About every other month or so for the last three years, a member of the Pittsburgh media has asked Pirates general manager Neal Huntington what amounts to the same question:
“How are you ever going to get to a point where you’re going to spend more money?”
Usually, Huntington responds with a version of his answer that goes along the lines of:
“We need to put a winning baseball team on the field that more people will want to see, and when that happens, we’ll re-invest the additional profits that come along with it.”
A lot of the media, some ignorantly and some maliciously, interpret that as Huntington blaming the fans. He’s not. He’s just acknowledging the reality of his potential revenue streams. The only way he’s going to get more money to spend is if the team makes more money, and the only way for that to happen is to sell more tickets, t-shirts, hot dogs and $8 beers.
It’s a chicken-or-egg thing, though Huntington freely acknowledges that the piece that needs to come first is the Pirates winning. But even if his words are taken at their true meaning, something is still amiss.
The Pirates claim to believe that they can contend in perpetuity without needing a finite window, and that was the team’s stated reason for not trading a bunch of prospects at the 2015 trade deadline or during the 2015-16 off-season in order to capitalize on a team that looked as if it could be improved upon.
Even when the Pirates’ 2016 and 2017 seasons didn’t go the way the team hoped it would, “competing every year” remained the company mantra and the players received in exchange for stars Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen were mostly MLB-ready, not to mention the acquisition of All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson. But while the Pirates were saying they think they can compete any year, even a year in which they trade a pair of franchise cornerstones, they were trimming roughly $11 million from the payroll.
But if a team remains consistently in contention, it stands to reason that it would consistently be more and more profitable. Unless it gets to the point of the late 1990’s Atlanta Braves, where a team had been in the postseason so many times in a row without winning a championship, having playoff quality baseball on the North Shore year in and year out would be a financial boon for the Pirates.
If the Pirates really believed that they were going to compete this year, next year and the year after, why hamstring themselves with a short budget? It doesn’t make any sense. Even if that meant losing a bit of profit in the short-term, the valuable commodity of a consistently competitive team would far outpace the initial layout.
It’s possible to compete and even win with a low relatively payroll. The Pirates did it from 2013-15. The Royals and Indians have done it, as well. The Marlins won the World Series twice doing it. But all of those teams have dealt with the reality of windows of competition.
The Pirates say they don’t believe in them, but their actions say something else. I don’t expect Huntington to give his true opinion on the matter, whether it matches the company line or not. But the problem is that when he says the Pirates don’t believe in windows and can compete yearly, the fanbase doesn’t believe him.
The Pirates like to paint as rosy as possible of a picture for their situation. That’s probably human nature. They want people to think that things are going to be OK. They’re selling hope.
But nobody’s buying. Entering the holiday, the Pirates are averaging 17,137 through the gates per home game at PNC Park. If that figure holds true, it would be the Pirates worst season of attendance in PNC Park and the team’s worst overall since 1996. Even during the team’s 20-year losing skid, they drew more than 1.388 million (17,137 x 81) fans every year except three: 1994, 1995 and 1996. Two of those seasons were shortened by the strike and it took a little while for fans to come back to baseball afterwards, resulting in lower numbers in 1996.
So what should they do? This season seems to be lost on the attendance front. A playoff run seems more and more unlikely. As of Tuesday, Fangraphs gave the Pirates a 3.1 percent change to make the playoffs. Vegas is calling the Bucs a 66/1 long shot to win the division (per Bovada.lv as of Tuesday.) The winning that Huntington acknowledges needs to happen first for there to be a turnaround doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.
In fact, it seems much more likely that the Pirates will trade away some veteran players as the trade deadline approaches. That could be the start of a real rebuilding process for the Pirates, or maybe not. As Tim Williams recently wrote, the Pirates might be able to unload some veterans without an appreciable drop off in play.
But either way, it should be now as clear as it’s ever been, at the cusp of a third straight year without the postseason, that the Pirates are beholden to windows of competition, whether they’d like to be or not. It would be good to start acting like it, and would probably go a long way to mending some fences with the fanbase to actually acknowledge it.