Nutting balances Pirates' payroll versus tough decisions
BRADENTON, Fla. — When it comes to setting the team's payroll or trading star players, Pirates chairman Bob Nutting does not allow sentimentality to become entwined with his business model.
“It is hard, honestly, just as a human being, to separate them, but I believe it is essential,” said Nutting, who is beginning his 11th season as the club's principal owner.
On Monday, Nutting marked the start of spring training with his annual closed-door meeting with the players and coaches. Much has changed since he delivered his first address in 2007.
Under Nutting, the Pirates snapped a string of 20 losing seasons and celebrated a victory in the 2013 National League wild-card game. Player payroll eclipsed $100 million for the first time in franchise history. Upgrades were made to PNC Park, the spring training facilities and the complex in the Dominican Republic.
“The degree of transformation, I think, really is remarkable,” Nutting said.
Yet, the last year was difficult for the Pirates, who failed to make the postseason for the first time since 2012.
“We certainly had a step back,” Nutting said. “We underperformed last year to the abilities of our club. I think 2016 was a great reminder for us of the razor-thin edge between a pretty good team and an elite team.”
Nutting came under fire in December at PirateFest for a perceived lack of commitment to winning. The Pirates continue to rank among the bottom third of MLB clubs in terms of payroll.
“We ended up with the season we did because the team and organization underperformed the level of talent that we had,” Nutting said. “I don't think it was nearly so much that we didn't have sufficient talent to make the run. We had some very good players who did not perform up to the expectations that we had. I really think it's far more execution than what we put together.”
Nutting also disputed the notion that he is taking a profit instead of pouring money into player acquisition.
“I've still never taken a salary from the team,” said Nutting, who counts newspapers and ski resorts among his family's businesses. “That absolutely is not the focus that we have.”
During the winter meetings, general manager Neal Huntington mulled trade offers for outfielder Andrew McCutchen, the 2013 NL MVP and the unquestioned face of the franchise.
McCutchen remains with the Pirates, but he has been given no assurances he won't be traded before his contract expires. There also has been no indication yet if the team will trigger his $14.75 million option for 2018.
The outcome might seem predictable for fans who remember the exits of players such as Neil Walker, Mark Melancon, Jason Bay, Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez.
“My responsibility and the organization's responsibility is to be able to make those types of choices,” Nutting said. “If we have the appropriate goal set of making the team better, doing what's right for Pittsburgh, doing what's right for the Pirates, then it allows you to make some tough decisions that you know are the right thing to do.
“We did it early on in the cycle when we did any number of radically unpopular decisions that were, in my opinion, the right long-term calls but very painful in the short term. If anything, that reinforced to me that we need to have the discipline to make those kinds of decisions and also that (our) leadership team is capable of making tough but correct long-term decisions.”