9 innings with Bob Nutting: A Q&A session with the Pirates chairman
BRADENTON, Fla. — The Pittsburgh Pirates want to win a World Series, but their four-decade championship drought has become a constant source of frustration for the city’s baseball fans.
They tend to take it out on Pirates chairman Bob Nutting, whose franchise increased its win total by seven games last season but saw attendance dip from 1.92 million to 1.47 million at PNC Park.
The Pirates are coming off an 82-win season and return strong starting pitching led by Jameson Taillon and one of baseball’s best bullpens backed by closer Felipe Vazquez . But they produced little power and are counting on center fielder Starling Marte, first baseman Josh Bell and right fielder Gregory Polanco to have breakthrough seasons.
The Pirates are pinning their hopes on team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington to put together a winner while projected to open the 2019 season with MLB’s second-lowest payroll.
Nutting met Wednesday morning with reporters at Pirate City for an annual State of the Bucs Q&A session that spanned nearly 50 minutes might but covered nine innings worth of topics:
1. Manny Machado signed a 10-year, $300-million contract with the San Diego Padres, a small-market club. Were there any internal discussions to sign the shortstop, a move that might have convinced fans that you want to win a World Series?
(We) never really spent a lot of time on that. I think we’re very happy with the mix, frankly, with (Kevin) Newman coming in. We have some good strength there. Now we have a competitive battle there with players we believe are going to perform really well.
Would that have crippled the franchise financially?
I think it’s the opposite. What you really have is a situation — Neal can speak to this more specifically — but he has a strong belief that if you have an overweight with one player in the payroll and an imbalanced payroll, that you have a much more challenging team dynamic, a much more challenging clubhouse dynamic, much more limitation in crafting an overall roster that can bring a championship. I’m not sure that that necessarily makes a team ‘a team’ more competitive and ready to win a championship.”
Is it fair that some teams easily can afford to add a player like Machado who takes up so much payroll?
It’s absolutely a dynamic. It will be interesting to see how it plays out for San Diego, a bunch of smart people there. It may very well work out extremely well for them. It certainly has given them a bump of energy and enthusiasm. Whether it’s the right thing to do for the next 10 years in that marketplace, we really can’t speak to how other teams are constructing their lineups.
2. Is it something that small-market teams have to address in next collective bargaining agreement?
I think there are two good answers to that and equally accurate. Certainly, over the next three years and over the past decade, we have and will always focus on what the existing rules are. We have certain fence lines. We’re never going to use them as an excuse. That becomes a really corrosive and dangerous attitude to allow to creep into any organization. We can’t, so we’re never going to let that define us or define our strategy. We’re going to maximize every efficiency and inefficiency we can in the existing system. So period full-stoppage in the next three years, as you look forward to the next CBA, obviously, it’s an ideal system for any club and certainly not for the Pittsburgh Pirates. We have individually and collectively expressed our opinions to the commissioner’s office. We have a good relationship there, and I have a tremendous amount of faith that (commissioner) Rob (Manfred) and his team will put together the package that they can in the best interest of the game and I’m highly confident that the concerns of teams like the Pirates are being heard.
Do the Pirates support a salary cap and floor?
There’s no question that tightening the bracket would absolutely help teams like the Pirates and absolutely be a step forward. Whether it’s realistic in the overall economic system of baseball, whether it’s an achievable goal, what else would need to happen to make that happen, how it aligns with and fits with other teams and the union’s goals, I think that’s complex. It’s a very complex issue, so I at least know and respect that what is in our best interest may or may not be ultimately be what ends up moving forward. The most important thing for us is we understand the real rules that are in place and work with them and don’t allow a potential future state to distract us from what it takes to put a championship team on the field in the existing economic system.
3. How much did using the Milwaukee Brewers as a blueprint last year raise expectations with the fan base to follow through after they won the NL Central and reached the World Series?
The expectation of the fan base should be that we put a competitive team on the field that is built to win. That’s what their expectations deserve to be. Frankly, I think that a seven-game improvement last year was a meaningful step forward, and we are absolutely positioned to take another meaningful step forward and get us back into that range where we have a very good shot at playoffs and, once you get into the playoffs, of moving down the pike.
If you look at the way we played last year against our division, it’s a tough division. And we performed extremely well. We were 44-33 in the division, actually the best record of the teams in the division. I’m not afraid of the Brewers. I don’t think we should be afraid of the Cardinals. I don’t think we should be afraid of the Cubs. We played very well against them last year and I think we are positioned to be stronger this year.
But you finished fourth in the NL Central last year. How much of the gap do you feel like you can make up to go from fourth in the division to the World Series?
Absolutely, what I think is interesting is if you look at our record in the division and our record at home, so you have to look at where did we fall short because, obviously, in total we didn’t win enough games. That’s exactly the work that Neal did throughout the offseason, trying to honestly evaluate where some of the gaps are. With hitting, we’re taking a radically different approach to make sure we’re getting maximum benefit out of guys like Josh Bell, guys like Colin Moran, bringing back Jung Ho (Kang). I think those are some of the pieces where you fit in that offense, young core pitchers who are going to be more prepared, more ready. Building on the strengths is the right way to continue that progress that we made.
4. Why is payroll going down? Does the team have financial problems?
I’m going to give the same answer I did about the collective bargaining agreement. We need to focus on the things we believe are controllable. Absolute payroll dollars are never going to define this club. It’s not foreseeable that we’re going to have a $200 million payroll. We’re always going to have limitations. It’s about how do we maximize the impact of every dollar that we spend? How do we make sure we have the right mix of very talented young players who are early in their (career) cycle and supplement with players around them who can have a real impact? I think we’ve found that balance, and that’s what’s driving the absolute dollars more than anything else.
Is the payroll not controllable?
I think payroll scale and range, broadly, is not controllable. We’re going to have certain resources. That’s the reality of the marketplace. Do we have opportunities to move dollars? As I’ve said many times, I view the baseball operations payroll as a large bucket and major league payroll is a piece of that. We’ve been in the top five clubs in spending in player development resources for these young players. We’re outspending almost the entire industry in that (area). We’re continuing to reinvest in the support and development of the minor league system, whether it’s mental skills, conditioning, nutrition, sleep. We have people all over the place who are incredibly focused and incredibly smart, trying to find ways to optimize every one of those players. I’m very proud we’re sort of leading the way in baseball analytics. We were early and continue to reinvent and drive some of those dollars. Those are areas where we can be really competitive and the dollar-for-dollar impact of those investments have and will continue to really pay off for us.
5. How do you explain this to Pirates fans?
That’s something we need to get better at because I know and Frank knows and Neal knows and we have belief and confidence in the rest of those systems we’re putting in place, and we’re probably not doing a good enough job (explaining it). Those guys are first class, world-beating brains, technology and commitment — the best of class in the industry. We need to do a better job of getting out in front talking about it. The nuance there is a little bit hard because the last thing you want to do is signal to the rest of the industry an area where you believe you’re a little bit ahead. I’m not thrilled about putting (out) what we think is the next level is. We believe we’re rolling out a new and better baseball analytics program that’s far more embedded within the clubhouse. But when you start getting more detailed than that, it starts becoming a competitive disadvantage.
That’s why it’s important to focus on the improvements we have made, the places where we have invested. We certainly did that early on, perhaps more effectively, when we really needed to rebuild the team and the clubhouse from the ground up. One of the things that’s really exciting for me, particularly if you look out here at spring training, that pipeline of talent with the numbers of players we have pulled up from Triple-A last year, the depth in Indianapolis, the potential of players who are on the cusp and ready to be here. It seems to me we have some real strength there, as well. We made last summer a tough trade. You’ve got to be ready to give up some of that (prospect) talent, too, to get major league-ready impact players like (Chris) Archer and (Keone) Kela.
6. Attendance is down from 2.5 million in 2015 to less than 1.5 last season. Is that affecting payroll?
There is no question the attendance was down. There is no question that there were fewer tickets sold. That’s true. There is also no question we will never use it as an excuse. We will never use it as an issue. Whether it’s the collective bargaining agreement, whether there are external challenges, we will embrace and it work as hard as we can to make sure that the fans who do come to have a fantastic experience to watch an exciting game in the best ballpark in America and working like heck to build a team that take a good step forward like last year. We had a seven-win increase. We hope to build on that this year because we are stronger this year, and there is a lot of excitement building about this year’s team. There is an excitement building that you would hope carries over to that number (attendance). I’m starting to hear, and you’re starting to hear how much excitement there is for this team. There is a lot of engagement and excitement around this young team.”
7. Every MLB team received a $50 million payout from the sale of BAMTech last year. How will that money be allocated?
I think the important thing for us is we really view that as a return of capital, so we need to think of it how it invests long-term to impact the club. We’re trying to maintain some flexibility. You talk about investing in capital or the club, and I really see those as very closely linked. We just got on a call this morning. We’re breaking ground now on a major expansion in the facility in the Dominican. I think where we really announce that with pictures is when we do the ribbon cutting. I’d much rather announce things we’ve done, as opposed to things we’re planning to do. But it is a good example of investing in the long-term future of the club.
There’s no place that we have had more success bringing talent in, and no place where we can’t have even more. So we’re going to double the size of the Dominican facility and dramatically improve workout and nutrition facilities, as well as housing for twice as many players. I think that’s going to be a real impact in the club, not this year’s major league club, but a real impact in the strength in the Pittsburgh Pirates, just as when we did that initial investment 10 years ago.
Using that as an example, that is investing in the club. That is investing in the quality of the product on the field. It’s investing in a way that will have sustained impact, and in a way that will have real impact in a market like Pittsburgh.
8. How important is it for MLB owners to address the inadequacies of minor-league pay and provisions?
In this case, I think it’s critical that we really do look at how we treat our minor league players. I think it’s important that we treat them as the professional athletes that they are. I think it’s important that we find, whether it’s a living wage, whether it’s nutrition, whether it’s the facilities that are provided to them by their minor league operators, all of those have fallen behind the standards that I think are critical.
And if you look at what we’ve done here at Pirate City, if you look at what we do for the Bradenton Marauders, and then you look broadly around the minor leagues — whether it’s pay, whether it’s facilities — there’s some real work that needs to be done. I think it’s critical for baseball. I think it’s critical for the growth of the game. I think it’s critical for a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates, and, frankly, I think it’s critical for making the game attractive for serious, competitive athletes who have an option to play multiple sports. And if you have a choice of playing football for a great D-I program — and I hope lots of people do that, with all due respect to that — riding the bus for three years in some of our markets … it’s time, and it’s past due, to take a serious, fresh look at how those are being handled.
9. When it comes to public perception of the Pirates, how does it affect you that there is so much negativity directed your way?
I think the only piece that worries me is to the extent that it negatively impacts the club. And that’s unfortunate and up to me to do everything I can to make sure that the degree of commitment that I show — and I’ll say show as opposed to have, because I deeply believe that I am fully committed to this organization and to its success and devote all the energy I possibly can to seeing that happen — if I need to be more effective to communicate that in order to help and support the team, that’s on me.
Would spending more money on payroll solve that?
I, obviously, think it’s much deeper than that. The spending is a band-aid and a little bit of a distraction. I think we’re spending appropriately in order to achieve the goals that we’ve set out, which is to win a championship. I think we’re allocating between the multiple buckets that we need to allocate dollars in a smart, efficient way to be able to drive the very best team on the field that we possibly can. All of those, the performance and the intent and the desire, absolutely are there. If I need to do a more effective job communicating that and allowing people to see that, and allowing people to have the same faith in the organization that I have, the same faith in our baseball leadership team that I have, the same faith in the coaching staff and this young group of players that I have, then that would be the ideal.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter .