Responding to Mondesi’s House

Jose Tabata is earning a salary near the league minimum in 2010 - ZumaPress

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington was on The Fan morning show on Tuesday, discussing Monday night’s draft signing deadline. He talked about Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, a few 2009 draftees and some issues involving the major league team. Early in the interview, Huntington made the following comment. Apparently, The Fan reported the Pirates’ total draft expenditure as being $10 million a few moments beforehand.

And actually, I heard the lead-in. We spent almost $12 million this year, and I say that because Bob Nutting takes a beating in this town for being cheap. I don’t know if $30 million will be the top spent in the industry…but we’ve spent at or near the top over the last three years in the draft.

To me, this seems like a pretty modest statement coming from a guy who just completed a very nice evening of work as the Pirates general manager. Also, saying that Bob Nutting takes a beating in Pittsburgh is a gigantic understatement. The Pirates’ owner is constantly bashed in the media, and I understand that I will be hammered mercilessly for this next statement…but the majority of the criticism is completely baseless. The only reasonable arguments one can make that support the idea of Nutting being some sort of evil villain are that the major league payroll is very low and the major league team is very bad. These are also two common characteristics of most rebuilding organizations, a label that has clearly applied to the Pirates over the past two-plus years.

Anyway, Huntington’s comment touched a nerve over at Mondesi’s House. Mondesi’s House is a solid Pittsburgh sports blog, probably rivaling The Pensblog as the most popular in the city. But I really think they miss the mark in this post, taking an insignificant comment from Huntington and using it to make the same, tired claim that Bob Nutting is evil.

A quick look at the 2010 MLB payrolls shows that the Pirates rank 30th/dead last at $34.9 million, roughly $37 million less than the next-closest team in their division, the Cincinnati Reds ($72.3 million).

In fact, the other five teams in their division are spending an average of $97.1 million in payroll this year, going upwards from Cincy to Milwaukee ($81.1), Houston ($92.3), St. Louis ($93.4) and Chicago ($146.8). So spare me if Bob Nutting’s feelings were hurt for being called cheap, even though his team has the lowest payroll in baseball and is spending at a rate of 35% of the divisional average. What are we supposed to call him? George Steinbrenner?

I mentioned earlier that a rebuilding team is naturally going to have a low payroll, because any player who has accrued less than three years at the major league level earns near the league minimum. This is true for every team, whether it’s the Pirates, the Yankees or the Montreal Expos. Simply put, young players are very inexpensive. So if the Pirates are rebuilding correctly, the payroll should be very low right now and will naturally rise as the young core accrues service time. A quick look at the roster confirms this. Right now, the Pirates’ three best hitters are between the ages of 23 and 24. Another starter is 22-years-old and currently boasting a league average bat. Two other everyday position players have less than three years of service time. Huntington recently traded a veteran closer for a 25-year-old starting pitcher who has been dominant in his first three starts. The starting rotation of the near future is mostly in Double-A right now, gearing up for the Eastern League playoffs after winning the Carolina League championship last season. This is what a rebuilding organization looks like.

In addition, like most payroll complaints, this one is vague and devoid of a specific alternative. The assumption that a simple increase in payroll would magically improve the team in either the short-term or the long-term is flawed. High-priced players are not always better than inexpensive ones. For example, the top free agent third baseman last offseason was Chone Figgins. He is currently 32-years-old, playing second base for Seattle, sporting a .299 wOBA, and due $28 million through 2013. Would you rather have Figgins playing over Pedro Alvarez (23-years-old, .345 wOBA) or Neil Walker (24-years-old, .345 wOBA)? Is Mike Cameron (37-years-old, .321 wOBA) a better option than Andrew McCutchen (23-years-old, .350 wOBA) in center? Did you know that three of the five most expensive starting pitchers signed as free agents last offseason probably wouldn’t crack the Pirates’ pathetic rotation right now (Ben Sheets, Randy Wolf, Rich Harden)?

Just look at the NL Central teams mentioned above, for example. The Reds are paying a replacement level closer $12 million this season. The Brewers have more than $22 million tied up in Wolf, Trevor Hoffman and Doug Davis, three pretty awful pitchers. Houston is paying Carlos Lee $18.5 million to hit like Ronny Cedeno, while giving $4.5 million to the useless Pedro Feliz as some form of charity. I don’t even know how much they are paying Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman to play for other teams. Are these supposed to be positive signs about these respective organizations?

Mondesi’s House also had this to say about the draft:

Don’t get me wrong, Huntington deserves some kudos for getting these deals done, but really, he’s just doing his job. You’re supposed to take the best player in the draft. You’re supposed to then sign that player.

Sure, teams are supposed to acquire impact players through the draft, but Huntington is the one that actually did it. Twenty-nine other general managers passed on Stetson Allie, some multiple times, because he demanded a large bonus. Despite already drafting the player who would ultimately require the largest bonus overall, Huntington was the one who jumped on the opportunity to add a second top prospect. Then he spent the money to get both players signed. That made the Pirates one of the big winners of the signing deadline.

I understand that Pittsburgh is sick of watching the Pirates lose. It has been nearly two decades since the team has been relevant, and the days of giving management the benefit of the doubt have justifiably drifted away. But the knee-jerk, frenzied bashing of the most insignificant matters is out of control this season, and it’s honestly becoming a bit too much to take.

 

Author: Matt Bandi

Matt has covered the Pirates at Wait ‘Til Next Year, Pittsburgh Lumber Co. and now Pirates Prospects. He served as Pirates team expert for Heater Magazine in 2009 and 2010 and has contributed to Graphical Player 2009, 2010 and 2011. Matt was also the editor of the 2011 and 2012 Pirates Prospects Annuals.

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  • lee young

    Excellent Post!

    • Matt Bandi

      Thank you.

  • You are a….

    …joke. How does Nutting’s ass taste?

    • Matt Bandi

      Excellent argument.

  • http://lowbrowmedia.blogspot.com [uproarious applause]

    Thank you for writing this. When I read that MH entry, I was surprised by how out of touch he was. Your post here rings of truth.

  • http://jpittsshow.com j. pitts

    so when exactly did the rebuilding process start and when exactly will it end?

    • DG Lewis

      The rebuilding process started in September of 2007 when Huntington replaced Littlefield. When it ends depends on how you define “ends”. If you define “ending the rebuilding process” as “no longer trading away 30% of your starting players at the trade deadline,” it’s already over. If you define it as having a team that can compete for a Division championship, the generally-accepted period is three to six years — and given the paucity of talent in the Pirates minor leagues three years ago, I’d expect closer to six than three. So if the Pirates aren’t competitive in 2013, then it would be fair to say that the FO failed.

      • http://wkkortas.wordpress.com w.k.kortas

        Not only was Littlefield’s tenure disastrous, but the tenure of Cam Bonifay was a nightmare as well. That royal line produced fifteen years of overpaying for mediocre veterans combined with botched drafting, resulting in what BP accurately referred to as the equivalent of a condemned house. Your reasoning–and the timetable–seems eminently sound to me.

    • Garrett122

      “when exactly will it end?”

      It won’t. We will always be going in cycles, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

      A team like the Pirates needs to constantly keep looking for high-upside, low-cost players in order to compete with teams that can spend $300 million dollars on a lineup. NH has overseen a huge influx of young talent added in the last three years, but they’re not going to be Bucs forever. But if we keep drafting and trading intelligently, then by the time Alvarez and Tabata are hitting free agency, we’ll have five or six qualified replacements (if they choose to go elsewhere).

      All this is not meant to be pessimistic but rather remind folks that the rebuilding is not a once-and-done. We are not going to build a playoff team and then magically stay at that level for decades because we inherited a billion free dollars. But NH seems to be VERY good at his job, so hopefully our periods of success will come more frequently than other teams (see the Minnesota Twins).

  • DG Lewis

    Yes, this.

    I put up a fanpost at Bucs Dugout (http://www.bucsdugout.com/2010/8/17/1628783/your-2010-pittsburgh-pirates-seen) based on a comment referring to Baseball America’s “projected 2010 lineup” as of 2007. That team would have a payroll about $31M higher than the current Pirates — and based on WAR, would be expected to be about two wins worse.

    Cost != quality.

  • Joshua

    If money weren’t an issue, then John Russell would be out of a job. Also, there are ways of spending money without pulling a Matt Morris. Your post is pathetic.

  • wrecking_ball

    What a post. Way to bring it. +1

  • Kidspud

    Mondesi’s House is just awful. I stopped reading them a few years ago when I realized there is almost nothing of substance in their posts. Really, the Pirates’ ML payroll is super low? Next they’ll be telling me that Evgeni Malkin is inconsistent and that Bruce Arians is a terrible offensive coordinator.

    Good post.

  • http://igloodreams.blogspot.com Pat

    This was the absolute best reaction – putting up some numbers and arguments that go beyond the obvious. It feels like this organization has turned a corner – it’s time more people started realizing it. Great job!

  • PhillyJake

    I like your post.

    Spending money is not a simple solution. (See Mets, Cubs on one hand, Padres on the other.)

    While the payroll may be $39 million, supposedly the budget was higher, supposedly the same as last years. And, at the trade deadline this year, salary was taken on.

    Eventually, some of the guys on the team will leave. We can’t afford them all once they hit free agency. How many teams will be able to afford both Cutch & Pedro as free agents? The potential is there for $20m per for Cutch and $25m for Pedro, in today’s dollars. But, will Nutting allow the team to pay one, or be able to afford one of them ?

    Ultimately, Nutting is going to have to step up to the plate, and that time is now. Will he be willing to spend the money to bring in a front line pitcher for next year? Or a power hitting outfielder? Or an upgrade at SS?

    Mr. Nutting has made the right moves since he took over the 4 years ago. He still has a ways to go. Let’s see what happens this off season.

    • DG Lewis

      “Ultimately, Nutting is going to have to step up to the plate, and that time is now.”

      No, it isn’t. At the end of next year, maybe. At the end of the 2012 season, more likely; at the end of 2013, probably. As Matt has pointed out, you acquire one or two front line FAs to put your team over the top, not to go from 70 wins to 75.

  • Kris

    Excellent post. It’s nice to see well thought out and articulated arguments backed by actual statistics and evidence. You get tired of all the emotional bashing; sometimes, the losing in and of itself is enough.

    I keep arguing with a buddy of mine that Cutch and Alvarez, et. al. are not going to be traded anytime soon. Despite all my reasoning as to why this just will not happen (even trying to explain how it wouldnt make sense based on their salaries, years of control, and the amounts the Pirates are spending in the draft), he doesnt care. He is constantly waiting for the next gut punch from the Pirates. I think this attitude represents a large cross-section of Pirates fans in general.

  • Bones

    The organization was left in such dreadful shape by Huntington’s predecessors. I figured it would take a full five years to undo the damage. The Pirates can’t spend their way out of problems. Look how one bad contract (Travis Hafner) can hamstring a small-market team.

    All in all, I feel it’s unfair to criticize Nutting and Huntington in the drafting department. It is the only way the Pirates are going to accrue impact talent. Thus far, Nutting has opened the checkbook on Huntington’s drafts.

    However, playing the devil’s advocate, the Reds were able to get Rolen, Cabrera and Gomes for about $10 million combined. Now granted spending money at this juncture probably wouldn’t serve the Pirates. But, a shrewd GM can fill holes. Hopefully, the time will come when Neil makes moves comparable to those of the Reds.

    My only concern is whether or not the pitching will ever be there to compliment the hitting.

    • http://honestwagner.blogspot.com/ Bones

      My only concern is whether I wrote this comment, and don’t remember it. Hmmm. Needs more sarcasm, delusional nonsense, and concision – wasn’t me.

      Well said, Matt.

  • Hank

    Huntington appears to have thick skin, has a good plan, and is sticking to it. While it is unfortunate much of the fanbase has been driven mad by a lost decade of terrible decisions, it is worse that much of the media acts as if that lost decade is still on, instead of seeing how radically different the 09 and 10 team and farm is. Fans have a right to be pissed that ownership let a clown run the team into the ground, but the media needs to have some journalistic integrity and put some rational, thoughtful articles out there.

    great read, thanks for posting

  • http://www.bucsfaninexile.wordpress.com El Scotto

    “Not only was Littlefield’s tenure disastrous, but the tenure of Cam Bonifay was a nightmare as well. That royal line produced fifteen years of overpaying for mediocre veterans combined with botched drafting, resulting in what BP accurately referred to as the equivalent of a condemned house.”

    Amen, W.K.K. I’m not optimistic in the sense that I’m just going to wait until Tallion appears at the big club to be an ace by any means, but I’ll take the young, high-upside guys over the mid-20’s guys like Pierce, Bowker, etc any day. Good job to the F.O. on this one.

  • Scott

    Fantastic post. I think people fail to appreciate just how far down the rabbit hole we were after the Bonifay/Littlfield eras. A franchise was destroyed over 15 years, so it is going to take more than two years to fix it. And what many fans don’t want to hear is that slow and methodical organization building is the only way to go, following the D-Rays and Twins models.

  • Mike

    WHAT IF ?
    What if Nutting saw early on how sad a state the team was in when he took over, and decided that while rebuilding , he would stockpile cash for the necessity to pay big dollars when the kids all come up for free agency ? In the long term it makes sense, even though he’d take a lot of heat for 2-4 years for having such a low salary. He might have the last laugh, though.

    • Matt

      Now Mike, come on now. Evil Villains take all savings, especially the ones they create themselves by devoiding the system of any players with real contracts, like Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Nate McLouth, and then pockets it all. They don’t save it, they spend it.

      Bandi, great writing. I was a bit disappointed in Mondesi, if only because the post was more piling on than anything else. Yes, the organization is in dead last in both the standings and the payroll department. Who doesn’t know that by now? Even the national sports talk show hosts know that, and they have for years. Good job insulting someone with the obvious.

  • http://www.fanspeak.com Steveospeak

    Great post!

    I think people don’t give Huntington enough credit for the job he has done with this system (and by extension Nutting as well for spending in the draft). People may say that is their job to draft well, but in reality only a handful of teams are anywhere close to what the Pirates have spent over the past couple of seasons, so they are going against the grain.

    I think the biggest reason people Huntington, is because he hasn’t added any true ‘top prospect’ in all these trades. Now that is not to say he has lost all of these deals, just that he hasn’t brought back what most people were expecting. I for one understand the frustration, but at the same time think Neal has a solid B- in the trade department. The one failure I think that comes back on the Pirates is the Matt Capps non-tender last winter.

    Now I realize they ‘spent’ that money on Dotel, who they did a nice job of flipping, but there is no reason they couldn’t have kept Capps as well. While Wilson Ramos doesn’t appeal as much to Pittsburgh with Sanchez in the system, he is a better quality prospect than Lambo. I don’t think Pittsburgh should just spend to spend, but there is little reason to part with Capps for nothing.

    I hope the Pirates take the Dotel approach and add a couple of guys who could be midseason trade candidates. One to hopefully make the Pirates better for the first half of the season, two keep the seats warm for the prospects in the system, three give some veteran leadership, and four bring back more potential prospects next season, and finally five, to spend some money to shut up the naysayers.

    • DG Lewis

      Had they kept Capps, they probably wouldn’t have signed Dotel.

  • whiteangus

    okay, steveO… maybe Neal didnt get the so called “top” prospect because what the pirates gave up was not worthy of such? We did get top prospects in the Bay deal, as Morris and Laroche were highly thought of. The problem you are having is that some of them have not panned out. But NH has gotten plenty of talent in his dealings, but expecting a team’s #1 when youre dealing guys like wilson, mclouth and sanchez is just being hopeful and not realistic. if we had a halladay or holiday to trade, THEN YOU GET THE #1 PROSPECT.

  • rick

    It seems reasonable to back off, temporarily, on Nutting based on recent events, and based on some of the points made in this article. HOWEVER, when the time comes, he has got to retain this talent rather than trade it away once it starts to become more expensive, or else this is all just a pointless exercise.

    I fear that the Pirates, who have always been a farm team for the rest of MLB, might turn into a really GOOD farm team for the rest of MLB, if they don’t keep the players that they are investing in at the draft and in the international market.

    • Matt Bandi

      Agree that we need to keep the talent once it arrives and develops. But until we get to that point and see what happens, it’s hard to bash Nutting when we have no idea what will happen.

      The Pirates are not really “a farm team for the rest of MLB.” Most players who are traded end up doing very little with their new teams. (http://pittsburghlumberco.com/?p=1840)