First Pitch: The Well-Deserved Optimism For the Pirates’ Off-Season

During my seven years running this site, you’ve probably noticed a tendency to lean towards the optimistic side of things with the Pirates. I’d concede that I’m an optimist, but I generally hate black and white labels, and am not always optimistic about everything. That, too, has been seen on the site over the years.

But there definitely has been a tendency for more positivity and optimism than negativity. In terms of prospect coverage, that is to be expected. Prospects, in general, are all about optimism. You look at a prospect and look at his tools and dream about what he could become. It’s hard to not sound optimistic about prospects, and it’s not a bad thing as long as you aren’t shooting too high with the expectations, and understand that the majority of prospects won’t reach those optimistic upsides.

We definitely are realistic with the evaluations. Take Josh Bell as an example. I love his upside and potential, but have pointed out countless times the last two years how his swing from the right side is ugly and leads to concerns. We’ve also pointed out that while his defense at first base improved in 2015, he still has a long way to go, and wouldn’t be an upgrade over Pedro Alvarez defensively right now. That’s an example of being optimistic on a player’s upside, but being realistic about the current faults that very well could limit that upside.

Then there’s the MLB side, where I generally give the Pirates the benefit of the doubt on the moves they make. I’ve definitely questioned some of their moves, with the biggest one that comes to mind being the addition of Russell Martin back in 2013. But as time goes on, I’ve had fewer questions, and more of a “wait and see” attitude, while trying to see what they could possibly see in the move.

When you think about it, at this point in time, how can you not be optimistic about the Pirates?

A few years ago, when the Pirates still had their losing streak going, and when they were collapsing each year in the second half, I got it. I was optimistic about their future, mostly because I got a unique look at what was coming in the farm system, and was also emotionally detached from the losing streak and collapses due to the nature of this job. At the same time, I totally understood how people could have questioned the Pirates at that time, and how people could have wanted Neal Huntington fired after the 2012 season. I even wrote that Huntington should be on the verge of being fired if he couldn’t lead the team to the next level in 2013, which is something he did end up doing.

But this isn’t the 2012 off-season anymore, and today’s big story showed that. The Pirates were named Baseball America’s Organization of the Year, and if you haven’t read Travis Sawchik’s excellent write-up that explains why, then I suggest you go take a look. This is a team that found some of the best values last off-season in Francisco Cervelli and Jung-ho Kang, then did it again at the trade deadline with J.A. Happ. They benefitted from the decision to draft Gerrit Cole, which as I wrote last week, wasn’t clear-cut at the time.

It wasn’t just the 2015 season. The Pirates have won the third most games in baseball during the regular season over the last three years, despite having a much smaller budget than the Dodgers and Cardinals. Their value moves aren’t just limited to last off-season, but seem to come every season. There was Edinson Volquez in 2014, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, and Mark Melancon in 2013, and A.J. Burnett in 2012. Previous examples included Jason Grilli, Joel Hanrahan, and the Nate McLouth trade — and for all the complaining about Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke, the Pirates have received a combined 8.8 fWAR from those two since the move.

The one thing the Pirates haven’t done yet is win big in the playoffs. They’ve made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons, but have only advanced once, making it to Game 5 of the NLDS in 2013. There’s really not a formula for success in the playoffs. You could point to big deadline moves, or a specific off-season approach, or the makeup of a team, but you’re more likely to find cases where those approaches didn’t lead to playoff success. That’s largely because a playoff series is impacted by the randomness that can exist in such a small sample of games.

The Pirates have a challenge this off-season. They have a team that just won 98 games, with pretty much all of the team returning. It would be difficult to afford the returning players while also replacing the few departed players and finding upgrades for last year’s team. They need to perform a juggling act which includes the following approach:

**Trading talented players who may be making too much for the current payroll, and finding replacements for them without seeing much of a dropoff. This specifically involves Mark Melancon and Neil Walker. While on the subject of optimism, I’m not optimistic they can improve over Walker, but I could see them improving over Melancon, since it’s a very similar situation to Joel Hanrahan in 2013.

**Finding overall team upgrades on a team where it’s hard to upgrade individual positions. Neil Walker is the perfect example here. It would be hard for the Pirates to upgrade over him when you look at his individual value. But when you look at the 2015 team, you’d see that a big problem was their defense. Walker’s infield defense leads to that problem. While it may be difficult to upgrade over Walker, adding a different player could be a team upgrade if that player can improve the defense. That said, I still think this would be difficult. I see the upgrade chance at first base, where the Pirates could improve over Pedro Alvarez’s poor defense.

**Adding talented players who can help in 2016, while not hurting the future budget or blocking prospects. The Pirates have a lot of talented prospects coming up in 2016. They also have a young team that they can keep together for several more years, which will only get more expensive. So they need to find the right guys who can help in 2016, but who won’t be blocking any key prospects beyond 2016, and who won’t risk keeping the core of the team together in the future.

I don’t think anything is guaranteed in baseball, so to say that the Pirates absolutely will find success this off-season and will find a way to accomplish the above would be incorrect. That’s a level of optimism that’s extreme, almost to the point where it goes beyond the definition of the word. But optimism is warranted here, in the scope that the Pirates have shown the tendency to have success in a situation like the above.

Time after time, the Pirates have faced difficult decisions, and have made the smart move to improve the team. When Rome was burning in 2012-13, they made some huge moves by adding Martin, Liriano, and Melancon. That off-season is somewhat similar to this one, in that they needed a starting pitcher, a key position player upgrade, and needed to deal their closer with one year remaining while finding a suitable replacement. The only difference now is that they have a better pitching staff, and the spot they need to upgrade over (second base) has a better player currently on the roster. They were able to do it in 2013, and that leads to optimism that they can do it again in 2016.

Then there was the A.J. Burnett/Edinson Volquez situation in 2014. Burnett left for the Phillies, leaving the Pirates looking for a starter. They landed on Volquez, who actually performed the same or better than Burnett, depending on whether you’re looking at advanced metrics or the actual results. A year later, Burnett returned in a buy low move, and worked out. And then when Burnett was injured this summer, they found another buy low replacement in J.A. Happ. Now, they need to find another replacement for that number three spot in the rotation.

They had a difficult decision last off-season when Russell Martin left. They replaced him with Francisco Cervelli, who surprisingly had a slightly higher overall value than Martin, especially when you factor in the pitch framing stats. This is similar to the situation with Neil Walker this off-season, mostly because there is no obvious upgrade to Walker, unless there’s a second base version of Cervelli hiding out somewhere on an MLB roster.

Every move and every challenge the Pirates are facing this off-season are similar to moves and challenges they’ve faced in the past. And they’ve had success in those situations in the past. This doesn’t mean the Pirates will be successful this off-season. But it’s hard to look at the past success, look at the current off-season challenges, and not be optimistic.

One of my biggest pet peeves when it comes to sports writing (or any media these days) is that “objectivity” is seen as being synonymous with negativity. You’re more likely to be called objective if you’re critical, even if that criticism isn’t warranted. You’re more likely to have your motivations questioned if you’re positive, with the belief that you’re incapable of thinking on your own and just believe what any company tells you. Again, that kind of extends to all areas of media, and not just sports.

In this case, with all of the facts and previous success stories that we have, I don’t see how you can be anything but optimistic about the Pirates. Any other view simply isn’t giving an objective look at how successful this team has been the last few years, and how well they’ve done with every player personnel challenge laid before them. I’m optimistic this off-season will be a continuation of that success.

**Pre-Order the 2016 Prospect Guide. The book will be finished in about two weeks, which is a sentence that is terrifying to type as I work to finish up all the player reports. You can pre-order your copy today, with discounts and free copies for current subscribers. Click the article to learn more, or go to the products page of the site to order.

**Pirates Named Baseball America’s Organization of the Year. It’s not a World Series, but it’s also not a bad thing.

**Minor Moves: Pirates Re-Sign Clario Perez. Looks like I’ll be adding him back to the Prospect Guide this week.

**Winter Leagues: Boscan Shuts Down a Pair of Pirates, Heredia Struggles Again. John Dreker recaps the latest winter league news from the weekend.

**Trevor Cahill Considering Pirates According to Buster Olney. From the weekend, Cahill is connected to the Pirates, and fits all of the traditional reclamation project requirements.

First Pitch

  • Lots of posts and lots of concerns the last couple of weeks – but I have decided to take a deep breath and wait and see what the plan is. I do think the defense is a problem – first base is a problem – rotation depth is a problem and not convinced that the bench will be much use without some upgrades.

    But Huntington and the FO are smart – and have done some good things – and some not so good in the past to at least get the team to be better – still not where I want it to be – but it is time for me to shut up and see what they can accomplish over the next month or so.

    The bottom line – it is the holidays and I am going to relax and see where things stand early January rather than react to every move – or non-move.

    Happy Holidays to all
    See you in 2016

  • I think one solution is to move walker to 1b for 2016. Upgrades d at 1b and likely 2b. Keeps walkers bat and presence in a useful position. Morse plays vs lhp mostly. Jayhey gets 2b when kang is back.

    • Huntington is on record as saying he would never ask a player to change positions in a contract year – and even if he did and Walker agreed to the move you end up with a slightly better version of 2012-13 GI Jones – WAR position adjustment would cut his value dramatically – possibly below 1.0

  • I’m not optimistic or pessimistic at this point. I think the Pirates FO has a greater challenge this year than last year just because the bar is higher. Last year, they had Liriano, Volquez and Martin as free agents, a question mark at first base and a need for a utility guy. This year they are in much the same place, except there isn’t a need to get a catcher.

    Injuries to Kang and many of their top pitching prospects makes me less confident than I felt in December 2014 about shoring up the starting rotation. I also wonder if Kang can be the same guy after ripping up his knee.

    They certainly got an earlier start addressing their needs last year. I believe they signed AJ and Liriano and traded for Cervelli in November 2014. I don’t see anyone giving them a sweetheart deal like AJ did again, so that 2014 success story isn’t something they can duplicate this year. They also are talking about, in a sense, “creating” holes on their team that don’t need to exist in discussing trading Walker and Melanceon. That wasn’t the case last year.

    You really couldn’t get better production out of a closer than the Pirates got last year and I really don’t see signs of regression in Melanceon’s game. Trading him looks like a mistake to me but that would depend on what you got back. As to Walker, I think he’s a slightly above average second baseman but I don’t know of anyone who’s available and better than him that wouldn’t cost more or need a long term deal to acquire. I’m not seeing an easy decision on Walker or a ready replacement.

    The Pirates FO was fantastically successful last year but you can’t really point to a long history of success just yet. Yes I think they’ve earned the benefit of some doubt. Yes I think you can expect them to be competent. Now can they improve on last year’s team? Not sure. We will have to see. I’m sure some dominos will start to fall soon.

    • A lot of advanced metrics point to a Melancon regression. Honestly, his effectiveness never ceases to amaze me.

  • Price to the Red Sox….

    Buchholz now available?

  • Related to the “being smart” – it is not always what you do – but also about what you do not do.
    A couple of years ago I thought the Bucs had a chance to try and fix a long term firs base problem and sign Abreau – not sure they even bid on him – but he has delivered surplus values to the Sox totaling just under $65M in two years. [Kang had a surplus value of $31.4M last year]

    Today the Twins signed Park for 3 years – total commitment about $25M. Could have been the first base solution – again, have no idea if the Bucs were in on Park – but when you evaluate NH at the end of 2016 he will either be a genius for passing on Park – or a dunce for missing a second opportunity to solve first base in three years

    • Seems like there are other options but genius and dunce since thatd mean you have 28 dunces for passing on those two names. Even if you subtract teams with clearly quality 1B options, thats gonna leave a non small list of names of guys that passed.

      A bit excessively black and white. Which isnt to say NH should be shielded from that criticism of not going after one or both of those guys, but thats its not “pure genius” or “what a total fool” with no middle ground in between.

  • I’ve said this before in bits and pieces throughout other posts, but I’ll try it again here as a whole…

    Were the Pirates a legitimate 98 win team last year? No idea…but that’s how many they won, so I’m happy with that.

    But the season before they were an 88 win team. And, not a whole lot changed between 2014 and 2015.

    Sure, they got Kang and he was a stud, but Harrison regressed.
    2014 Harrison WAR: 5.3
    2015 Harrison/Kang: 5.8

    Cervelli played to the best expectations and AJ was a great addition to the rotation, but…
    2014 Martin/Volquez WAR: 8.0
    2015 Cervelli/Burnett WAR: 5.8

    Cole improved dramatically! Yeah, but Morton and Locke…well…
    2014 Cole/Morton/Locke WAR: 2.3
    2015 Cole/Morton/Locke WAR: 3.0

    The OF was better! Yes, the trio put up great numbers, but the infield…
    2014 Polanco/Cutch/Marte WAR: 12.7
    2015 Polanco/Cutch/Marte WAR: 13.8

    2014 Walker/Mercer/Alvarez WAR: 7.0
    2015 Walker/Mercer/Alvarez WAR: 2.8

    If we look at the WAR, the above mentioned players put up 4.1 less WAR in 2015 than their counterparts did in 2014. If we note that Frankie’s WAR increased by 1.1 over the two seasons and Happ added 2.4…that’s still not enough to closed the gap.

    So, where did the extra tens wins come from? There are four choices…something I’m not considering, the 2014 Pirates underperformed, the 2015 Pirates over performed, or some combination of the three.

    I didn’t mention the defense, which had a 12% increase in errors from ’14 – ’15…even though Pedro never attempted a throw from 3rd.

    My gut tells this season’s bullpen was so much better than the 2014 version, but I’ve ignored it because relief pitchers are darned pesky to quantify. But here’s a modest attempt to look at the top five relievers (by innings pitched) from the two seasons:

    2014: 334 2/3 IP, 2.50 ERA, 1.14 WHIP
    2015: 351 IP, 2.59 ERA, 1.11 WHIP

    Not seeing a ton of difference.

    So, where did the ten wins come from?

    • Randomness, Blaine. No more, no less.

      That’s why you *never* start a projection based off a team’s actual won-loss record.

      • Oh, I agree…even though the pieces were, essentially, the same, the results were different…a percentage of the total comes down to, for lack of a better word, luck.

        You have to be lucky to win 98…heck, it’s only happened seven times in the last decade. That’s why I’m of the opinion the Pirates have to add talent. The team could, with an injury here or there or a player or two sub-performing, easily be an 88 win team again.

        And now the account that made that post has been deleted…because half the time I log on here, I post with it by accident.

  • Tim, I agree with much of what youre saying and I do have faith in our prospects. I think the depth the Pirates have is really good and will keep this team in contention for years to come. That said, I do question whether Nutting is willing to allow Huntington to be more aggressive, “to go for it” while the team is still young and close to contending for a WS.

    The biggest criticism I can make of the Pirates management group is that they’re very concerned with “overpaying” for anybody. Its as much budgetary driven as much as its a principal issue for Huntington it seems. That’s partially what happened with Sano, Huntington was concerned he was negotiating against himself rather than just offering the extra 3 million (I think that’s what it was) and making the deal happen. Its good to get value for your dollars, but its another thing to be penny wise pound foolish.

    What I think Nutting never has fully grasped is that this is professional sports, even more so, this is MLB. The amount of money the players get paid is ridiculous, its not comparable to real life and therefore it cant really be compared to running any other sort of business. Most owners are businessmen but they’re fans of the game and want to win just as much as making money. Plus, ultimately a winning team is better for business.

    Where the owners really cash in, is when the value of the franchise increases and its time to sell the team. Can you imagine the type of value increase that would occur if the Pirates won the WS over the next couple years. They would be generating a generation of new fans for years to come, not to mention have greater leverage in a future TV deal. They would also be able to increase ticket prices by a healthy margin. Thats what most sports teams do after they’ve won a championship.

    I dont know if Nutting and the other minority owners fully understand the financial benefit of winning.

    • Ha ha ” ….they don’t fully understand the financial benefit of winning. ” And then the Sano thing …AGAIN ? SMH at those two gems of wisdom. ” I think “…..from your comments above, I would say that is where you are making your mistake. Stop thinking.

    • Extremely astute observations, and even better stated.

      “The biggest criticism I can make of the Pirates management group is that they’re very concerned with “overpaying” for anybody.”

      ^Nailed it. A million times over. See Huntington’s comments just this Fall about early signings in the free agency period.

      If I quibble at all it’s that Nutting may very well grasp what winning *can* do to a franchise, but simply isn’t comfortable taking on the risk that may be required. We’re talking about a newspaper man, for christ sake. This isn’t a speculative, dynamic businessman. The revenue estimates generated from an extended playoff run let alone World Series title are massive, but he’s running a very profitable business through a team that’s still succeeding on the field. That very well may be enough for him.

    • Pittsburgh’s small market status means they have a smaller margin for error than the larger market teams which sensibly leads to their being more cautious and patient. A good example of a small market team losing patience and going “all in” was Oakland a year ago. Now it will take them awhile to recover. The Pirates management needs the fortitude to stay the course on what has made them successful the last three years. If they do that they’ll have perennial success, and their franchise value will be maximized. The Pirates ability to accept more risk will go up the more they retain equity in the ball club. So in the long run the Pirates choice to be prudent with each player transaction will build the capacity to take more risk, as you would like for them to do.

      • “A good example of a small market team losing patience and going “all in” was Oakland a year ago. Now it will take them awhile to recover.”

        Absolutely false.

        Yoenis Cespedes would’ve been gone regardless of the Lester trade, and Billy Mckiney/Dan Straily would’ve been spare parts. Addison Russell was the only real loss in their “all in” pursuit, and it’s laughable to presume he alone is putting the franchise back.

        Going “all in” didn’t have anything to do with Beane making that awful Donaldson trade.

        • Ha! That’s funny!

          By what act of clairvoyance do you know that Cespedes was “gone”, other than because of Oakland’s small market status they would be unable to keep him long term (which makes my point)? Beane moved him to upgrade their pitching in hopes of winning his division.

          And why did Beane make that “awful Donaldson trade”? Did someone drug him and force feed him “stupid pills”? Did he go on a two week bender and lose his mind? Or did he look at his team, realize that they couldn’t contend again immediately and decide to lower costs in the short term to rebuild the war chest for the future, as cash constrained small market teams are forced to do if the spend beyond their means in the short term?

          Sometimes your desire to argue pushes you into untenable positions.

  • I really, really do not want this to happen, but entering 2016 with all of the position players returning (especially Alvarez) wouldn’t exactly be the end of the world. Again, hopefully, Huntington can get something for Pedro, but even if he’s around for the start of the season, he would at least be a bat…if nothing else.

  • Unlike the past two seasons I think the PBC needs to consider the impact on their talent level in 2017-2020 as much as 2016. Rather than think that we need to strike while the Cutch is hot, we need to prepare for the day he isn’t the engine for this team. Especially considering his D I think Walker can be traded for pieces that can improve our transition. A deal of Melancon might net a Cervelli type 2B ready to help along with prospects and a similar approach with Walker might net a ready-for-primetime reliever plus prospects. Even Alvarez might have a surprising market value but he isn’t part of the future.

    I trust NH to do the right thing. Then it all comes down to luck.. Interesting that they didn’t seem to have interest in either Norris or Chamberlain who both signed Volquez deals cheap.

  • Tim … As a follow up to your response (somewhere below that I lost), I didn’t mean to imply that the Pirates have just been riding a lucky streak. Rather, they seem like Warren Buffett – who invests with a steady, unwavering proces “buy when others are fearful, sell when they are greedy”. My concern is that these crafty signings/trades aren’t just nice additions to the club; they are absolute requirements to reach the wild card game. That is cutting it too close. Without Liriano and Martin performing as they did in 2013, Volquez and Worley (along with an unforeseeable Harrison) in 2014, and Burnett, Happ, Cervelli, and Kang in 2015 – these teams don’t make the wild card. Even Buffett, with his plan doesn’t succeed every year. For instance, what if this year, other clubs are willing to pay the pitchers that the Pirates are scouting more than the Pirates value them at? Do we go home empty handed? We have question marks at 1B, SS (Mercer’s hitting keeps regressing), RF (as much as I like his potential,he is not a very good hitter yet), at least 2 starting pitchers (even with Morton and Locke you need injury insurance for the first three months), and at least one late inning Reliever. That is 6 decisions that require at least 4 to be executed well.

    They very much need for the minor league prospects to start producing. Unfortunately, the prospects seem to be about three months behind where they need to be. If they can help, that would increase the margin for error with the trades/free agents.

  • I have hard time being optimistic or pessimistic about big concepts, like a season, after you get past your initial impressions there are too many things to consider, and you are left with the disquieting thought that you really don’t know anything.

    I think the Pirates’ off-season will be underwhelming, it usually is. I think it is unlikely the Pirates win 98 games next year, and if they get in the playoffs I think it is likely they’ll do better. As far as the concern about the competition, in most respects the Cubs’ ascension has coincided with the Brewers and Red’s decline so I’m not sure the dynamic has changed that much.

    Long term my optimism or lack of, is dependent upon the Pirates ability to get significant value out of their pitching prospects, this front office invested significant capital in this area and it becomes increasingly hard to be competitive when that investment fails to yield returns.

  • Ok, a question for everyone. I do not think I have heard anyone talk about this.

    “With the big to real significant payday that Pedro and Walker COULD get for the 2017+ season, shouldn’t we expect them to both go out and hit +20 pts above their usual batting averages and Walker hit 25+ HR and Pedro 36+ HR so they can sign that really big free agent contract? Why not keep them this year and take advantage of that?”

    • I think the Pirates will, at least until the trade deadline when they may trade one or both depending on how Kang, Harrison, Hanson and Bell are doing.

    • I think the marriage between the Bucs and Pedro is over, Dr D. Might be finalized tommorow.

    • I hand not considered this, but it is a good point. I don’t Alvarez is like Jeff King, so there could be a contract year effect.

      • That’s refreshing, I thought for sure you’d go with the “no statistical evidence of contract year being a thing” thing.

        • I thought the contract year concept had some support, or at least the evidence was conflicting, unlike say the hot hand.

    • The only reason you keep them both is that you feel you have a good chance of getting to the WC game with them – and that their are no better options out there. Spending $18m+ on 2.5 WAR is not very smart – especially since you know they are gone after next year.

  • Solid, common sense point of view Tim, thanks.

  • To those in the know, how much longer with the Bell switch hitting experience continue?

    • They’re not going to give up on that when he’s so young and still developing. They just made an adjustment to the left side that might have unlocked some of his power. The hope would be that a similar adjustment could be made on the right side. He doesn’t have the same easy power there, but has a good enough bat that he could hit for average and get on base in the majors, with enough power to justify being a switch hitter. Until that chance is gone, he’ll continue switch hitting.

    • Hell, I just want him to switch hit so we dont have a damn platoon. Play him everyday and learn. Doubt he hits worse than .230 with 20 errors, you know? 🙂

  • Great piece, Tim. The thing I like most about your writing, as compared to some other bloggers, is the lack of incessant harping on the payroll. The latter is what it is, based on profit, market size, and sustainability. The quicker some realize that this is not an internal handcuff, but rather based on outside factors and reality, the sooner they will appreciate what is being done as opposed to whining about what is not.

    As a guy who owns his own business, I appreciate a team/business that can excel under tough, outside circumstances. The Pirates have excelled. Their financial motives, as opposed to their leadership under McClatchy, should not be questioned by way of default. They’ve earned the benefit of the doubt, as you state.

    Well done.

    • Thanks.

      For the payroll issue, there are so many factors that people don’t consider when making the argument to spend more. It’s way more complex than “they should just spend the money”. Most people who say that don’t even consider that Bob Nutting can’t really spend his own money on the team, as it would increase his ownership share and decrease the share for the other owners, since he would be increasing his investment in the team. That would be blocked by the other owners, unless they wanted to match the percentage of the new investment.

      Then there’s the fact that it’s not a good business plan to spend beyond what you are bringing in, and if Nutting spent his own money on the team, that’s exactly what they’d be doing.

      Baseball has a problem when it comes to the financial differences between teams like the Dodgers and Yankees and everyone else. But the ability for the Pirates to find value can prevent any “handcuff” when the payroll difference is around $10 M.

      • I have not seen any financial statements for the Pirates.
        How do you – we – know they are NOT making $40M or MORE a year that they then choose to pay down debt or put in their pockets.

        To be clear on this – two things.
        1. We don’t know – the numbers are not made available to us in any form – AND SHOULD NOT BE IMHO
        2. Assuming I am right, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT CHOICE if they want to make it.

        BUT….
        IF they opt for profit at the expense of building a team with a greater chance of going deeper in the playoffs then I am free to not buy tickets and not buy merchandise – I have bought exactly ONE item of Pirate merchandise since the Polanco promotion was delayed making me watch Gabby Sanchez play right field two years ago. The item I bought was an AJ Burnett jersey – in honor of AJ.

        Tim,
        You seem to accept the argument that they are spending all that they can – I believer they are spending what they choose – those are two very different things IMHO.

        • The idea that Nutting is realizing large profits each year is not true, Lustig said. (Jay Lustig former minority owner of Pittsburgh Pirates)

          “Whatever we made in profit went back into the franchise,” he said.

          http://triblive.com/sports/pirates/3769786-74/lustig-nutting-money#axzz3t60sF4A4

          • You’re a smart guy, so I’m far from asking this rhetorically, but where?

            Seriously.

            The facilities have been built out. Both drafts have been capped. Amateur spending significantly reduced. And nobody has given any indication that the Pirates are budgeting payrolls that exceeds projected revenues.

            So where? Where are the profits, that *absolutely* are occurring, being put back into the franchise?

            Honest question.

            • Paying down debt could easily be seen as “putting it back into the team”.

              So one area you dont would be a chunk of money going toward paying down the current debt on the team. Fans dont see that, but the FO would see it as throwing the money back into the team.

              • Ha, exactly, see my comment below.

                • I dont see why a fan would take that in a negative way.

                  • Because it isn’t actually helping the *baseball* team, at any level! Come on, man.

                    When questioned about profit and the *baseball* team, ownership has defended themselves by claiming the money is put back into the organization, and you have to be infinitely dense to that answer satisfies the question given. Or a politician.

                    • Well its a business, so while i hate the idea that the team is going to run with profits and be smart from a business standpoint i get it.

                      Id love them to throw all money back into the team by throwing it all at either minor league or major league talent+equipment, but i get why its good practice to pay down the debts to allow yourself a better financial situation.

                      Its not a lie to say doing that is putting it back into the team, its just not popular from a fan standpoint since it aint our money.

            • A thought on the amateur spending being reduced: that is true, but the amateur spending was up high when their payroll is low. We don’t know how much they could spend now, since they are capped, but is it possible that their reduced amateur money is already being spent on the payroll? The idea is that they’re not spending what they were, which means they’ve got money laying around. But that might not necessarily be true.

              • Excellent point, Tim, but after taking so much grief over their (correct) strategy to invest in the draft over MLB payroll I’d expect them to at least hint at the balance changing after 2012.

                Maybe not, but every org has to manage fan perception, and that strikes me as low hanging fruit.

            • Working capital requirements expand as a business’s revenue expands. This is true for all businesses.

            • That was just some cognitive dissonances for Bruce and his table pounding.

              I really could care less what Bob Nutting does because I have seen no indications that he is any different than vast majority of baseball and sports team owners. If I was looking for a Pittsburgh owner to criticize I’d look on the other side of the Allegheny. Yes there are Mike Ilitch’s and Jeffery Loria’s out there, but on average I think Nutting has done what any rational owner would do. Are sports owners utility maximizing or profit maximizing, PhD economist can’t figure out that, regardless owners actions should be similar.

              Why is the players share of revenue falling across the league, I’m not sure, it could be a sort of revision to the rapid increase in player salaries while franchise value increased relatively modestly in prior decades, but I don’t know. On the all important payroll question I think that is much more dependent upon factors other than the owners relative avarice or generosity.

          • Come on man. We don’t need no stinking facts

          • From the same – two plus year old article

            “No small-market teams that win make money.”

            Again – we can alls speculate – but nobody has seen a financial statement – and nobody will – or should…

        • Every bit of evidence that has come out has shown that they aren’t pocketing profits.

          Also, if they did take profits, it would have to be equal across the board. If Nutting started taking profits and no one else did, then Nutting’s share of the team would go down. If others started taking profits and Nutting didn’t, then his share would go up.

          • Not necessarily.

            While they aren’t literally sticking hundred dollar bills in their pockets, they’ve readily admitted to not only making significant profits, but also using them to pay off internal loans and interest payments. While that technically, well, literally, is putting money into the franchise it’s also clearing personal debt and obligations *while* the overall franchise value has skyrocketed.

            Nutting and the rest of the owners will unquestionably make incredible profits off of the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise, it’ll just occur upon selling the team. And the size of that profit will be directly impacted by dumping yearly income back into finances and not facilities, prospects, or players.

            • I don’t think they’re making upgrades specifically to improve the value of the franchise though.

              Take Bradenton, for example. They’ve spent a lot here, buying the facilities, buying a franchise, and upgrading Pirate City and McKechnie. This not only has some appeal for pending free agents, but it more importantly leads to better results on the field, since better facilities lead to better conditioning.

              The old clubhouse at McKechnie had a gym that looked like something you’d find in a hotel. It had a kitchen that also looked like it belonged in a cheap hotel lobby, and lockers so close together that there were “no fart zone” signs around some of the middle sections of the room.

              Now they’ve got state of the art facilities at both PC and McKechnie, with fitness centers that would beat any gym you’d pay for, better aquatic rehab centers, an actual kitchen and dining area, and a ton of space for the players.

              These upgrades definitely improve the value of the franchise. However, they also improve the team in many ways. I think the biggest fault of the payroll argument is the idea that you can only improve the team by spending on players. There are other ways you can show improvements, and this is one of them.

              • Sorry Tim, I didnt mean to mislead anyone into thinking that facility improvements were only for franchise value. I agree with everything you wrote there.

                My poorly stated point was that, at least to this outsider, it looks like those investments have already been made and therefor are no longer something that millions worth of income would be dedicated toward at this point in time.

                • They seem to make investments every year. They’re still working on McKechnie, expanding the facilities so that they can have Spring Training there the entire time, starting this Spring. No more Pirate City for a few weeks, followed by a move to McKechnie.

                  I agree that those expenses are one and done. But they seem to be doing a lot of them.

            • Since they aren’t presently considering selling the fair market vale of the business is of no immediate concern. Strengthening the balance sheet of the organization is. Using cash generated by profits to reduce debt and associated interest payments makes the organization more robust, less susceptible to being cash short which could lead to the debacles such as when then dumped ARam for essentially nothing years ago.

              I interpret the comments about “putting the profits into the business” to mean that the partners aren’t taking cash distributions out of the partnership, other than what is necessary to cover any tax liabilities.

              • No immediate concern to who?

                The Pittsburgh Pirates are a private organization *massively* benefiting from public subsidy (PNC Park) that unquestionably would add to the sum they collect if and when they sell. Estimates also put their debt ratio roughly middle of the pack in a league where not one single team is close to being where the Pirates were in 2003.

                Backhanded wording about “putting money back into the franchise” and cash shortage fear mongering is disingenuous, at best, for a business who owes a great deal to the public who support them.

                • No immediate concern to any owner or manager who isn’t interested in selling any time soon. There is no indication that the present partners have any intention of selling in the near future. Frank Cooney’s first concern is to not go bankrupt, and to manage the business enterprise towards achieving a healthy balance sheet (pay down debt), positive free cash flow and profitability like an other business manager.

                  He’ll achieve that by putting a winning Club on the field and charging “reasonable” prices to watch them, which they have done successfully for the last three years. Other than paying their agreed upon rent they don’t owe anybody in the public anything. But they better deliver value if they want fans to reward them for it.

                  The City of Pittsburgh benefits as much if not more that the ball club from the public investment in the stadium when the ball club is nationally successful. People who live outside of a 100 mile radius of Pittsburgh (except for our many emigrants) don’t give a rip about Pittsburgh and would never think of our city were it not for the publicity generated by winning ball clubs. Besides the rent revenue the City receives from the Club the City also receives exhorbitantly high tax revenues on ticket sales, concession sales, salaries earned at the ball park etc. so it’s not like the stadium was built for charitable purposes. It was built for advertising purposes and to raise rent and tax revenue.

                  Frankly I don’t care a whit how much money the partners take out or leave in their business. The President and GM consistently said they would spend more on salaries when the revenues supported that, and they have been true to their word. Talk about being “disingenuous” strikes me as just a lame effort by you to find something to bitch about.

                  • This is little more than antiquated economic thinking.

                    Read article after article from economists deriding massive public spending on sports arenas to get an idea of reality.

                    • Nice attempt to change the subject, won’t work. The point was that the City derives benefits from the Stadium, it wasn’t just a public subsidy to a private enterprise.

                      You are wrong to presume that I am in favor of “massive public spending on sports arenas”. I am on the other side of that fence. If there should be public spending on anything it should be on educational efforts similar to what the TechShop is doing privately down at Bakery Square. That might actually help to revitalize the area’s economy.

                      Though, citing papers by economists as an authority will surely get you in trouble. The only “professions” less accurate in their models of reality may be meteorologists or soothsayers.

      • I would much rather the front office be “cheap” if that means that can sign reasonable extensions with the likes of Cervelli and Polanco. Smart does have to mean cheap.

  • First and foremost, take a bow for that second to last paragraph. This kind of faux-objectivity unfortunately plagues far more important channels than sports media in this country right now, and kudos to you for standing up to it.

    “When you think about it, at this point in time, how can you not be optimistic about the Pirates?”

    As for the argument made around central question of the article, I have to disagree a bit. Two very important aspects were left out: expectations, and competition.

    I’m very much *positive* about the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Tim’s article did a fantastic job arguing why. They’re a smart bunch, who’ve had great success in their methods.

    I’m not so *optimistic* about the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that’s because my expectations have changed, and so has the competition. The Pirates are no longer starting from the base expectations they had, or at least I had for them, in 2012 or 2013. Simply putting a good team on the field, something that took 21 years to accomplish, isn’t satisfying anymore. They’re at the point where improvements are much, much harder to accomplish meaning they’re also much, much less likely. This is a function of they’re own success, ironically, but it still is reality.

    The Pirates also don’t operate in a vacuum. I cannot simply look at the Pirates myopically and decide whether or not I’m optimistic for the 2016 season; their competition has to be considered, and unfortunately, it’s pretty f*cking good. “Trust” has been a central (no pun) theme to almost all of Tim’s writing this winter, and that’s fine, but for goodness sake if there is *any* franchise in baseball that should be trusting their own laurels it just so happens to be the Pirates biggest competition, the St Louis Cardinals. Add in the Cubs, who’ve built themselves in a very similar manner as the Pirates *while also* having the ability to go out and drop $150m on an ace, and I think it’s very, very logical to be concerned about where the Pirates stack up in the pecking order.

    Finally, I’ve been saying this all winter, but you can’t simultaneously laud the Pirates for what they’ve been able to do while also fully *expecting* that to continue. The rarity and difficulty of what the Pirates have been able to accomplish is exactly what makes them so impressive. This game is too damn competitive to continually heap these massive expectations on Huntington, Searage & Co without having a reasonable understanding that continuing success is far, faaaar from a given.

    • I feel like I could write an entire article on that. It seems like every form of media is looking for the next scandal, or trying to hold someone “accountable”, which is just code for “they need to be fired because they made a mistake”.

      As for the rest of the comment:

      **I talked about how the upgrades will be more difficult this year. They’ve got a better team than 2012-13, which means they’re starting from a better point and trying to go beyond just being a good team. But that also means the upgrades will be hard to find, since they’ve got the challenge of finding the right players, rather than just finding a good player in general.

      **I also should point out that I don’t heavily weigh the quality of the Cardinals and Cubs. Both teams were excellent in 2015, and the Pirates still finished with the second best record in baseball. They can still contend and make the playoffs, even with two other good teams in their division. That’s because the large majority of their games won’t be played against those two teams. I also don’t think that we can just assume the Cardinals will get better and the Cubs will get better, then act like it’s a challenge for the Pirates. That gives those teams the benefit of the doubt that the Pirates don’t receive.

      **As for their success continuing, isn’t it a bit of a double standard to expect the Cardinals to continue to improve or stay on top, while expecting the Pirates to see their string of good moves come to an end? The Cardinals have been so good because they’ve made the smart move over and over, and have had the right player step up as depth over and over. It’s all due to being a smart organization. If that isn’t expected to stop in St. Louis, why would it be expected to stop in Pittsburgh?

      • “As for their success continuing, isn’t it a bit of a double standard to expect the Cardinals to continue to improve or stay on top, while expecting the Pirates to see their string of good moves come to an end?”

        Yes, it *absolutely* is a double standard, and the Cardinals *absolutely* deserve for it to be that way. You simply cannot put the scale of their success on par with the Pirates right now. Whole different league.

        Why shouldn’t we *expect* that to continue with the Pirates, who are also a smart organization making smart moves over and over? Because its just not that easy, Tim. Plain and simple.

        You know who else has a smart organization? The Tampa Bay Rays. The Oakland A’s. Hell for a moment, the Twins were thought to be the model, as were the Brewers, and then the Reds. This game is terribly unpredictable. Success can be fleeting, even for the best in the game.

        I *absolutely* believe the Pirate will put a competitive team on the field that can hang with the Cubs, Cards, Dodgers, and anyone else in the league. But that amount of competition, with absolutely no differentiation between the Pirates and others, leaves me far from being “optimistic” that 2016 will result in a Division title. I’m just not the kind of person that counts on luck.

        • The Rays weren’t making smart drafting moves for many years, which made it difficult for them to contend long-term.

          The A’s actually made some really stupid moves. The biggest of all was trading Josh Donaldson last year, and getting Brett Lawrie in return. Part of this is because they’re small market with a limited budget. But they didn’t act like a small market team when they sold the farm for Samardzija and Lester. Imagine how good they might have been this year with Donaldson, Cespedes, and Addison Russell in their lineup, along with Brandon Moss, who they also traded.

          Also, I’m not saying anything about a division title. I’m saying the Pirates can compete, with a great shot at making the playoffs once again.

          • Tim, come on. It would take absolutely no effort to punch similar holes in Huntington’s track record.

            • Hungtington doesn’t have holes that big. The Rays have one good player from their drafts since 2008, and that’s 31st round center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.

              The A’s went all in on one year, and are paying for it now.

              You could point to mistakes by Huntington, but most of them came early, at a point when he was trying to build the team up. What mistakes have they made on the same scale while they’ve been contenders?

              • Narrowing the window to only three years is absolutely an equal comparison?

                Ironic you bring up 2008 with the Rays, as that was the first of their Divison titles and beginning of their string of 5 90-win seasons in six years. Unless you’re telling me that way back then that you were prognosticating poor drafting in the future, your comparison to Huntington and the Pirates in contention is meaningless.

                The Pirates may absolutely show themselves to be better than the Rays, but have barely scratched the surface of proving it.

                • I’m not saying that the recent Pirates drafts are guaranteed for better results. In fact, I’ve been critical of their 2014 draft, and skeptical about their new approach in recent years to draft athletic hitters and send them to difficult defensive positions.

                  But there are good signs still coming from their drafts in recent years. Meadows and McGuire are both top prospects, and still trending up. Cole Tucker got a lot of praise after the Pirates drafted him. They were able to flip JaCoby Jones, their first of the athletic hitters to change positions, for relief help this past season.

                  So nothing is guaranteed. But are they scratching the surface of showing they’re going to end up better than the disaster that has been the Rays drafting? I’d say they are.

                  • I’d like to see the Pirates add a wrinkle to their draft philosophy, every three or four years spend a #1 or #2 draft choice on a “big bopper”.

            • Ike Davis and Gaby Sanchez come to mind.
              A Ram contributed – but in going with him they left Pedro on first and put Kang at SS – where he got hurt. Kang had pretty much shown he was a pretty good third baseman and a serviceable SS…

              • But the Pirates won with all of these moves. That’s not comparable to the A’s and Rays declining because of moves that led to bigger long-term struggles.

                • We have a much different definition of winning – getting to the wild card game is more like a participation trophy

                  • I dont hate your overall point, but you cant fly back and forth between arguing about individual moves being good or bad and then act like not winning the WS makes them good or bad.

                    Because thats logic that might lead you to say the deal Greinke signed with LAD was bad, and thats just false. Or for a more salient point, AJ’s time with PGH wasnt a “losing” move for PGH just because they lost playoff games.

                  • I know 20 teams in baseball each year who would have loved that trophy.

      • Well stated Tim. This bias is based on payroll expenditures. Some will never be convinced in Pirates management capabilities because they don’t sign players to market value long-term contracts.

        As for the competition, it also causes players driven to succeed to step up their game to truly reach their ceiling.

        As an example, think about Michael Jordan changing his body and his game due to the Pistons “Jordan Rules” defensive system.

        It’s just as likely the tough competition the Cubs and Cardinals will provide will enhance player performance as stymie it.

        • No, Scott, this “bias” is most certainly not on payroll expenditures.

          For someone who apparently focuses so little on payroll, you sure as hell bring it up a lot.

          As for the polyanna Michael Jordan inspirational poster, wouldn’t that also mean the Cub and Cardinal players will be equally “motivated”? Of course they would.

          • I wasn’t picking a fight with you NMR. Although you sure do enjoy picking fights with me.

            I bring up payroll because I’m of the opinion there is more than one way to be successful in baseball. An organization doesn’t have to spend like a drunken sailor on shore leave every winter as some commentators on this site claim.

            And yes, I agree competition will cause all competitors to raise their game. However, those who came up short, like the Pirates did in playoffs last season, will be more motivated.

            • Sure sounded like you were sub-commenting me.

              “An organization doesn’t have to spend like a drunken sailor on shore leave every winter as some commentators on this site claim.”

              You don’t seem to realize that you’ve set up a false choice. In your mind, there’s one way, or an opposite way. The reality of Major League Baseball in 2015 is that this doesn’t exist. The richest teams are also now the ones amassing the most amateur talent, front office talent, and yes, free agent talent.

              I’ve challenged you on this before without getting a response, but there were guys with your attitude on Pirates blogs two, three years ago claiming that the Pirates didn’t need a $100m payroll because they just won with $70m. Take $30m off the 2015 club, off the 2016 club, and tell me they’d be just as good.

              When money is considered a resource, it should and can be used smartly just like any other. The Pirates have done it!

              • My position is money just means more options. But intelligence means consistently choosing correctly. And given the choice between the two, I’ll take intelligence over deep pockets.

                The Pirates are doing just what BN said they’d do back 5 years ago. He said once the team started to succeed on the field, and attendance increased, they would spend more on payroll.

                There are some on this site, and I’m not lumping you in with them, who will always complain the team isn’t spending enough. And if only they spent “X” amount, they’d win more playoff games. I just think this line of reasoning is flat wrong.

                As for your claim the richest teams are gathering the best talent at all levels, I’d say there are many ways to define talent. One of the great things about baseball is there are many layers to the onion. A team can be built to win in one of many different ways. And to prove my point, there isn’t one baseball expert who would claim the Royals are the most talented team. But everyone must agree they were the most successful one last season.

                • “There are some on this site, and I’m not lumping you in with them, who will always complain the team isn’t spending enough. And if only they spent “X” amount, they’d win more playoff games. I just think this line of reasoning is flat wrong.”

                  I appreciate that, and very much cringe when I see those posts. You’re absolutely correct. I just also feel that the “money doesn’t matter” responses equally miss the mark.

              • I agree. When you compete with an uneven playing field that’s the rules. Either compete or stay home. Money will always be the issue. Unfortunately no one know’s what resources the PBC has. The current product is very good and well received but if a few things change it could head south very quickly. I believe that it is too much to ask that they keep pulling marginal players out and have them exceed returns.

              • Nominate this for the best comment of the month – I have never been a member of the “spend like a drunken sailor” club – though some on here seem to think I am. I have had three specific complaints about payroll choices over the last two years.
                1. Not giving AJ the QO – this worked out ok for the Pirates it appears – but we can never know what impact having AJ in the rotation in 2014.
                2. Not resigning Volquez – thought this made sense as a two year opportunity to have a good top three while waiting for the young guns to show up.
                3. Not upgrading first base at the trade deadline last year. I would rather have had Adam Lind from the Brewers than Ramirez, I think other options were out there too – not sure who and won’t spend any time speculating on alternatives. But the biggest need at the deadline was to get a first baseman who could contribute at least 1.0 WAR and play a solid defense.

                • Then Lind wouldn’t have met the need at 1B because nothing about his defense is solid.

        • Good teams get more expensive, not less.

          Christ, they have 45 Hrs and 51 saves on the trading block because of this.

          • They have increased payroll about 20% per year over the last 3-4 years. Is that not enough in your opinion?

            And just because the players are being discussed in trade talks, doesn’t mean they are going to be traded. Now I think it’s highly likely Alvarez has played his last game as a Pirate. However, I’m not nearly as certain about Walker and Melancon.

            And even though money is one of the biggest reasons they are on the block, it isn’t the sole reason as you make it out to be.

            • “They have increased payroll about 20% per year over the last 3-4 years. Is that not enough in your opinion?”

              No.

            • You do bring up a very important point, if I may add.

              The club *has* increased payroll year over year, and there’s obviously a finite limit to that.

              I personally happen to believe another modest increase is possible. Heck with as much money as is pouring into the game, and the organization, I can’t imagine a plausible excuse for payroll *not* to marginally increase. But I do think the sweet spot is probably within $10-$15m of where they ended last year. Not some crazy increase.

      • “I also don’t think that we can just assume the Cardinals will get better and the Cubs will get better, then act like it’s a challenge for the Pirates.”

        …this is where I differ.

        There’s good shot of the Cubs adding either Price or Samardzija. The Cards seem to be torn between getting Davis or retaining Heyward. Oh, and both are in the running for Lackey.

        The Pirates are going for…who? Fister?

        Yes, teams can be built based on a solid plan and good decision making…and they can be built by buying good players. The Pirates are going the first route, the Cards and Cubs are doing both. So, yeah, it’s going more of a challenge for the Pirates.

        • “…the Cards and Cubs are doing both.”

          This. A million times, this.

          I won’t put words in anyone’s mouth, but *my* perception of the money vs “smarts” argument seems awfully antiquated, relative to Major League Baseball in the year 2015. The days of the big dumb rich teams personified by the Yankees for so long are over. The rich teams, in many cases, *are* the smart teams.

          • Three first year players played big roles in getting the Cards to the post season
            Grichuk – 3.1 War
            Pham 1,5
            Piscotty 1.1

            All three will be full year contributors next year – that will allow the Cards to focus on adding top arm to take Lynn’s slot and let Moss and Reynolds move on.
            The expectation on St Louis blogs is that the will sign either Davis or Hayward.

            What did the Pirates get from first year players that they called up from the awesome farm system to help win the Division or the WS?

          • Uhh….I beg to differ. See the Red Sox, LADS and the LAAs.

            • You’re kidding me, right?

              • They are all BIG losers in several ways, particularly if you use Humbert’s criteria. Those organizations haven’t been stupid with their spending ? Are you serious ? Now the Red Sox have out done themselves, spending $ 217 million for 7 years of David Price.

                • The Red Sox hung two banners based off smart investments, and even today have more young talent than the Pirates.

                  The Dodgers *previous* management team was dumber than a box of rocks, but the current version isn’t even in the same league.

                  The Los Angeles Angels are the only club you cited that actually fits.

        • Exactly right. Everybody has an Ivy Leaguer with a corner office now.

        • I read something the other day that made it seem unlikely for the Cubs getting Price. It said that their payroll was stuck in the $130 M range, and that Price would have to take a discount to play there.

          You say that the Cardinals and Cubs are doing both, but you’re only giving one example. You’re saying they will both sign good players. The Pirates have a tendency to sign pitchers who aren’t regarded as “good players”, only to turn them into good players.

          Really, all this comes down to is the fact that the Cardinals and Cubs will probably spend money and have the perception that they’ve added a guaranteed upgrade. But that doesn’t mean the Pirates won’t also get good players or an upgrade.

          • “The Pirates have a tendency to sign pitchers who aren’t regarded as “good players”, only to turn them into good players.”

            Have you seen the entire damn Cubs bullpen?! Or the reigning Cy Young winner? Or the guy they traded for the eventual Cy Young winner?

            Love you Tim, but there’s nothing the Pirates have done that the Cubs haven’t matched.

            • Agree they’ve had success. So why would the Cubs add Price if they have the same success?

              Also, if they are going to have success either way, then complaining about adding Price or anyone else is complaining that they’re spending money for their good pitcher, rather than getting a good pitcher at a greater value.

              I’d actually hope the Cubs spend on the “guarantee”, since that could cut their window shot by sticking them with a lot of dead weight in contract in future years. Especially since they have a good tendency to be successful adding pitchers without spending money.

              • “So why would the Cubs add Price if they have the same success?”

                The same exact reason the Pirates are still targeting reclamation pitchers after succeeding in drafting and developing Gerrit Cole.

                There’s no single way to build a ball club.

                If you have a resource, you use it wisely. The Cubs have a monetary resource, and they’d be incredibly dumb not to use it. The went out and bought a 5-win starter last year to pair with Arrieta, and they did it without altering the franchises ability to spend. Any franchise who *doesn’t* wisely spend what they bring in is inherently giving up the advantage we all know they have over teams like the Pirates.

                Nobody hands out awards for $/win.

              • The Cubs will be rolling in money once they get their TV network up and running – and if they figure out how to get it on Apple TV or DirecTV they have such a nationwide audience that they can get pretty close to LA and NY in local TV dollars.

          • The Cubs may not get Price…there are thirty that want him, but only one who can afford him. So, perhaps, they settle for Samardzija or Lackey…or both since they might come for about the same price as…um…Price.

            If you look at Samardzija’s numbers last season, his worst as a starter, they were right on par with what Volquez did for the Bucs. So, even if he’s regressed and that’s his talent level, the Pirates absolutely have to have another Volquez-type success just to stay even.

            • probably only 15-20 who want him – the Pirates won’t – the Rays Brewers, Reds, Marlins and a few others can’t – the Giants want to bring back Leake – the Jays are done with pitching.

          • nuff said – we can agree to disagree

        • The Cubs have room for $ 20 mil more in payroll right now, that’s it. You see, even they have a budget. If they spend it on Samadzija, they are crazy. And they sure as he’ll won’t be signing Price for that amount.

        • The Cards and the Cubs also have significantly more resources to utilize than the Pirates. Life isn’t fair, and isn’t going to be. I don’t mind the Pirates being “David” to the Cards or Cubs “Goliath”.

      • The Cardinals have done this for decades – the Pirates for three years.

        Beginning with Whitey Herzog in 1990, the only long term dry spell was the Joe Torre era in the early 1990s

        The Cards will have close to $140M to spend – which will allow them to go to the FA market for replacements for Lynn and Hayward.

        The Cus will be spending $125M+ and are in the market for a top of rotations starter and have been mentioned as in the running for Price and others.

        Tim,
        I may be wrong – but I think even NH would admit that it is a LOT easier to build a team with more resources than less.

        I really hope they can continue the winning string – I will be happiest if I am dead wrong in worrying about the things that I worry about.

    • Your last paragraph cant be overstated enough.

      AJ Burnett and Russell Martin by themselves were a boon in terms of return on investment. Not to mention several other players that were signed or acquired for a fraction of what they ended up producing.

      My statement isnt scientific, but things just have a way of evening themselves out down the road. People scoff at that “organization of the year award” but make no mistake, a lot of that was NH hitting it out of the park in 2015. I just dont see that happening with regularity. Even with big market teams with more assets and whiteout ability.

      • Yep that Cory Hart grand slam to win the Word Series and Liz pitching a great game six to get them to game seven will be awesome memories for us all.
        And the awesome post season that Ike Davis had in his second year as the long term solution to the first base problem was great.

        Sorry to be sarcastic – but let’s be real – and have some perspective. I am not saying the FO is not doing a very good job – they are – but the are not perfect – they take a lot of swings – and some of them pay off – others are misses.

        The Pirates approach seems to be take a lot of chances – some will work – some will not,

        An alternative approach would be to take a few less chances, but do so with higher probability of success options.

        • Cant really argue with that, Bruce. I kind of think thats what NMR is saying. Lately they’ve been more right than wrong. That will eventually swing back the other way and they’ll be more wrong than right. And to sprinkle in Andrews comment, if they cant offset that with hitting on their pitching prospects, their in serious trouble.

          It will be interesting how this discussion looks a few years down the road.

          Its funny. It wasnt so long ago the 2013 Pirates were the 2015 Cubs-ahead of schedule. Now the expectations have risen.

          • Not to nitpick, but I don’t even think their performance/luck will eventually swing back the other way, as in more bad than good. I fully expect the club to continue putting good teams on the field based on sound moves that outnumber the bad.

            I’m just far from convinced they’ll be of the quantity *and* quality needed to actually make the club better, and specifically better than their main competitors.

            The Pirates are a Top 5 team in all of baseball as of 2015. I truly believe that. And I also understand how incredibly difficult it is to maintain that level of performance, let alone improve on it.

            • I’ll be really surprised if NH kills another consecutive offseason. Even the deadlines of 2013 and 2015 were almost flawless.

              I just think GMs and managers can have a bad game or even bad year like a player. The trick is not to make it a habit.

          • You know what, screw it. Luck. I’ll say it, luck.

            The Pirates have been lucky to make this many quality moves, specifically in 2015.

            If there are folks who truly believe baseball performance is luck, i.e. playoffs, then what logic would dictate that Front Office moves to acquire those players is anything but?

            • C’mon dude, you’re smarter than this. No one thinks playoff outcomes are literally the same as playing roulette dahn Rivers. I know you know this, but I’ll expound anyway: when people talk about “luck” in the context of the baseball postseason, they are really referring to the rather arbitrary nature of what individual players can do during a very small sample of games. It’s often the performances that can’t be legislated for, i.e., Daniel Murphy this year, that end up winning series in October, and that kind of stuff is totally unpredictable. Again, this is nothing new to anyone here.

              It’s a totally different animal to a front office making moves with the scope of what they expect a player to do over a full season or several seasons, based on a mountain of video and data and all kinds of analysis. The Pirates clearly have a process in place by which they attempt to bring in players they think will provide good value, and they have been right often enough over the past handful of years that I’m comfortable saying there’s no reason to think this process will suddenly turn sour (or that the process is akin to Neal Huntington putting a blindfold on and throwing darts at a board with the names of all the affordable free agents on index cards, which would more literally construe the notion of luck).

              • Oh, the “mountain of video and data” told them Russ Martin would immediately turn into a 5-win player? AJ Burnett would post a career year in his age 36 season? Francisco Cervelli would be the second most valuable catcher in baseball?

                The process absolutely mattered in each of these cases, but you’re terribly naive if you honestly believe that luck had nothing to do with how extremely valuable each of these players turned out to be, which has directly contributed to the Pirates reaching the heights they have. Just as no one could predict Daniel Murphy suddenly hitting forty seven home runs during the post season.

                • You’re talking about the degree to which these acquisitions panned out, but the point is they HAVE panned out for the most part. When there’s such an obvious and conscientious process in place for deciding who to bring in and then those players by and large provide good results, it’s hard to ascribe “luck” just because they turned out to be even better than the Pirates may have first thought they’d be (and truthfully we don’t KNOW what the Pirates thought Russell Martin’s ceiling was when they signed him).

                  Garrett Jones happening into some playing time after a decade in the baseball wilderness and then giving the Pirates a few moderately productive Major League seasons was certainly “lucky.” If Russell Martin had been a last resort, or a “he’s the only guy who’ll sign here” kind of thing, then yeah, I’d call it lucky to get such a high level of production out of him. But Martin was specifically targeted because the Pirates believed he had significant value where other teams did not. Their initial projections may not have had him at ~9 WAR across two seasons, but it’s not like they just blindly stumbled into that 9 WAR.

                  I guess if you still want to call it lucky that the Pirates’ under-the-radar moves keep turning out even better than (what we think was) expected, then it’d be fair to say that the Pirates are manufacturing their own “luck.” Which is completely different from the “luck” involved in the postseason which-player-is-going-to-get-insanely-hot-for-a-dozen-games Wheel of Fortune.

        • You are a clown. Sorry to make it personal though.

    • Adding to the faux-objectivity comment, sports are a zero sum enterprise, someone is always losing, and when success is defined as winning a championship, it is absurdly easy to be critical. Being an Accountability Andy isn’t even low hanging fruit it is waiting for the ripe fruit to fall off the tree.

  • Tim, nice work. I understand in your role with the site. You have to be appropriate and positive. I try to stay positive as well-except this past summer when I just felt the
    sky was about to fall in and predicted another collapse. Little did I know that
    J. Happ would turn out to be another Pirate miracle and they somehow made up
    for the loss of Kang.

    I am also positive about the 2016 season, but I am looking to go with the young
    “hungry” roster – especially with the pitching staff but I can live with Morse and Pedro
    at first and Walker at 2nd. They are about to enter free agency and that seems to
    motivate players to have their best season. If that does not work out, we look to
    those hungry young lions waiting in Indy. I feel about the same way with the
    catching position.

    All the best

    • “I understand in your role with the site. You have to be appropriate and positive.”

      Just for clarification, my only role on the site is to be honest and objective about what I see. I don’t have to be positive. It’s just really easy to be positive when you cover this farm system and this team.

      • Got it. We won 98 games last year and nearly all of our minor league teams that I like to brag about have been kicking butt, developing players, and also selling tickets. We have been recognized for having a strong franchise. Its easy for everyone to be positive.

        I just got all bummed in July when you loose two top infielders, the pitchers are in a slump, we are all banged up and then I get depressed)

  • It is very understandable if you were down on the Russell Martin signing. His batting average had been going down over a period of years.
    Also, Neil seemed to have a habit back then of making some very questionable signings of everyday players.

    • I didn’t care about the batting average. That was the common argument at the time, but I don’t even look at batting average as a big factor in my evaluation. My belief at the time was that catcher defense couldn’t make up for the lack of offense, which I expected to decline further after Martin left New York and the AL East. Of course, later that off-season we started getting a better understanding of how valuable catcher defense alone could be due to the studies at Baseball Prospectus, and then we saw that first hand with Martin.

  • Tim … You’re objective positivity is a selling point for this site when compared to all the objective negativity that is connected with the Pirates.
    I agree there is reason to hope but year after year they have been forced to replenish by bargain hunting instead of through the draft. Though they have been successful, the odds seem to be that one year that will eventually fail. I’m not being negative stating that nobody’s perfect. Hopefully, the minors help out this year, but will June reinforcements be soon enough?

    • I think that seems possible if you look at what they’re doing as a string of luck and fortune. There’s a specific process behind these moves — especially the pitchers — and because that hasn’t gone away, I think they’ve got a good shot of continuing their success. They’ve got a long track record of finding value. I agree that not every move will work out, but I think there’s a really good reason a lot of their moves have worked in the past, and I think that same reason will lead to future success.

  • Barry Bonds in Puerto Rico? Can’t wait.

  • Just for grins and giggles, if we do not get a stopgap for $8 to $10 mil, how about the 5/$80 that MLB projects for LHSP Wei-Yin Chen? He becomes our 2/3 in 2016, prepares us for the absence of Morton after 2016, and for the absence of Liriano after 2017. He would get the AL to NL improvement, and be able to escape pitching in the band boxes of Camden Yards, Yankee Stadium, and Rogers in Toronto.

    He will be pitching in his age 31 season in 2016, and I do not think he has missed a start in the last 2 years. His numbers since signing as a FA about 4 years ago out of Taiwan are well worth the $16/yr right now. Negatives – Scott Boras, Scott Boras.

    • Do you think PBC would go 5 years on a pitcher? I don’t see that in their DNA.

      • If they do, it’d seem like a pretty safe bet itll be on a guy not hitting FA at age 30. Throw 5 years at a 28 year old and you feel okay about getting 5 years of good value. 5 years of a guy at 30 makes some, and likely the team, a bit uneasy about the back end of that deal.

        • The 5 is a scary issue, but we signed a 31 year old FA pitcher to 3/$39 in Dec 2014, and that was a big surprise to many that the Pirates would do that. These increases for pitching talent seem to be proceeding at warp speed with the number of years and dollars. What seemed to be ridiculous requests just a year or two ago are looking commonplace today. The 5th year would be in Chen’s age 35 season.

          Regardless, this is not something the Pirates have to do which is the good part of all of this. They could probably put the 5/$80 on the table to Boras and he would just get the Yankees to go higher.

          • This will probably come off as racist but its not meant to be.

            I have serious concerns about Asian starting pitchers and their durability. Different ball, different pitching schedule etc. Just an observation, from seeing those guys come over from NPB. Most of them already have logged a lot of miles on their arms and then come here and face an even more daunting type schedule.

            Pretty sure that dude already had TJ too.

            • Not even close to racist.

              I’d never draft a high school pitcher with an overzealous father who drug him around travel teams and showcase circuits for four years, but it sure isn’t because I have a prejudice against suburban white people.

            • Not a bad comment at all. There is a lot of truth in that list of concerns.

    • Should we prepare for Mortons absence or plan the celebration?

  • Tim – Very good article – and as you probably suspect i am not as optimistic as you for a variety of reasons. Won’t get into the weeds on specifics, but let me try to share my “generic” concerns – will leave the specifics to my occasional rants on specific players and moves.

    1. The economics off baseball are changing. We learned yesterday that Jonny Cueto turned down 6/$120M – and he is NOT on anyone’s list of top 10 starters. Zimmerman – who is arguably several notches worse than Cueto got 5/$110M. Ben Zobrist – who would be a good option to replace Walker at second is 35 years old and is looking for 3/$45M. Three years ago the debate was whether the Bucs could compete with a payroll below $100M. They managed to do so through some creative moves and some luck. Now the Pirates are looking at passing the $100M threshold and some folks are pointing to this as significant. Problem is that the bar has moved – it now takes $120M to field a competitive team unless your are very creative and lucky.

    2. The competition is not static – it is dynamic. When the preseason projections come out next spring I would expect a number of prognosticators to have the Cubs #1 in the NL Central – and the Pirates will be third in quite a few. The Cards have needs – but they have the resources to address those – and have done a good job in the past – no reason to think they won’t continue to do so. On a broader front – The Mets have put together a solid rotation with two of the top ten arms in the game and now seem to be willing to add bats to get more offense. The Giants seem to win in even numbered years – and the Dodgers have very deep pockets – still. A year ago the Nationals were the sexy pick to win the WS – they imploded – but they have a solid core and new Manager.

    3. The highly rated farm system keeps being a year or two away from contributing. Some of this is not anyone’s fault – a lot of Tommy John surgeries with arms like Tailon and Kingham who could actually have helped in 2015 had they stayed healthy – and been in position to be contributors to the rotation this year. But highly rated prospects like Hanson – once seen as the leadoff hitter of the future is now seen as a marginal utility type guys. Bell may arrive sometime next year – but will bring poor defense and very little power unless he has a breakout in the Spring at Indy.

    I respect – and admire your optimism – EVERY Pirate fan under 30 should share it. If I come across as negative and a “Troll” it is because I turn 70 in 2016 and have suffered through 36 losing seasons. Sports are fascinating from a fan perspective. EVERY team starts every year tied for first – and optimistic about their chances – but all but one team goes home at the end of the year having lost it’s last game and the championship trophy.

    • Still whining about your age problem ? I find that pretty funny really, because I have you beat, and by more than one year. But instead of putting that out there all the time, I watch their prospects play regularly so I know that their future is a lot more promising than people like you do. And, for every example you cited I can give you those organization’s present, and pretty much future,shortcomings, just as I can the Pirates. And yeah, to me, who is actually older than you, you come across as insanely negative and a real troll. I can only imagine how you appear to the younger fans.

      • leo – what did I say in my three points is WRONG?

        if you disagree – then state your POV and provide some support.

        To focus on the age aspect – which I mention only to provide context suggest to me that you are choosing to make this personal and really don’t have a counter argument.

        Not everyone thinks that three years of making it to the play in game – and getting to game 5 of the first round of the playoffs is something we should consider a “success” – some of us have higher expectations and higher standards.

        I do think that Tim did a very good job stating the case for being optimistic – and as I said – anyone under 30 SHOULD be positive about the future of the team over the medium to long term.

        My post tried to point out some short term issues that concern me – maybe I am alone – I don’t think so – but then again I live under a bridge and try and scare little children

        • Bruce, age has nothing to do with being a cynic. That’s all about attitude.

          Clearly your cynicism of the organization stems from your view they don’t spend enough on player payroll. Your claim a team must spend $120 mm or get lucky has no basis in fact. It’s just your opinion.

          It would be foolish to think the Royals won last season because they decided to spend “X” amount in payroll. They won because the stuck with their plan.

          To suggest the Pirates should deviate from what has been successful for them just to meet some constantly changing arbitrary dollar figure seems foolish at best.

        • My POV ? You don’t think averaging 93 wins a season for the last 3 years is a success. Well guess what ? I do, and so does everyone connected to MLB. That is as close to any further discussion of baseball issues I will make here with you. I am not going to waste my time pointing out many of the complete fallacies in your assessment of most of those organizations you pointed out, you will just blow off that information anyway. As far as me ” making it ” personal, that is your judgement, not mine. I would make the same comment about anyone who is nothing but doom and gloom ad nauseum.

    • 1. We saw last year that it doesn’t take $120 M to field a competitive team. Only 11 teams were at that mark or more on Opening Day. Those didn’t include the Royals ($113), the Mets ($101), or several other contenders. The Pirates ($88), Astros ($70) and Mets all ranked in the bottom third in baseball, and were very successful. Nothing has really changed this off-season. Big market teams will throw money at established players. Smaller markets will make up for their lack of finances with smart moves.

      2. I feel this is a “grass is greener” approach. How many of those teams fanbases are pointing to the Pirates having a talented team and getting better? Based on the praise the Pirates get in the National media, I’m guessing all of them.

      3. That’s not accurate about the farm system. Marte came up in 2012. Cole in 2013. Polanco in 2014. They just missed the big prospect in 2015 due to Tommy John, but will have extra guys coming up in 2016. What happened with the Cubs, where everyone just showed up in one year, is rare. You usually get those guys over time, like we saw with the Pirates the last few years. They will continue that going forward. As we saw this year, they’re not waiting on the next prospect to arrive to contend. They’re contending, while expecting to get stronger with the addition of future prospects.

  • By the way… Just for the record, I’d consider arb for Pedro and challenge him to return to 3rd base. We just happen to need a thirdbaseman with Kang out.

  • Let me suggest saying most rather than every personnel challenges, however in whole and part I agree and second the opinion of the article and have throughout most of my posts.
    There is one angle Tim, I’d like to see you address which is one that has been presented many times on the blog.
    Can you take us through the option of removing Pedro – DFA if necessary and replacing him with Neil Walker. Neil to me is similar to James Loney as far as approach and batting results with upside to improve power IMO. Neil is a very good defender in general and I believe would make a much smooter transition to first than Pedro did defensively – so if we can submit that Neil would be a modest upgrade defensively to Pedro at first – is there potentially enough offense to provide the left handed platoon bat paired with Morse to make it worth the arbitration salary he’s projected for?
    For now we’ll leave the who plays second argument for another time.
    Thanks for listening, and Happy Holidays!

    • You would have about 17 million tied up in a platooning first base scenario. Walker’s defense is suspect and would Ned an extensive training period to learn first base defense. I would rather keep Pedro and hope his defense improves.

    • With tomorrow being the non-tender deadline, Pedro is tonight’s article.

  • Go big and trade McCuthen,Melancon and Walker to the Dodgers and get Urais , Peraza , Holmes and Anderson. Improved defense in center field and second base and a frontline starter.

    • Not gonna happen..Trading Cutch after this year and Moving Marte to center and Meadows taking over in left WILL happen.

      • There is a 0.0% chance Cutch will be traded after this season. As for Meadows, the earliest he could get called up is June 2017.

        • Zero? Unlikely, but not zero.

          • Scott Kliesen
            December 1, 2015 9:48 am

            Ok, I’ll amend my statement. The chances of Cutch getting traded after this season are slightly greater than my chances of winning Powerball and Mega Millions jackpots this week.

            First off, Cutch’s potential replacements, Meadows and Ramirez, will not be ready after just one more season of development. Second, he is in the middle of a financially team friendly contract. And lastly, it would be foolish for NH to trade the franchise player just when the bulk of the top prospects in the system, including the two best SP’s, are about to embark on their first full season in the big leagues.

            So technically the odds of Cutch being traded after next year aren’t 0.0, but in actuality they might as well be.

            • Personal opinion but im starting to think Harold Ramirez and Wily Garcia are shiny poop. But I hope im wrong.

            • I agree and disagree. It’s not very likely, but the return would…or should…decide the deal.

              If the Rangers started the talks with Profar, DeShields, and Nomar Mazara…the Pirates, I would hope, would listen.

              Either way, it doesn’t matter…the Cutch countdown clock is down to two seasons, max. The most important thing is getting the best return.

        • Almost nothing is a 0% chance. Someone could unload a farm system for Cutch, and NH wouldnt ignore that. Unpopular for sure, but they have a few OF types that could easily fill in at LF with Marte sliding over until Meadows shows up.

          Guys like Harold Ramirez arent far away from ML ready.

          • Scott Kliesen
            December 1, 2015 9:51 am

            Unless some team hires Mike Ditka as GM of their team, or whomever was in Minnesota when the Vikings traded the farm for Herschel Walker, your scenario has no chance of coming to fruition.

    • That wouldn’t even be a fair return for Cutch. Usually, you can get a much better prospect haul by not packaging multiple established players. And they can improve their OF defense merely by switching Marte and Cutch, at no cost to the current team value. If they want to trade Cutch, deal him to Cleveland for Salazar, Kyle Zimmer, and Lonnie Chisenhall, and install Chisenhall at 1B, where he’s already played occasionally.

      I can’t see Walker getting dealt right now, with the iffy status of Kang for April. I can see Pedro being non-tendered and the Pirates dealing for Yonder Alonso, Brett Wallace, or Ike Davis, or signing Morneau. I can also see the Pirates making a big move on Brandon Moss if the Cardinals non-tender him to make payroll space for their pursuit of Chris Davis.

      But really, I expect most of their roster moves to happen either next week (trades) or in January (FA signings).

    • Stop the madness!

    • Phones do not ” click ” any more when a hang up happens, but I am pretty sure that is what you would hear if they still did the minute you mention Urias in any trade talks with the Dodgers.

    • Cutch can’t be traded until there is someone to plug in the three hole. We don’t have that now but are hoping Bell, Polanco, or Meadows could become that guy.

  • There’s something special about this time. The next 3 years are right in the sweet spot for the Pirates. A successful team with one of the best farm systems on the threshold of graduating several of the best prospects has to give even the most cynical fan a jolt of excitement.

    The fact the Cubs and Cardinals are also doing well just adds to the excitement level. Wouldn’t want it any other way.

    The best teams need rivals to propel them to greater heights. I fully expect the Pirates to rise up to the challenge and win a championship in the next few years. Maybe more than one.

  • Excellent piece and I agree that it is hard to be anything but positive this off-season. If wanted, the Pirates can return all of the folks who contributed to that 98 win season except for the retirees. Many of the other FA’s were bit players at best that can be replaced. The Pirates had some guys who really struggled for all or parts of 2015, but the overall depth of talent helped get them through. ‘Cutch struggled, Alvarez struggled, Mercer struggled, Melancon struggled, Morton struggled, etc. But, the team persevered. And this comes at a time when possibly 4 or 5 prospects could earn promotions to the majors.

    We will miss Happ’s 2 month bump, but I think the Pirates have enough in house with Morton to step up to the #3 guy in the Rotation to cover for the loss of Burnett, and Locke coming off a 1.6 WAR season should be solid at 4/5. We may have an opportunity to get better than Morton or Locke during the off-season, but hopefully, it will be a stopgap guy and our dependency will be on guys earning their promotions to the Rotation from AAA beginning in June. And yes, optimism can very easily result in criticism. It can be very difficult to pull the trigger on rookie pitchers, but it is the only way I can see that the Pirates can continue to be competitive in the NL Central – homegrown will have to work.

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