out the right way to spend the money.”

That brings us to this season. The Pirates left such a small margin for error they couldn’t overcome their injuries and ineffectiveness. They allotted almost $31.85 million to five players — Francisco Cervelli, Lonnie Chisenhall, Dickerson, Jung Ho Kang and Gregory Polanco — who combined for 21 home runs and 71 RBIs this season. That’s almost half of their payroll for modest production for one player, let alone five expected to be key contributors.

What should be even more disturbing to Nutting and Pirates fans is that the Washington Nationals won their first World Series in a season in which they were 19-31 on May 23. The Pirates were 25-22 on that date, despite starting the season short-handed in the outfield and seeing their starting rotation struggle as injuries left them with a shell of a pitching staff. The Pirates lost 10 of their next 13 games but were 44-45 at the All-Star break on July 7, only 2½ games out of first place in the NL Central and wild-card contention.

Where was Nutting’s outrage back then?

The Pirates did nothing to address their depleted depth except for promoting Triple-As and trading for DFAs, a solution that showed their owner’s refusal to budge on his budget. Maybe they could have contended by adding an outfielder, starting pitcher or a reliever. Instead, the Pirates lost 24 of 28 games after the break and finished with 93 losses, causing Nutting to make a complete overhaul of the baseball operations and coaching staff.

No wonder Nutting wants to change the narrative.

The former Pirates thriving in the postseason with other teams have had a better supporting cast. That starts at the top, with an owner who shows a willingness to win when it matters. Until Nutting changes the way he conducts business, we’ll be watching more former Pirates succeed in the postseason than current Pirates.

And, frankly, we have watched that story too many times.

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Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .

Washington Nationals relief pitcher Daniel Hudson, left, celebrates after Los Angeles Dodgers’ Corey Seager struck out to end Game 2 of a baseball National League Division Series on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole throws against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of Game 1 of the baseball World Series Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, in Houston. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Pirates owner Bob Nutting speaks during a press conference at the administration offices Monday, Oct. 28, 2019.
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