BRADENTON, Fla. – I’ve been talking this entire offseason about how the Pirates have lacked a clear direction. I’ve talked about how they’re still going with an approach where they’re trying to contend every single year, rather than going big when their window is open, and committing to a full rebuild when the window closes.
The Pirates didn’t commit to a full rebuild this offseason. They traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, but followed that up with comments about how they intended to win in 2018. This is the opposite of the approach taken by an increasing number of teams in recent years, including the most recent World Series winners — the Astros, the Cubs, and the Royals. It’s the approach taken by teams that are on the rise and have the brightest futures, like the White Sox last year.
So when Bob Nutting had his annual meeting with the media today, I was definitely going to ask whether the Pirates would do things different the next time their window was open. Would they follow the recent trend of embracing the window and putting more resources to winning in those years? Or would they continue the current approach?
Based on the answer, it sounds like they’ll be continuing the current approach. Here is the full response.
“We believe that we can have a more steady window of performance,” Nutting said. “That’s why this year is not a rebuild year. This year is a new direction. It’s younger players, but it’s not a three-year tank. To the extent that we need to stabilize, as opposed to have the wild fluctuations in swings, that’s a direction that we have taken. Other clubs have taken ‘We’re going to embrace the cycle. We’re going to build for a few years, and we’re going to tank for a few years.’ We believe that we have the better approach. We believe we have the better approach to create a championship team. We certainly believe we have the better approach to be competitive year after year. We certainly believe it gives us a stronger opportunity to win games in ’18, than if we simply have said we’re throwing it in this year, and we’re going to break it down.
“I think it’s up to us now to prove on the field and to the fans and earn our way to make that statement true. I want it to be true. I believe it is true. I think it’s important that that is a viable model, and certainly the direction we’re moving. But it is different than clubs who are building on the peak, breaking it down, building on the next peak. Those are long, painful cycles. Certainly when Cleveland went through it, it’s a long, painful cycle.”
The thing that stuck out to me was the belief that their model is the better approach compared to the up and down model that other teams have adopted. I immediately followed up with a point I’ve made on this site a few times. There was a time when small market teams like the Athletics and the Rays could stay competitive for long stretches of time. But the last few years have seen the emergence of what I like to call “super teams.” These are the teams that tank for a few years in order to add as much talent as possible during their rebuild. Then, when they’re competitive, they go all-in.
I asked if the Pirates have noticed this trend, and noticed how the most successful teams in recent years have been the ones that adopt the up-and-down direction, rather than the competitive every year direction. I asked if the success of those teams would change their opinion of thinking their approach was the better approach.
Again, here’s the long response. The summary: They won’t be changing their approach.
“One of the fantastic things about the game is there are going to be 30 different models and 30 different approaches,” Nutting said. “You can put them into some of the buckets, and I think you’re absolutely correct in the way that you’re packaging people up. We need to focus on the approach we are taking. I can assure you that people and process, which we talk a lot about – Neal Huntington thinks broadly, Frank thinks broadly about what the various approaches, models may be. We’re moving forward with a clear direction now. We’re not going to, at this point, rethink the path.
“Do we rethink it each fall? Do we take a step back and have exactly those discussions, look at what’s been successful and be opportunistic as we adjust? Absolutely. We’ve done that several times throughout the last decade as we rotated from an intent focus on bringing talent in through the amateur draft when there was a unique opportunity open with the collective bargaining agreement. We found that opportunity and we put the foot on the gas and we went in full bore. Rotated away from that on the acquisition of talent, really doubling down right now in the Caribbean and the Dominican. We will take various approaches. We are watching carefully. Other teams have been successful. At this point, we’re not going to focus on other successful models. I think we have a path that we believe can be successful in Pittsburgh.”
There’s a lot of anger surrounding the Pirates these days. Some of it is accurate. Some of it is over the top, to the point where it eventually becomes comical.
My takeaway from the early part of Spring Training, and especially with this interview, is that the Pirates genuinely have a plan. It’s not that Nutting is being explicitly cheap. There’s no spin involved here about their hope for 2018. They’re not secretly rebuilding, but telling everyone otherwise.
This is an organization that has a very specific approach, and one that isn’t new to any of us. The Pirates believe there is a way to be competitive every single year, or at the least, to be competitive as often as possible over a long stretch, without going through a big rebuild. They’ve seen the trend recently with teams tanking for a full rebuild when they’re not going to contend, and then spending bigger when their window is open. They’ve seen the success that comes from that.
And they still legitimately think that their approach is better.
This approach could get them to the playoffs, and sooner than you think. I don’t think they’re a horrible team right now, but not a contender for 2018. I do see a young team on the rise, with young prospects on the way, and the chance to return to contending sooner than later. I agree with everything the Pirates have said about how this won’t be a long rebuild.
The problem comes with what happens when they get back to being a contender. There’s no such thing as a window being open indefinitely. That’s something I used to believe, but don’t any more, and it’s largely because I’ve seen the evidence the last few years that points to the contrary. If the Pirates don’t realize the same thing, and continue with their current model, then the next window is going to look a lot like the last one.
You’ll have a successful team that can make the playoffs for a few years, while never being one of those seemingly unstoppable teams, leading to more cases like 2015 where you have a great record, but are facing a seemingly inevitable early loss in the playoffs.
That team might make the playoffs, but their chances of winning the division will be slim if the team doesn’t make a stronger push to go all-in when the window is open.
Veteran players will eventually leave as free agents, or the Pirates will trade them with a year or two remaining on their deals, in the hopes of doing a quick rebuild and trying to extend the window without an actual rebuild. They may even trade them for guys closer to the majors to help that quick rebuild, rather than going for higher upside guys who can make the team stronger in the long-run.
This is all a flawed approach. It can look successful, because the Pirates can actually contend, and they can make the playoffs. But I don’t believe this is the best approach to take if you want your best chance at winning a division and really trying for a World Series. Recent history has shown us that the up-and-down approach is the better method. It led me to change my mind about all of this, despite beliefs three or four years ago that the Pirates could successfully contend for as long as possible.
Unfortunately, the recent trend in baseball hasn’t impacted the way the Pirates are thinking. They legitimately believe that their best approach is trying to be competitive every year, and operating on a steady level, rather than going for extreme ups and downs. If they don’t change that approach, then it’s going to be extremely difficult to actually win a World Series the next time that window is open.