What is Bob Nutting’s legacy in Pittsburgh?


Oct 6, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates current owner Bob Nutting (left) talks with Pirates former owner Kevin McClatchey (right) before the Pirates host the St. Louis Cardinals in game three of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game at PNC Park. Pittsburgh won 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve heard it all:

– Nutting is too cheap, he won’t spend money on a winner!

– Nutting is trying to make a profit in a small market, he can never win!

– Nutting is the worst owner ever!

– Nutting screwed Pittsburgh when he wouldn’t sell to Lemieux and Burkle!

– Nutting is the Worst! Owner! Ever!

Here we are, almost eight years to the day after Nutting took over as principal owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and his tenure as an owner doesn’t look nearly so bleak.  Nutting has been saying the exact same things that he always says, but all of the sudden, the ridicule for him saying those things has stopped.

Has Bob Nutting become the best owner ever?

Can we count him among the likes of Mario Lemieux and Dan Rooney?

Well, not so fast.  The verdict is still out.  Two winning seasons does not invalidate any of the points above.  Jason Rollison recently reported that the Pirates payroll for 2015, after all of the arbitration hearings,  is now at $90 million (https://rumbunter.com/2015/01/19/the-pittsburgh-pirates-90-million-payroll/).  While on the surface that number seems eye-popping, it still puts the Pirates at 19th out of 30 teams in payroll if you look at pre-arbitration numbers.  The Pirates will probably end up somewhere between 20th and 25th in total payroll spent for 2015 after all of the beans are counted.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh fans, we are not competing to be first in payroll.  This is fortunate for Nutting as well, because he will never get there in a small market.  In order for Nutting to count himself with the likes of Lemieux and the Rooney’s, he simply has to do one thing: Win a Championship.  But in order to do that, he has to make the transition from an up-and-coming team to a championship caliber team.  This means a team needs to be assembled that has proven talent, no holes, and a lot of depth.  Are the Pirates there yet?  Not even close!  Can they get there?  Absolutely!  But it is going to take a management team that knows what they are doing, and a willingness to stretch themselves financially beyond where they are comfortable.  As the Pirates management team tries to make this transition, below are several areas that we need to keep our eye on:

The Draft

The first indicator that clued us all in that it was time to take this Pirates management team seriously was the draft.  The Pirates started spending record numbers on marquee names in the draft.  Not only did they pick up the best players available at a hefty price (Alvarez, Cole, Taillon), they drafted kids who said they want to go to college and paid them so much money that they couldn’t resist (Josh Bell).  In fact, they spent so much money on the draft that it is now illegal to do so!  Major League baseball put caps on what you can pay players out of the draft as a direct result of the Pirates practices.

This philosophy of building from the bottom up is key to where the Pirates are at right now.  This cannot stop.  The Pirates still need to be effective at finding and bringing in talent through the draft, minor league free agency, and international signings.  If we start to see the Pirates pass up big names in the draft because they don’t think that they can afford them, or make any excuse about long term financial viability of a prospect, its time to jump ship.  The Pirates need to draft and sign the best players available.

Minor League Depth

The minor leagues are where champions are made.  Not only does minor league talent get promoted to become the core of your major league team, but most of the holes and injuries on the major league team are overcome by trading minor leaguers for quality major league talent to plug the holes.

There are many minor league player ranking sites available on the Internet.  A quick google search turns up several of them.  Depending on your preference, some sites go by scout rankings across the league, whilst others crunch numbers.  It doesn’t matter which you pick, it is important that the Pirates have depth in any/all of these rankings.  Simple math tells us that with 30 teams, the Pirates should have at least three or four players in the top 100 lists to have average depth.  Currently, most of the sites are listing some subset of Cole Tucker, John Holdzkom, Dilson Herrera, Reese McGuire, Nick Kingham, Josh Bell, Alen Hanson, Austin Meadows, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow all in the top 100.

The perception around the league is that the Pirates have a strong minor league system.  It must remain so, and continue to improve.

Major League Talent

Currently, the Pirates have the most Major League Talent on their team since the early ’90s.  This is because of 3 key reasons:

1) The trickle down effect of their investment in the draft, has lead to a deeper minor leagues, which has lead to having major league quality players come up from their farm systems.  Most notably Alvarez and Cole.

2) Also because of the trickle down effect of their investment in the draft, the Pirates have been able to trade some minor leaguers to get some key players.  Most notably A.J. Burnett and Mark Melancon.

3) Pirates have been able to hit on some free agent signings.  Most notably Russell Martin and Fransisco Liriano.

While its better than it has been in a long time, the talent still isn’t where it needs to be to compete for championships.  The pitching depth is major league capable for the first time in 20 years, but capable does not mean championship caliber.  This combined with the offense completely disappearing at times, leads to results that are way too inconsistent to bank on.  The Pirates need better players and more of them to compete for championships.

Above, I mentioned several key hits that the Pirates have had in trades and free agents.  But, these are by far the exception to the rule.  This is mostly because the Pirates are always looking for a diamond in the rough.  For every A.J. Burnett and Fransisco Liriano, there seem to be 10 misses (Casey McGehee, Travis Ishikawa, Erik Bedard, Nate McLouth, Xavier Paul, Rod Barajas, etc., etc., etc.).

The Pirates need to stop shopping for diamonds in the rough, and start shopping for diamonds!  There is a core of players here now, we are not searching for that core.  We are looking for 1 and 2 year rentals to fill holes to take us to championships!  It makes no sense to continue to bargain shop!

The Payroll

Another effect of investment in the draft that has trickled down to the major leagues is the payroll.  Now that there are better players, and more of them, coming in to the major leagues, the payroll has increased steadily over the past several years to meet the demand of keeping the players in Pittsburgh.   This has taken Pittsburgh from being a joke (with a payroll often under $40 million while top tier teams spend well in excess of $200 million), to the middle of the bottom tier of league.

The newly increased payroll cannot be their shot, then drop down to $50 million in the next year or two.  The payroll must increase commensurate with talent level here.  As the talent level gets better, the payroll must keep increasing.  If the Pirates can have a payroll in the top half of the league, they have a shot at being a consistent championship contender.  If not, the Pirates will never compete barring a fluke.

A huge red flag this past offseason was not signing Russell Martin.  He was clearly one of the top 3 catchers in the league, and has played at an elite level ever since he got here.  Letting him go was a clear signal that management will not budge out of their comfort zone when it comes to finances.  That is a clear signal that they cannot win.

 The Verdict

Obviously, it is way too early to tell what the verdict on the Nutting era in Pittsburgh is going to be.  I thought that he was unfairly criticized in the past.  I also think he is unfairly praised now.  It is clear that the team of Nutting/Huntington is exceptional at drafting and building up the minor leagues.  They obviously have a volume strategy that is working, where they sign many, many minor league free agents, and even thought they hit on a small percentage, they still get good talent in the system.  It seems to be working really well.

But, the problem is that they employ that same volume strategy at the major league level, and the hit rate is even worse for the obvious reason that there are a lot fewer undiscovered major league level talents out there.

Over the coming years, the Pirates have to start going after proven commodities.  Every proven commodity they try for they don’t get because they don’t have a philosophy suited to going after elite players.  Why sign one player when you can sign 200 players for that price and maybe one will pan out?

The answer is simply because you cannot win a championship by doing it that way…