Every year when a team wins the World Series, all of baseball goes looking for a trend that led to the success. Even if a team doesn’t win it all, but makes it to the World Series, trends are searched for. This was the case last year with the Cleveland Indians, who lost in seven games to the Cubs, but still created conversation about their usage of impact relievers in key situations, rather than in traditional closer roles.
The Houston Astros won it all this year, beating the Los Angeles Dodgers and their massive payroll in the process. There were two things I took away from this World Series that could apply to the Pirates going forward.
The first thing is going to be about money. That’s always the first topic in Pittsburgh, although the topic can get too simplified. The idea is that if you spend more, you’ll improve your chances of winning. You can definitely show data to support that opinion, but it’s not like there’s a magic number involved. For example, the Indians opened the 2016 season with a $96 M payroll, and finished at $117 M. They made it further that year than they did this year, opening with a $124 M payroll.
The Astros opened at $96 M in 2016, and finished at $124 M. They opened at that same $124 M total in 2017, and added some payroll at the deadline. They still weren’t close to the $200+ M figure the Dodgers had, and the Indians weren’t close to the $205 M the Cubs spent at the end of 2016. The $200 M team won one year, and lost the next year.
In Pittsburgh, the argument is “Nutting is cheap!” and gets simplified to Nutting spending more money. That is a game where the goalposts constantly get moved. A few years ago, fans wanted the Pirates to spend $70-80 M. They reached those totals, and the new demand was for $100 M. Granted, the $70-80 M figure from a few years ago had gone closer to $100 M by that point. But when they did reach $100 M, the ask was for $110-120 M.
The Pirates have topped out at $109 M, which happened in 2016. No one really knows whether they can or can’t spend more money. You can make arguments on either side, but the actual proof isn’t there.
Here’s what we do know. The Pirates have one of the lowest local TV deals in baseball. That goes against the trend of this year’s playoffs. The Dodgers have the biggest deal. The Astros have the seventh biggest deal. Even the LCS teams — the Yankees (3) and the Cubs (6) — had some of the biggest local TV deals.
There are many factors that go into potential payroll. Attendance, ticket prices, and parking revenue all play a role. Local TV deals also play a big role, especially since those remain constant once they are signed, regardless of whether the fan interest goes up or down in a given year.
The Pirates don’t receive parking revenue. Their ticket prices have gone up the last few years, but still fall below the league average. And fans in Pittsburgh will not attend games unless there is a winner to support, and even then, the attendance doesn’t come close to markets like Milwaukee or St. Louis. Combine the lack of parking revenue, the low ticket costs, and the low attendance, and the Pirates aren’t in the best situation for payroll when compared to other teams, even in comparable markets.
But their TV ratings have been solid. Their TV deal is up after the 2019 season, and it is imperative that they get a better deal than the one they have right now. They aren’t going to see the same figures as the Astros, where they receive $60 M per year in their deal. But they need to be in that $40 M range that the Indians, Athletics, Twins, and other comparable market sizes find themselves in. That would be an estimated increase of $15 M per year, which means if their current high of $109 M is their ceiling, then the $124 M figure that the Indians and Astros have hit in recent years would be possible.
That’s the money side of it. The Pirates need to find a way to spend more money, and one obvious way they can do that is by bringing in more money in a new TV deal after 2019.
But money doesn’t buy championships. You need to build a good enough team for that to happen. This is the bigger trend we’ve been seeing the last few years.
The Astros went from one of the worst teams in baseball to a World Series winner, with the chance to contend in years to come. While they were losing, there were claims that they were “tanking”. They weren’t interested in their major league record at all, leading to top draft picks that led to George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman. The last two were taken number one and two overall in their respective years.
I wouldn’t necessarily call their approach “tanking.” I would call it “smart.” It’s a trend that is being practiced more and more across baseball, and has led to the last two World Series winners.
The Cubs did the exact same thing. They had a bad team, and didn’t try to win until they had all of their young pieces together. That’s when they started spending money, and added to those young players. We’re seeing other teams go through the early stages of the same process.
The White Sox just blew up their roster in the past year, adding seemingly every top prospect in baseball. Their payroll dropped from $132 M to $97.8 M from the end of 2016 to the start of 2017, and dropped more by the end of 2017 after additional trades. Their place in the standings was low, giving them the fourth overall pick in 2018, which will pair nicely with all of the top prospects they added. And if they’re not ready to go in 2018, I’d expect more “tanking” and another top pick in 2019, at least until they are ready.
I’ve written since the past trade deadline about how the Pirates are in No-Man’s Land. They could be strong contenders if they go all-in and trade some prospects and young players for a shot at the World Series. Unfortunately, that requires mortgaging their future, and dealing top guys like Mitch Keller and Austin Meadows, to name a few. Maybe they win in the short-term, and maybe they don’t. But that approach definitely leads to a long rebuilding process.
The other option is to follow the path of the Cubs, Astros, and White Sox, among others. Blow up the team. Realize that in today’s MLB, being in the middle, on the fringe of being a contender, isn’t enough. You don’t need to spend money in losing years to give the appearance that you are trying to win. You need to commit to the fact that you’re going to lose in the short-term, in order to improve your chances in the long-term. You need to get a young group of prospects together who can all arrive at the same time, and then you need to spend to boost that group.
The Pirates did this in a way. They got a group of prospects together. They just had that group staggered. Andrew McCutchen arrived in 2009. Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker in 2010. Starling Marte in 2012. Gerrit Cole in 2013. Gregory Polanco in 2014. Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell in 2016.
The problem with that staggered approach is that by the time you got to Taillon and Bell, Walker and Alvarez were gone, and McCutchen’s years were numbered. They won from 2013-15, and guys like Marte and Cole played big roles. They also increased spending in those years, and added to the team. But by the time their best team came along in 2015, the game had already changed, and the Cubs were starting to show the benefits of a young core arriving around the same time, along with money to spend to support that group.
I’ve said that the Pirates need to make a choice this offseason. They need to either go for it, keep Andrew McCutchen around, and build around him. Or they need to blow it up, trade guys like McCutchen, Cole, and other players who are only under control for 2018 and 2019, and try to replicate what teams like the Astros are doing.
I say that they have a choice, but that doesn’t mean that I think either choice would be good. Considering the entire situation, I think the best approach is to blow it all up, and go for a rebuild. The biggest reason for this is because they are already on the right track for this approach, and could do a rebuild quicker than others.
They already have some prospects in the upper levels of the minors who can arrive in the next year or two, along with some guys in the majors who just arrived. By the 2019 season, we should see guys like Mitch Keller, Austin Meadows, Kevin Newman, Cole Tucker, Taylor Hearn, and/or Kevin Kramer arriving in the majors, along with a number of other potential MLB players in the upper levels who could arrive by that time. Right behind those guys will be a group of younger players like Ke’Bryan Hayes, Adrian Valerio, Lolo Sanchez, Shane Baz, and the prep players from 2016 and 2017.
If you trade McCutchen, Cole, Josh Harrison, and other players who can only help in 2018 and 2019, then you’ll add to these groups of prospects. You could get a good group of players coming together around 2019, pairing with Taillon, Bell, Polanco, Marte, and others for the future years.
The best thing about that timeline is that the rebuild would coincide with the new TV deal. If they can get an increase in the next TV deal, that would pair well with a group of young, cost-controlled players.
I would make a rebuild, and following the model of the Astros, White Sox, and other team the top priority this offseason. Going for it all this year wouldn’t be the worst plan, as long as they didn’t part with many of their top prospects. They could still do the rebuild in future years if it didn’t work out.
I think the worst plan would be continuing the path they’re on, where they have one foot on the side of trying to contend, with another foot on the side of trying to save their best prospects for the future. This approach would only lead to them being a semi-contender at the trade deadline in 2018, not good enough to be a serious buyer, and bad enough that they’d be selling off their rentals for the third year in a row.
The Pirates need to get out of No-Man’s Land, and I think the best approach would be to take a few steps back before they decide to move forward.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.