This weekend is going to be a reminder of a lot of things for Pirates fans.
Andrew McCutchen returns with the Giants, and that will serve as a huge reminder of McCutchen’s career with the Pirates. That career should be celebrated, as McCutchen was the best Pirates player in recent history, and a face of the franchise.
We’ll also hear the reminders from the very vocal boycotters about how the Pirates are cheap, and how McCutchen shouldn’t have been traded. I think anyone looking at the situation objectively could see that McCutchen has been on a steady decline the last few years, and is no longer the consistent, reliable MVP candidate he was back when the Pirates were last winning. But as Matt Gajtka wrote yesterday, try to treat the casual fans well when they come in with these opinions.
For me, the McCutchen return is a reminder of something bigger. It’s a reminder of how broken MLB’s system is.
Across the parking lot on the North Shore, the Steelers have had Ben Roethlisberger for his entire career. Unless something totally unexpected happens, Roethlisberger will retire as a Steeler. They had Troy Polamalu for his entire career. They didn’t have Jerome Bettis for his early years, but once he became a Steelers icon, he was a Steeler for the rest of his career. They had Hines Ward for his entire career. They’re currently paying big money to franchise Le’Veon Bell to keep him around.
Across the river, the Penguins have had the combo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for over a decade. The salary cap makes it so that they have to move on from other players like Marc Andre Fleury when a good replacement comes along, but that’s the cost of keeping two of the best players in the league on your team, not to mention many other key players who have been kept around for their entire Penguins career.
Pittsburgh fans see those results, and they see Andrew McCutchen traded, and they immediately blame the Pirates.
“Why are they so cheap?”
“Why can’t they keep a fan favorite around?”
“Will they ever keep a guy for his entire career?”
The answer to that last question is no. At least that’s my opinion. It’s not because the Pirates are cheap. It’s not because they don’t care about keeping certain guys around. It’s because Major League Baseball is not set up in a way where the Pirates can operate like the Steelers and Penguins.
The NFL has a salary cap, a salary floor, and total revenue sharing. The difference in spending between the top and bottom teams is usually a span of about $30-40 M, max, and it really doesn’t make a difference. The league is set up in a way where the smartest teams consistently win, and the stupid teams consistently lose. You can’t buy a championship, and if a small market team wins (and really, that term isn’t used in the NFL), there is no talk about windows, unless it involves a star player getting close to retirement. If you’ve got a smart team, you can keep a star player for his entire career, and make the difficult decisions on the support players, while adding cheaper replacement options along the way.
The NHL has had a salary cap, salary floor, and revenue sharing for a little over a decade now. That has allowed the Penguins to keep Crosby and Malkin for their entire careers, along with some other key players like Kris Letang. It has allowed the Penguins to win multiple Stanley Cups with those players.
Pittsburgh fans forget what it was like before the NHL had a lockout and changed their league. The Penguins operated exactly like the Pirates. They were a small market team that couldn’t afford to keep their players. They traded Jaromir Jagr. Martin Straka. Alexei Kovalev. And basically any other key player they couldn’t afford to keep that didn’t own the team.
MLB is not set up like those other two leagues. The difference in payroll between the top teams and the bottom teams can be well over $150 M in some years. You can buy your way to a contender, and now big market teams are combining money with top executives and the best small market strategies in order to get an even bigger advantage.
Teams are largely dependent on their budgets, but the bigger budgets in bigger markets end up driving up player prices. The cost of a top free agent is over $20 M. For a team like the Dodgers, that’s less than 10% of the payroll. For a team like the Pirates, that’s a fifth of the payroll on one player.
People ignore the system and say that the Pirates should spend more. Maybe they could spend more in the sense that they could add about $10 M to their max payroll. They’ve topped out at $110 M, which is right around where similar markets top out. For example, the Pirates are regarded as cheap, and the Brewers are regarded as a team that spends, but both have topped out at $110 M, and the Brewers have only finished above $100 M once (twice for the Pirates).
Even if the Pirates do add about $10-20 M, they’re still going to be about $100 M behind teams like the Dodgers and Yankees. Focusing on spending that little bit more misses the massive problem in baseball.
The Pirates get blamed for other issues that are beyond their control. For example, why doesn’t Nutting stand up and change the system if it’s so unfair? That’s a question I hear often, as if Nutting is the commissioner of baseball.
The NFL changed early, when New York Giants owner Wellington Mara led the charge for an equal playing field, saying that it was better for the league if everyone was on the same footing, rather than the Giants having a huge advantage.
The NHL changed after a lockout, which was a result of many franchises being in serious debt. The league was losing money, and they needed a big change to survive.
Major League Baseball is not losing money. The league is largely financially healthy due to media deals, and all of the money coming in from BAM Tech. Teams largely don’t have to worry about attendance. The variance in attendance can account for a swing of $10-20 M per season, but that largely impacts the small market teams more than the big markets.
And don’t expect teams like the Yankees or Dodgers to step up and be the champions for small market teams. Baseball has largely seen the opposite. When small market teams win, the big market teams complain. They complain that they are sharing revenue with a team that is beating them. They complain that the small market teams are spending too much money in the draft and on the international side. They complain that small market teams are asking too much for their star players when they are trying to trade them and rebuild, and how dare those small market teams even think about keeping their top prospects when the situation is reversed and the small market team is a buyer.
So we’re left with this broken system in baseball. There’s the few teams in the elite class. There’s the upper class that makes up the rest of a third of the league. There’s a smaller middle class that can consistently spend in the $150 M range. Then there’s a massive valley, followed by the lower class, with a poverty tier below the Pirates. And we treat it like the Pirates are on equal footing with teams in every other class, when the reality is that there’s a massive difference even between teams like the Pirates and teams like the Phillies.
The result? Well, you’re seeing it this weekend.
Andrew McCutchen returns in a different uniform. Casual fans who have written off the Pirates will return to celebrate McCutchen, while voicing their disgust for the Pirates, believing that they could have realistically kept their star player around.
Meanwhile, the Pirates are actual contenders in a very tough NL Central division, off to one of their best starts in years. They got here by making smart moves that have paid off.
The irony of that is even with those smart moves, they’re still at a disadvantage in the game. There are questions of whether they can keep this up. Whether they can spend enough at the trade deadline, compared to big market teams, to see a boost. Questions of how long the winning will last, and when the window might close. Questions of when the team will eventually trade their best players again — “will it be one or two years before Starling Marte becomes a free agent?”
These are questions you don’t even have to consider with the Steelers and the Penguins. That’s because their leagues are set up in a way where it doesn’t matter what market you play in. It only matters what moves you make.
Andrew McCutchen returns this weekend, and that will be a reminder of many things to many people. It will be a reminder of the player and his career with the Pirates. The misguided fan will use it as a reminder of how the Pirates are in the wrong. For me, his return is a reminder of how broken MLB is, and how much of a disadvantage that puts the Pirates in comparison to the Penguins and Steelers, who play in leagues that are fair to smaller markets.
Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates had off yesterday as they return home to play the San Francisco Giants this weekend. They will send Jameson Taillon to the mound tonight. He allowed one run over five innings in his last start and three runs over six innings in his previous outing, both road games. The Giants will counter with left-handed pitcher Andrew Suarez, who has a 3.06 ERA in 17.2 innings over three starts, with 18 strikeouts and an 0.96 WHIP. He threw 5.1 shutout innings in his last start.
The minor league schedule includes some question marks after the Pirates made some roster changes yesterday. The starters listed here definitely aren’t set in stone while we see how they sort out the rotations. I left Luis Escobar for Bradenton, who currently has TBD listed, but Escobar was originally scheduled to go last night.
MLB: Pittsburgh (21-16) vs Giants (19-18) 7:05 PM
Probable starter: Jameson Taillon (4.42 ERA, 30:11 SO/BB, 36.2 IP)
AAA: Indianapolis (16-15) vs Columbus (15-17) 7:15 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Clay Holmes (4.29 ERA, 22:12 SO/BB, 21.0 IP)
AA: Altoona (17-14) @ Reading (11-19) 6:45 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Pedro Vasquez (3.00 ERA, 2:1 SO/BB, 3.0 IP)
High-A: Bradenton (19-15) vs Palm Beach (19-14) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Luis Escobar (3.86 ERA, 25:10 SO/BB, 30.1 IP)
Low-A: West Virginia (19-13) @ Hagerstown (10-23) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Sergio Cubilete (15.43 ERA, 1:3 SO/BB, 2.1 IP)
From the Pirates on Wednesday, their exciting ninth inning rally.
5/10: JT Brubaker promoted to Indianapolis. Nick Kingham assigned to Altoona
5/10: Sergio Cubilete activated from disabled list. Jacob Taylor placed on West Virginia disabled list.
5/9: Brett McKinney placed on the Indianapolis disabled list
5/8: Pirates recall Jose Osuna
5/7: Nick Kingham optioned to Indianapolis
5/7: Sam Street released
5/7: Wyatt Mathisen promoted to Indianapolis. Logan Ratledge assigned to Altoona.
5/5: Braeden Ogle placed on West Virginia disabled list. Gavin Wallace activated from DL.
5/4: Pedro Vasquez promoted to Altoona. Sean Keselica assigned to Morgantown.
5/1: Joe Musgrove assigned to Bradenton on rehab.
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
Five former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, and one of them shines above the rest. Quickly with the other four players before we get into the All-Star pitcher. Mike Garcia was a pitcher for the 1999-2000 Pirates. Mark Huismann, pitcher for two playoff teams in 1990-91. Walt Terrell, who was Huismann’s teammate in 1990 with the Pirates. Both Huismann and Terrell were born on the same date in 1958. The Pirates signed Terrell just 16 days after he became a free agent following the 1989 season. They ended up getting just 16 starts and two wins out of him before he was released. Gene Hermanski, outfielder for the 1953 Pirates, who served in the military during WWII, missing two seasons.
Rip Sewell was born on this date in 1907. During his 12 seasons in Pittsburgh, he won 143 games. He came from a great baseball family, with three cousins that played in the majors and one of them (Joe Sewell) is in the Hall of Fame. Sewell was a three-time All-Star and he received MVP votes in three different seasons while with the Pirates. He led the NL with 21 wins in 1943 and his 13-3 record in 1948 gave him the best winning percentage in the NL. Sewell is famous for throwing the Eephus pitch, which he started doing in 1942 after a hunting accident. You can read a full bio on Sewell here.