Gerrit Cole's agent Scott Boras: Pirates sitting on 'economic volcano'
Agent Scott Boras should have been pleased when the Pirates traded his client, pitcher Gerrit Cole, to the Houston Astros two weeks ago.
Cole left a team that posted back-to-back losing seasons and joined the defending World Series champions. The right-hander has two seasons to boost his value, backed by a club with steady defense and a prolific offense, before becoming a free agent.
After the trade was finalized, though, Boras offered this blunt, dour assessment: "David just gave Goliath his slingshot."
Boras believes Cole could've gotten those same advantages — being part of a champion and supported by a powerful lineup — in Pittsburgh, if Pirates ownership had a stronger commitment to winning. In Boras' view, that boils down to dollars and cents.
So far this offseason, the Pirates have not signed a major league free agent. They swapped Cole and Andrew McCutchen — a combined $21.5 million in salary — for six players, none of whom will make much more than the minimum salary this year.
On opening day, the Pirates' active roster (25 players) likely will account for about $79.7 million — the club's lowest payroll since 2014.
In the decade since Bob Nutting became principal owner, the franchise has found some success on the field. A run of 20 losing seasons was snapped, but the Pirates have just one wild-card game victory to show for three postseason appearances.
Off the field, the Pirates have made bigger strides. The farm system is better stocked and organized than it was under former general manager Dave Littlefield. There have been extensive brick-and-mortar improvements at the spring training complex in Bradenton, Fla., at the Dominican academy and at PNC Park.
Most significantly, the Pirates are on solid financial footing. In February 1996, a group led by Kevin McClatchy — Nutting and some of his family members were minority partners — bought the franchise for $95 million. In April 2017, Forbes put the value of the Pirates at $1.25 billion.
Even as the franchise's valuation skyrockets and profits stay steady, the Pirates maintain a business model of developing players, getting them to the majors, then trading them or letting them walk when their salaries start to climb.
What would it take for the Pirates to abandon that process?
"I think you'd have a fundamental redesign of the economics of baseball," Nutting said. "That's not what we're going to have."
Boras represents some of the game's biggest stars, including several of this winter's top free agents. It's not surprising Boras is frustrated by Nutting's bottom-dollar approach to the player payroll.
"When I hear them say, 'We're the poor Pittsburgh Pirates,' I go, 'Whoa! Just a minute,' " Boras said. "This guy (Nutting) is sitting on an economic volcano. Where else can you increase the value of your franchise to $1 billion and not have to win anything?"
Boras pointed out that in 2012, as the Pirates were about to become a winner on the field again, the team had a $52 million payroll and $178 million in revenues.
In 2017, as the Pirates posted a second straight losing season, the revenue increased to $280 million while the payroll was $96 million.
According to Boras, the Pirates are turning a profit each year, which should give them the ability to retain star players.
"It's clearly a matter of choice," Boras said. "They choose not to (retain players) because they want to make money."
In 2015, the Pirates won 98 games during the season, but were eliminated by the Chicago Cubs in the wild-card game. The following offseason, management made few upgrades to the roster. Payroll went up by about $10 million, although some of that was due to attrition — the increased cost of players under contract and those who reached arbitration eligibility.
In 2015, the Pirates won 98 games during the season, but were eliminated by the Chicago Cubs in the wild-card game. The following offseason, management made few upgrades to the roster. Payroll went up by about $10 million, although some of that was because of attrition — the increased cost of players under contract and those who reached arbitration eligibility.
Last week, "High Heat" host Chris Russo asked GM Neal Huntington if the Pirates did everything in their power to improve after the 2015 season.
"I appreciate that argument and cannot dispute that there isn't validity to it," Huntington said. "The challenge in small and mid markets is, if you go all in and you don't make it, you can damage your franchise for years."
The Pirates did not trade prospects for impact players after the '15 season. They did not tear up their conservative budget outlays and raid the free-agent market.
In 2016, the Pirates won 78 games and finished third in the NL Central. Last year, they won 75 games and finished fourth. That triggered a roster turnover in which the team's two biggest stars were jettisoned.
"If the product on the field is irrelevant and all you have is a cash cow," Boras said, "then the fans of Pittsburgh deserve notice of that."
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.
This story was edited on Jan. 26 to clarify Pirates profit situation.