Let me just say one thing: The Pirates can win with Bob Nutting. They can also win with Neal Huntington.
When I say they “can” win, I’m talking about there being a path for small market teams to win in this league, and how there isn’t a zero percent chance with Nutting and Huntington. The path to winning might not be as easy as it is for big market teams, but it exists.
We’ve seen that with Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Oakland, and Milwaukee this year. Granted, all of those teams are now eliminated, showing that the path for small market teams to win it all is still very slim. That’s especially apparent when the four teams remaining ranked 3rd, 5th, 7th, and 9th in Opening Day payroll this year.
But let’s look at those small market teams for a second and see how they got here.
First up is the Rays, who just finished their second straight 90+ win season, and were eliminated in game five of the NLDS against the Astros. They had a bit of a rebuild prior to those winning seasons, with four losing seasons in a row. Here’s a good article on how the Rays rebuilt their farm system after Andrew Friedman left for the Dodgers and Joe Maddon left for the Cubs. The article also includes notes on a few trades that helped the big league club this year — yes, including the Chris Archer trade.
Next up is Oakland, winners of 97 games in each of the last two years, which followed three losing seasons. Here’s an article about how Billy Beane committed to a full rebuild in mid-2017. That obviously worked faster than expected, and the A’s increased their Opening Day payroll to $92 M this year, which is a franchise record.
Then there’s the Twins. They’ve got a different story than the above, spending over $100 M in each of the last five years. They’ve also lost in two of those five years. But they entered the season with some good young players (Jorge Polanco, Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios) and added to that group with key offseason additions like Nelson Cruz and Marwin Gonzalez.
Finally, you’ve got the Brewers. I feel like Pirates fans know their story, but I’ll recap. They did a rebuild, lost for two years, won in 2017, upped the payroll by almost $30 M with additions like Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain prior to 2018, and Yasmani Grandal, Mike Moustakas, and Gio Gonzalez in 2019. Combined, those five players resulted in 17.5 WAR for the 2019 season.
You’ll probably notice a trend. All of these teams lost for a few years, but committed to a rebuild during that period, aiming to win in the future. When that future arrived, they added to the team with outside additions. And a trend not shown above is that those teams have embraced windows, knowing that a few down years in the future are inevitable.
The thing is, it’s what you do with those down years that matters. All four of those teams had losing seasons, but they used their time during those seasons to set up winning years in the future. I can’t say that the Pirates have done this. In fact, some of their moves have made them worse for the future, with no winning to show for it.
The problem starts at the top, with Bob Nutting refusing to spend over the budget in any given year. That has been an approach by small market teams when they are winning, knowing that the payroll will drastically be reduced when they’re rebuilding, allowing things to even out.
Neal Huntington is also on board with the “no windows” approach of trying to win every year. It’s hard to say if his hands are tied by Nutting, but his moves definitely haven’t helped the future, and almost come across as confusing.
For example, there’s the whole situation with Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, and Austin Meadows, which sent a ton of mixed signals.
The Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole prior to the 2018 season. At the time, there was hope that this would be for a rebuild, and that the Pirates were finally done with their no-windows approach. The McCutchen trade was a good one — he was only around for one more year, and the biggest return in that trade focused on the future with the addition of Bryan Reynolds.
The Cole trade is a bit more confusing now. It made sense if you thought that the Pirates weren’t going to win in the 2018 and 2019 seasons. And it made sense if you thought that the Pirates would never get Cole back to a top of the rotation starter. That last part is on the pitching philosophy in Pittsburgh, which hopefully is going to be changing this offseason.
The Pirates didn’t trade Cole to rebuild. They got four players with low upsides, three of them MLB ready and with average or maybe above-average upsides at best, ready to step in immediately. That’s not the type of return you look for if you’re rebuilding. If you’re looking for help right away, you focus on fixing Gerrit Cole and keep him for two more years.
Six months later, the Pirates sent out Glasnow, Meadows, and Shane Baz in a trade for Chris Archer. They also traded Taylor Hearn and Sherten Apostel for Keone Kela. Archer was under control through the 2021 season, while Kela was under control through the 2020 season.
The trade of Cole signaled that the Pirates weren’t expecting to win over the next two years, and they didn’t. The trade for Archer and Kela signaled that the Pirates expected to win in 2019-2020 at least. They didn’t in 2019, and didn’t add any big additions this past offseason to increase those chances.
But this raises an important question: What changed between February and July of 2018? I know the Pirates did better than expected in 2018, but they were 56-52 at the deadline. That’s not a record where you start to go all-in by trading key prospects away, and if you make that move, you’d better follow it up with some big offseason moves to boost your chances.
The summary here is that the Pirates decided they couldn’t win with Gerrit Cole in 2018 and 2019. Then they decided they could win with Chris Archer and Keone Kela in 2019 and 2020. Then they decided that guys like Lonnie Chisenhall and Erik Gonzalez were the missing pieces that needed to be added to Archer and Kela. They had no set direction or plan on winning in the future.
The result? The Pirates don’t look close to winning in 2020. Gerrit Cole would have been a free agent after this year, but the Pirates have little to show for him, with the best part of their return being Joe Musgrove, whose high WAR is the result of league average results over a lot of innings. They also don’t have Glasnow, Meadows, Baz, Hearn, or Apostel for the next few years, and have questions about the remaining production from Archer and Kela.
The Pirates can win with Bob Nutting and Neal Huntington. I say that because they’re going to try, and because there is a path for small market teams — one that these two have definitely not been on, and have been averse to. They can win with these two. It’s just going to take a lot of changes, starting with the approach from these two men on winning as a small market team.
SONG OF THE DAY
I started this article yesterday with Avengers: Endgame on in the background.
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
By John Dreker
On this date in 1909 the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Detroit Tigers in game three of the World Series by an 8-6 score. The game was played in front of 18,277 fans at Bennett Park in Detroit, and with the victory the Pirates took a 2-1 lead in the series. Honus Wagner went 3-for-5 with two RBIs, while Ty Cobb collected two hits and drove in two runs of his own. The Pirates were led by pitcher Nick Maddox, who threw a complete game with just one of those six runs allowed being an earned run. Detroit’s starter Ed Summers lasted just six batters. His defense made three errors behind him, leading to five unearned runs and just one out recorded.
Among the former Pirates born on this date:
Shane Youman, pitcher for the 2006-07 teams. He was a 43rd round draft pick, who made the majors five years later and went 3-7, 5.13 in 79 innings over 11 starts and ten relief appearances.
Ty Wigginton, infielder for the 2004-05 Pirates. He played 12 years in the majors, seeing time with eight different teams. He hit .237 with 12 homers in 115 games for the Pirates, and was a .261 hitter with 169 homers in 1,362 career games.
Wayne Osborne, pitcher for the 1935 Pirates. He debuted at age 22 and pitched two games for the Pirates and another five for the 1936 Boston Bees (Braves). Gave up one run in 1.1 innings with the Pirates.
Lewis “Buttercup” Dickerson, outfielder for the 1883 Pittsburgh Alleghenys. He hit .249 in 85 games, while scoring 62 runs for Pittsburgh. Dickerson played for eight teams in seven seasons. He may have been the first Italian player in the majors, but that’s a disputed fact, despite being in the Italian-American Hall of Fame. His nickname came from the character in the play HMS Pinafore, which was popular at the time.