Pirates Notebook: Penguins show what is wrong with the Pirates

In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh Penguins winning their first Stanley Cup since 1992 (which was the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning season) I’ve noticed a lot of people wondering why the Pirates can’t compete in a city where the other two professional sports teams are currently champions.

A few of the common complaints I’ve noticed:

-The Penguins actually pursue free agents (Fedotenko, Satan)
-Rather than trade their players for prospects, the Penguins acquire veteran help for a playoff run
-The Penguins lock their stars up long term

Now I’ll agree that the Penguins run things a lot differently than the Pirates. The Pirates don’t pursue big free agents, only going after bench players and bullpen arms, and only those of the lower quality variety. When the Pirates make a trade, it is usually for prospects, sending one of their best players off in exchange for the unproven prospects. And the only player the Pirates have retained past free agency in the last several years has been Jack Wilson.

Don’t confuse this as being a problem with the Pirates though, and don’t give the Penguins management too much credit.

The fact is that this displays a major difference between the NHL and MLB. All I have to do is point out the pre-lockout Penguins to show what is wrong with the Pirates.

It wasn’t until after the lockout that the Penguins started making splashes in the free agent market, and locking up their star players. It’s not like they were carrying out this practice before the lockout (Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka).

The new NHL provides a salary cap, a salary floor, and a better revenue sharing plan than baseball currently has. This allows the Penguins to lock up their young players, and contend with teams from New York and Boston. This year all of the NHL teams were betwee $40.7 M and $56.7 M in payroll. By comparison, the range in baseball is between $36.8 M and $201.4 M this season.

The Pirates are in a similar situation that the Penguins were in before the lockout. They may not be facing bankruptcy, but they aren’t exactly in position to spend in line with the majority of teams in the league. They aren’t in position to retain their star players once free agency hits. Until baseball adopts a salary cap, salary floor, and a better revenue sharing plan, the Pirates won’t be able to do what the Penguins or Steelers do.

A lot of references are made about the Milwaukee Brewers spending $30 M more than the Pirates, despite being in similar markets. The Brewers also sold over 3 million tickets last year, about 1.4 million more than the Pirates. In fact, just pointing out the 2009 payroll differences doesn’t begin to tell the story of the difference between these two teams.

From 1993 to 2004 the Pirates and Brewers both experienced losing seasons every year. Milwaukee averaged $31.5 M in payroll per year over that time span, while Pittsburgh averaged $28.6 M in payroll. Milwaukee finished with an 825-1051 record, while Pittsburgh finished with an 835-1041 record. Safe to say that the two teams were very similar during this time stretch as far as payroll and records go.

Then came 2005. Milwaukee spent $39.9 M and Pittsburgh spent $38.1 M. However, Pittsburgh went 67-95, while Milwaukee went 81-81.

From there Milwaukee saw their payroll increase, going to $57.6 M in 2006, $71 M in 2007, and $80 M the last two years. It’s hard to argue that this wasn’t due to their success and higher attendance figures. Meanwhile the Pirates put up losing records, and kept their payroll under $50 M, which can be explained by low attendance figures and poor talent.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for the Pirates to win in today’s MLB. The Brewers are a perfect example that you CAN win if you’re a small market team. What I am saying is that you can’t point to the championships by the Steelers and Penguins this year and assume it’s easy for the Pirates to achieve the same results.

The Brewers are where they are right now because they drafted Ben Sheets, Corey Hart, J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, Ryan Braun, and Matt LaPorta (who they used to get C.C. Sabathia). That’s all since 1999.

In that same time period the Pirates have drafted Ryan Doumit, Sean Burnett, Nate McLouth, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Matt Capps, Nyjer Morgan, Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny, and Andrew McCutchen. There’s some good players in there, but the Pirates lack consistent production, and don’t have superstars like Braun or Fielder, or aces like Sheets and Gallardo.

The Pirates have struggled the last 17 years mostly due to poor talent evaluation, and poor development. That’s something they can’t do when the scales are so mis-aligned in baseball. Even a team like Milwaukee, after years of great drafting, and success in the regular season, can’t afford to outspend the big market teams to keep free agents like C.C. Sabathia. It’s absurd to think the Pirates can just go out and get any free agent they want, or even extend their own players, like Jason Bay, who won’t even sign an extension with the Red Sox.

Pittsburgh is now home to the current NFL and NHL champions. I’m not saying it’s impossible for the Pirates to ever join those two teams in their success. However, unless we see some big changes in the structure of major league baseball, the odds of that happening are drastically reduced.

The MVP Tracker

The MVP Tracker is updated through the Friday night loss. Here are the big performers for tonight’s win:

1. Adam LaRoche: .143 WPA
2. Freddy Sanchez: .133
3. Jack Wilson: .122
4. Jason Jaramillo: .109
5. Zach Duke: .063

Prospects Tracker

The Prospects Tracker is updated with tonight’s games.

-Bryan Morris went 5.1 innings, allowing one run on two hits, walking three and striking out two. It was a dominating performance for Morris, as he carried a no-hitter in to the fifth inning, only to see it broken up on a grounder that could have easily gone for an out. Morris had 12 ground ball outs, and only two fly ball outs.

-Pedro Alvarez led the offense in the 16-3 victory, going 2 for 5 with two homers, including a grand slam.

-Gorkys Hernandez went 1 for 5 for Altoona, which actually raises his average to .114 since joining the team.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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