BRADENTON, Fl. – Today at Pirate City, Pirates Owner Bob Nutting had his annual meeting to address the team and the coaches, discussing the last three years and the thoughts on the upcoming season.
“This is one of my favorite days of the year to be able to come down and address the whole team and the coaching staff,” Nutting said. “What I had a chance to talk to them about this year was just my appreciation for all they’ve done to put this organization in such a strong position for what they’ve accomplished over the past three years. To say thank you, and to express my belief and commitment to provide the resources and the tools to continue the run these players are on.”
After the meeting, Nutting met with the media, and a lot of the questions and answers revolved around access to talent for the Pirates, and how important that is to maintain competitive balance going forward.
“I think the most important piece for the Pirates has really been access to talent, almost more than anything else,” Nutting said in regards to what he brought up at the owner’s meetings this off-season. “As we look for the reasons we’ve been able to be competitive is we have a commitment for the past many years to infuse talent into the organization every way we can. Whether it’s the international or amateur draft. To be able to bring in young, very talented players, run them through our excellent development system, to be able to produce players who can have an impact at the Major League level.”
There have actually been limitations to their ability to access talent. Prior to the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Pirates spent the most money of any team in the draft from 2008-2011. They were also spending money on the international side, with a $3 M budget each year, along with special expenses aside from that budget like Luis Heredia ($3 M in 2010) and Harold Ramirez ($1.05 M in 2011).
The last CBA changed the way the draft and international processes worked. They put severe restrictions on spending for amateur talent, with costly penalties in taxes, draft picks, and the ability to sign international talent if you spend over a certain amount. And as the Pirates have gotten better in the standings, their budget amounts in the draft and international markets have gone down. This year they have the 18th biggest draft bonus pool, and have just over $2 M to spend on the international market.
The draft pool is just under $7 M for 2016. From 2008-2011, their lowest total in any year was $8,919,000. The $2 M international total is a million dollars short of where they usually stood, and that doesn’t count the big expenses, which are almost impossible to make now if you want to stay under the cap and sign a lot of players. As for the million dollar difference, just how important is that for the Pirates? Pretty huge when you consider that Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Alen Hanson, Elias Diaz, and 2015 breakout prospect Yeudy Garcia were signed for a combined total of just $375,000. Add in upper level top 50 prospects Willy Garcia and Jose Osuna, who combined for $560,000, and you still don’t top the $1 M mark.
“That’s been a significant change for us, because the tools that we had to access talent, whether it was deeper high talent, positions slotted lower in the draft, or just simply drafting higher,” Nutting said on the CBA changes. “We hope not to draft higher again anytime soon. So certainly active discussions, given that landscape, where do we go out and look for talent? I think Jung-ho was a good example last year. That’s not a place we were looking five years ago, but I just give all the credit in the world to Neal and his team as they look for those inefficiencies and to opportunistically take advantage of them. My expectation is, that’s going to change from year to year, and we need to be smart enough, nimble enough, and flexible enough to recognize what worked six years ago may not work last year, and certainly won’t work three years from now. The constant dynamic process of change makes it hard, but that’s where I think we have a real advantage.”
Nutting didn’t discuss any specific talks that are ongoing in regards to the upcoming CBA, and danced around a question as to whether the draft and international rules could be adjusted. In regards to losing access to talent when the new CBA comes around, he reiterated how important access to talent was for the Pirates.
“There are no specifics that I’m worried about, or would even be appropriate to discuss,” Nutting said. “Access to talent is the most important piece of competitive balance for us as we move forward.”
Losing the Other Type of Talent
Losing the ability to draft and sign guys who were never in your organization is one thing. Losing guys who were in your system and played a key role in your success is another.
The Pirates have done a great job the last few years of finding advantages where other people aren’t looking or aren’t investing as heavily — whether this is the draft spending, defensive shifts, catcher pitch framing, the Korean market, or the ability to reclaim pitchers and turn them into the best versions of themselves.
“The organization has really focused on exploiting the inefficiencies of the game,” Nutting said. “Whether that’s part of talent acquisition, or whether that’s playing the game more effectively. Using data or analytics more effectively. Frankly, building a cohesive group so you have an on-field coaching staff who is embracing input from multiple directions. I think the most important thing that Neal has been able to do is create this cohesive and inclusive culture where the various parts of the organization not only respect each other, but work together toward a single goal of performance on the field.”
This success by the Pirates attracted a lot of attention this off-season. The Marlins hired away Marc DelPiano and Jim Benedict, who both played key roles in the signing of big free agents, and in Benedict’s case, reviving the careers of a lot of pitchers. There were other coaches and executives who were up for jobs, including Pirates third base and outfield coach Rick Sofield, and Indianapolis pitching coach Stan Kyles. And as the Pirates continue to have success, you can expect more organizations raiding their coaching and executive talent. They will need to find a way to replace that talent when that happens.
“We’re always going to have, in the coaching staff, in the leadership group, a certain amount of dynamic turnover,” Nutting said. “I think that’s healthy. Just as we’re going to see it on the field. Organizations change, players change, roles change. And to be able to have built an organization that has been targeted by so many other really good clubs in baseball, to try to reach out and bring some of our best people on and give them fresh opportunities. I think that’s first been out of respect for those individuals and what they’ve done, but I think it’s a great sign for the Pittsburgh Pirates. And our responsibility will be to have really talented people coming up who will continue to grow, who will continue to change, and move the organization forward.”
The process is very similar to the approach they take with players. They need to have a strong system funneling coaches and executives through the lower job levels, while also finding some key talent from the outside.
As for the players, they’ve got the same challenges. Last year they acquired Francisco Cervelli for Justin Wilson, which was a pretty low-cost move when you consider the season Cervelli had. If he can repeat that in 2016, then his price will go way up from where it was last year as he enters free agency. The Pirates could afford to pay that if they wanted to bring him back, but the reality is that they won’t be able to afford to bring back every player who sees a value increase in their organization. Nutting had faith that the front office would be able to make those replacements at the Major League level.
“There’s no question that one of the things I love about Neal and our entire baseball operations team is the number of options, the number of alternatives, the depth of the process, the work of the process that they go through,” Nutting said. “I’m very confident whether it’s that scenario, whether it’s the impact of other players coming, as they’re looking throughout the development system. We still have one of the highest ranks of minor league systems. There’s a lot of talent coming up, and they need to have a broad view across the organization, because one thing we definitely have learned is it’s not just the 25 man roster. It’s the depth and strength of the entire organization that allows us to continue to compete.”
The Wild Card Game and the NL Central
You don’t need me to tell you that the Pirates made the Wild Card game three years in a row, winning only one of those games. And you don’t need me to tell you that most projection systems this off-season have the Pirates finishing in the Wild Card game once again, at best. With the new CBA coming up, there are probably many fans in Pittsburgh who would like to see changes to the Wild Card game, and I’m sure whoever doesn’t win the division this year between the Cubs and Cardinals would feel the same way. But Nutting said there are a lot of factors which go into such a change.
“I think there are a lot of complexities in the change of the format, whether it’s impact on schedule, impact on rest time for teams who aren’t playing,” Nutting said. “I don’t think there’s an easier, single answer for how that should play out. What we need to focus on is what we can control and what we can impact. And that’s whatever set of rules we have, we’re going to do our best to maximize our opportunity for success.”
Nutting said that he believes the team can win the division, and pointed out the desire to avoid the Wild Card game again, where your entire season can come down to one game against one of the best pitchers in baseball.
“We know what that’s like,” Nutting said. “We don’t want to do that again, and we’ll pull out every stop that we can to first avoid. We want to win the division. I think we can do that. We’ve got a very good team this year. If we’re in the game, do everything we can to win.”
As for the Cubs and Cardinals, the Pirates seem to be the forgotten team behind those two, finishing third in most projections. But once again, Nutting expressed confidence in the front office, especially with their ability to surprise.
“I look at the track record of the last three years. Tremendous amount of faith in the leadership team that we have in place,” Nutting said. “I look at who Neal has been able to sign, to bring in, to supplement, to surprise consistently. I don’t have any concern that we’re facing a battle that we can’t win. I think this is a group that has proven that we can succeed in a very challenging division, and a very challenging sport. Baseball is hard. There are 30 good teams out there. Everybody wants to win. I have complete respect for the other organizations. We’ll never be arrogant. We’ll never take it for granted. But we absolutely can compete with anyone out there in the end.”
**Nutting was asked about whether he was satisfied with the attendance and the support of the fans:
“I think the support of the fans in Pittsburgh has been unbelievable for this club. Just absolutely tremendous the way they’ve rallied around this team, the way they’ve supported the team. Not only showing up at the ballpark, but wearing hats, wearing t-shirts, and caring. And recognizing the impact that we’ve had in the community. Really is something that has been so important for me and for the whole organization. See the fathers and the sons come out to the game to share something special as this team has improved and has restored that faith and pride in the organization. Fans have been humbling and tremendous.”
**On generating more revenue in the future:
“We’re going to work hard to maximize revenues where we can. At the same time, we’re going to recognize we have limitations, and we can’t ever define our success by dollars. That’s not the correct metric. We need to define our success by wins on the field, by performance, by the team. Those two aren’t directly correlated in the way that it perhaps might have been in the past, where the perception might be. Having talent inside the organization, having talent on the field is what defines success. We will absolutely do everything we can to maximize our opportunities. Revenue would be one of those, but we will never major the impact of the success solely by dollars brought in or dollars spent, because it’s not fundamentally the right place to look in Pittsburgh.”
**On whether the lack of a salary cap and players changing teams could leave fans disenfranchised:
“I would hope that no one in Pittsburgh is feeling disenfranchised right now. It’s a team that’s in a great place. Has a great track record, and there certainly have been points of success. Kansas City is an easy one right now to point to. Oakland in the past. Competitive balance will always continue to be a primary focus, if not the primary focus of the Pittsburgh Pirates as we look at baseball overall. There are lots of ways to get there. It’s a complex ecosystem of teams, of different inputs from national and local revenues. I know there aren’t simple solutions, and I know the team that’s focused on it now at the Commissioner’s Office has my faith and support.”
**And finally, on a similar note, Nutting was asked and commented about a potential Andrew McCutchen extension in the future:
“I have nothing but appreciation and respect for what Andrew has done. He’s a remarkable talent on the field. He’s been a tremendous contributor off the field. His engagement with the community, his appreciation for being a Pittsburgh Pirate. I think it’s a real testament for the organization that someone at that quality and that level, as a baseball player and a person, wants to be part of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I applaud him for that, and also we’re committed to try to find an opportunity. There’s no one who we’d like to have for a career in a Pirates uniform more than Andrew.”