The Aftermath of Sid Bream‘s Slide
Just four short years after the Pirates were an out away from making an appearance in the World Series, the team was losing money without a Principal Owner in place to lead the way. The Pittsburgh Associates no longer had a championship contending team, and the Pirates were in need of a Principal Owner to step up and take control. Kevin McClatchy was the first to do this, and throughout his 11 years as Principal Owner, the Pirates were not able to put together a single winning season. McClatchy’s years as Principal Owner were not for nothing however, as he brought the Nutting family from Wheeling, West Virginia, on board as shareholders. Robert Nutting would eventual step up as the Pirates next Principal Owner, after McClatchy made very little progress in his efforts to get the Pirates back to the team they were in the early part of the 1990s. With the Pittsburgh Associates having no front man, and McClatchy not having much experience as a baseball owner, all this led to Robert Nutting taking the heat from the local media and the fans once he stepped up to make his presence known in the community. Lack of leadership had hurt the Pirates organization even during the seasons where they had great teams in 1990, 1991 and 1992. A further look at the leadership that Mr. Nutting provided since taking over as the team’s Principal Owner in January 2007, will help to present a clearer picture on the answer to the question posed above.
The Dominican Baseball Academy
I have heard the argument that Bob Nutting is a great humanitarian, but he does not have what it takes to lead a baseball team to a championship contender’s level. This has been the response whenever the Dominican Baseball Academy is mentioned to various parties who claim that Bob Nutting is too cheap to bring Pittsburgh a baseball champion. Calling the Dominican Baseball Academy a humanitarian effort, is only half the truth of what the project actually represents. The Dominican Baseball Academy when constructed, was a significant foundation investment that worked to resurrect a dying business. This allowed the Pirates to match the presence of only a few other teams in the league, in the country that was producing a significant portion of the MLB talent at that time. Opening the minor league pipeline on multiple fronts throughout the world, led to the Pirates finding their way back to relevancy and ending the consecutive losing season’s streak. While the Dominican Academy has yet to produce a baseball championship in Pittsburgh, it has allowed the Pirates to find significant position player talent in Latin America, while allowing them to focus their amateur draft efforts on acquiring pitching talent back in the states. All this coming after the Pirates ignored the international free agent market for years before Nutting took over.
Even though the Pirates efforts in Latin America have yet to produce a baseball championship in Pittsburgh, they have twice played a role in helping the Pirates to field a championship contending team. Current position players on the Pirates roster from the region, include Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Jose Osuna and Alen Hanson. This does not include players from the region who were used in trades to help boost the Pirates chances in some of their better seasons from recent years.mThe best examples this, are the Dilson Herrera for Marlon Byrd trade and Tito Polo being included in the Ivan Nova deal. This just touches on the immediate impact of the Dominican Baseball Academy, in helping to provide the Pirates with solid position players who range from valuable bench players to the team’s top stars.
Providing position player talent is not the only way the Dominican Baseball Academy boosted the Pirates efforts to win a championship. By allowing them to focus their draft efforts on college and prep pitchers, the Dominican Baseball Academy gave the Pirates the flexibility they needed to build a great pitching staff up from the mediocre talent they started the process with. The current results are that the Pirates have five tall righthanded starting pitchers who feature some of the best fastballs in the game. Not all of them are pitching like aces however, but if one or two of them were to stumble, the Pirates have two big righthanded starters at Triple-A waiting for their opportunity. Clayton Holmes and Tyler Eppler are just two of the many Pirates draft picks that have been used on flame throwing righthanded starters, that are currently still in the Pirates minor league system. Having a mostly home grown rotation made up of top pitching talent around the game of baseball, is a luxury that was afforded to the Pirates by investing in the Dominican Baseball Academy. This luxury has the Pirates once again in the conversation as a contender.
Investing in the Draft
During the first few years following Bob Nutting taking over as the Pirates Principal Owner, the Pirates organization started to spend significantly on signing bonuses for draft prospects. During the years leading up to Bob Nutting taking over, the Pirates drafted largely for sign ability with their first round picks, rather than paying the best player available. Just months after Nutting took over as Principal Owner, and before he had the opportunity to put his management team in place, the Pirates made their final sign ability pick. Daniel Moskos was drafted fourth overall by the Pirates in June 2007, which was met by outrage from the Pirates fan base. By drafting the signable player, the Pirates missed out on the all-star talent of one of catcher Matt Wieters, pitcher Madison Bumgarner, outfielder Jason Heyward and catcher Devin Mesoraco. These four players were highly thought of going into that year’s draft, and the Pirates missed out on them by following a trend that had become too common for them since the start of the 2000 season. All that changed the following season, when Bob Nutting’s management team made third basemen Pedro Alvarez their first ever selection, and eventually gave him the largest signing bonus ($6M) in team history up to that point.
While Alvarez never became the star that the Pirates and their fans were hoping for when he was drafted second overall by the team in 2008, his signing bonus set the standard for what the Pirates were going to be known for in the draft with Bob Nutting as their Principal Owner. After giving huge signing bonuses to Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie in 2010, along with following that up by giving huge signing bonuses to Gerrit Cole ($8M) and Josh Bell ($5M) in 2011, the commissioner of baseball stepped in to put a stop to the Pirates draft spending. Then MLB Commissioner Bud Selig introduced a cap on spending within a single round of the MLB draft, and it was passed in the next collective bargaining agreement. Teams were given a draft bonus pool with suggested allotments for each round of the draft. Under the new system, they could transfer left over money from one round to the next if a player signed for less than that round’s allotment, but exceeding the draft bonus pool is now met with loss of draft picks and fines to the team that commits the offense. The Pirates being the reason for these new rules being put in place, works to shoot down the narrative that Bob Nutting is a cheap owner who is only in business to have the Pirates make a profit for him.
With the draft bonus pools in place, the Pirates did not revert back to shying away from top talent due to sign ability concerns. Instead their early focus in the draft, went to the top college players available in the early rounds. The team continues to work the system and collect top-tier talent throughout the draft, by drafting and offering signing bonuses above the slot for that round when upper level talent from the prep ranks are available because of other teams employing the same strategy. Mitch Keller is the best recent example of this, as the Pirates drafted a solid college bat one round ahead him with Connor Joe coming off the board in the compensation round. Keller as one of the top prep talents, was available in the second round. The Pirates gave him a significant bonus, that was within the structure of their bonus pool for that year’s draft selections. By doing this, they were able to acquire both a upper end college hitter and a high school pitcher with top of the rotation potential. Despite the growing narrative that the Pirates have drafted poorly in recent years, the team continues to turn out three to four solid contributors from every draft class, along with other prospects that have been used as currency on the trade market before each season’s July 31st non-waiver trade deadline.
Why Don’t the Pirates Trade/Sign a Star Player on the Market?
This is a question that arises quite often among Pittsburgh fans, and the dialogue around this topic indicates that the fans have unrealistic expectations where this topic is concerned. First, any functional MLB organization will make an intense effort to extend their star talent through the prime years of their career. Every once in a while, a rebuilding team will put star level talent on the trade market because that player is wasting the prime years of their career on a team that does not have the talent to complement that player sufficiently. In these rare occasions, the team trading the star player will receive a king’s ransom in return for that player. For a small market team to make such a purchase, will only end in ruin for the farm system foundation constructed by that organization. With the rare occurrence that a small market team makes a bid and wins that bid on the trade market for a star level player, it is usually the result of one last push by that franchise because their farm system has eroded to the point where they are going to need a full scale rebuild in the very near future. This has resulted in the Pirates not being included in any of these recent scenarios, because they are a team that is currently competitive at the MLB level and they currently have a very healthy talent pipeline going in the farm system.
The argument against this perceived inaction, is that if the Pirates really cared about winning, they would save up the resources in order to pull the trigger on a boom or bust transaction. Those making this argument, fail to realize that the players they want are very comparable to some of the stars that the Pirates farm system has recently turned out. Gerrit Cole is currently being discussed by members of the New York media, as a star level player that they believe the Yankees should pursue at the trade deadline. In cases like this, the grass appears greener on the other side of the fence. The reality is, that the Pirates should not give up more than one of tomorrow’s stars for a current star on the trade market who has limited years of team control. The best example of this, would be the Pirates fan base calling for the team to trade Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow and Mitch Keller for Jose Quintana this off season. Meanwhile, Josh Bell is the Pirates early season offensive star, Mitch Keller continues his development into a top of the rotation starter and the Pirates have won four of the five games in which Tyler Glasnow was the starter this season.
This brings us to the topic of MLB free agency, and attempting to acquire star level talent on the open market when it’s rarely available. This past offseason, the Pirates signed one of the best free agent starters on the market, to a team friendly three-year deal. This was overlooked and expected by the Pirates fan base, when the reality is that Nova could have walked away just like J.A. Happ did the offseason before. Nova’s age made him a better fit with the Pirates, because Pittsburgh does not want to pay players for production from their prime years with another team. The Pirates make an effort to have the money they pay out on player contracts, go towards productive players that remain productive throughout the years they under contract with the team. This is an important concept to remember. This approach is labeled as cheapness by Pirates ownership with the trending #NuttingsWallet hashtag, but for a team that was losing money left and right, along with being in danger of being relocated, how large can the budget be in this market? Over the past 20 years, the Pirates have achieved a level of financial stability, but they are in no position to go out and start spending irresponsibly.
Villain or Hero?
Bob Nutting has been vilified by the Pirates fan base and the media for years, but based on the Pirates history of failure going all the way back to the middle of the 1980s, it is painfully obvious that there are very few people in the city of Pittsburgh who actually know how to run a successful Major League Baseball team. When Kevin McClatchy invited the Nutting family to become shareholders in the Pirates, he was actually doing the city of Pittsburgh a huge favor. He introduced the Pirates to an owner who is financially capable of taking on the project necessary to get the Pirates back to being a championship contender. Bob Nutting may be one of the richest owners in baseball, but that does not mean that the fans should expect him to write personal checks in order to pay player’s contracts. Nutting has the right to run the Pirates as a self-sustaining organization, and that is the way he has successfully had the team operate since he took over in 2007. Bob Nutting has become Pittsburgh’s favorite villain, but he is only known by the citizens of Pittsburgh because of his role of playing the hero for a Pirates franchise that was headed for relocation. With a sound organizational strategy and years of great drafting, the Pirates will continue to be relevant in pennant races each summer for years to come.