Pittsburgh's increasingly cold relationship with the Pirates is an example of modern baseball gone awry
The small-market team's ownership has placed more emphasis on the 'money' and not enough on the 'ball'
If faith is lost incrementally, the way time and fortune are, then Juan Nicasio on his own did not shatter Pittsburgh's belief in the Pirates. His departure from the organization, however, further eroded a dwindling trust between the fan base and team.
The Pirates capsized in August 2017. They were drubbed on the penultimate day of that month, losing 17-3 to the Cubs and dropping to 10 games back with 28 games left in the season. Yet Pirates fans maintain that the season's low point did not occur until the following afternoon, when Pittsburgh granted a waivers request on Nicasio. In doing so, the Pirates handed Nicasio to the Philadelphia Phillies without netting a return. Charity to baseball's worst team wasn't the motivation, and neither was inner-state love; the Pirates just wanted to save the $600,000 outstanding on Nicasio's contract.
In theory, Nicasio should have had some trade value. Contenders are always looking to rent relievers ahead of the stretch run, and Nicasio was in the midst of a good season: In 60 innings, he'd compiled a 2.85 ERA and struck out more than three times as many batters as he had walked. In reality, Nicasio would be traded to a contender soon enough -- within a week the Phillies sent him packing to the Cardinals in exchange for a prospect. The player in question never appeared in a regular-season game for the Phillies organization, but it didn't matter. Pirates fans were incensed.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review polled fans about the move the next day: 39 percent classified the deal as a "pure salary dump," and another 41 percent voted that it was a "typical Pirates move." More typical Pirates moves followed. Over the ensuing six months the Pirates traded Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, the face of the franchise and the staff ace, respectively, for underwhelming returns. Winter passed without the Pirates so much as signing a single free agent to a big-league contract. And so, when spring arrived, so too did a grievance from the Players Association, inquiring about the Pirates' revenue-sharing spending.
With those poor optics serving as the introduction to a new era in Pirates baseball, the club needed a strong season to course-correct. A roster brimming with unknowns and misfits delivered, winning 82 games and providing management with enough inspiration to pull off the surprise deal of the summer, as the Pirates landed Chris Archer from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for three well-regarded youngsters.
In some cities, the winning record and bold deadline deal would have coerced locals to get back on board, to support those plucky underdogs who used new math to win an unfair game. Not so in Pittsburgh, where modern baseball has left fans marooned without hope or recourse.
When Tim Williams says last season was a "rebuilding year," he isn't talking about the Pirates. He's talking about his website, Pirates Prospects.
Williams started the site more than a decade ago to maintain his work ethic after he was laid off. The site first grew into his job, and then into an experiment. In April 2015, he installed a paywall. Under his previous business model, heavily dependent on ad revenue, he had estimated the site had three years left. The subscription approach would scare off some readers, but enough cash flowed in order for him to hire additional contributors, thus expanding the site's in-person coverage.
Last June, Williams posted a concerning message. Pirates Prospects was dying. Not enough people were signing up for or renewing subscriptions, leaving the site well below its conservative revenue projections. Readers would tell Williams they had lost interest in the Pirates, or that they were no longer willing to spend money on the team -- or on website memberships. As the budget dwindled, Williams scaled back. He refused free help while dismissing the contributors he could no longer afford to pay -- he could barely afford to pay his own bills. He started looking for a new gig, convinced the site was a goner.
Pirates Prospects has since staved off extinction to see the start of another spring training. Ask Williams what started the endangerment period and he'll say Nicasio. "That was the move that set the fan base off," he told CBS Sports.
After the Nicasio salary dump and the subsequent trades of McCutchen and Cole, Pirates fans began to push back. They, along with some advertisers, called for a boycott of the team. A Change.org petition demanding owner Bob Nutting sell the team received more than 60,000 signatures -- and while signing an online petition is as effective as throwing a batting practice fastball to Mike Trout, there were real changes at the PNC Park box office, where attendance dropped for the second consecutive season.
The Pirates lost nearly 6,000 fans per game, the fifth-steepest decline among teams and the largest among teams with a winning record. Pittsburgh's total attendance was the lowest it's been since 1996, and finished worse than the Baltimore Orioles, a team that had as little to offer paying customers as any in recent memory.
It can be argued that attendance is an especially poor way to measure Pirates fans' interest. Pittsburgh has the fifth-smallest metropolitan population among baseball markets. Even during the Pirates' three-year stretch of postseason appearances, the club peaked at ninth in attendance among National League teams. The first competitive teams in the PNC Park era being unable to draw more than that suggests Pittsburgh will never be among the league leaders in attendance -- unless, perhaps, they win a World Series.
The Pirates' television ratings, meanwhile, remained good despite a slight decline. One report had the Pirates with the sixth-best ratings among the 29 American-based teams.
Still, the reduced attendance wasn't the product of random fluctuation or even rock-bottom expectations entering the season. McCutchen and Cole were gone, but the Pirates entered the season with PECOTA projecting them to win more games than the Atlanta Braves and Colorado Rockies, two NL teams who reached October. Something else was at play.
Ask most any Yinzer and they'll express discontent with the Pirates. One, former blogger Pat Lackey, wrote in an email to CBS Sports that "the reason that I'm so frustrated right now, is that the way the Pirates have behaved since 2013 has obliterated the idea that a good front office can overcome a tight budget."
If Pirates fans no longer believe in "Moneyball," it's because the team's ownershipand not enough on the "ball."
As recently as 2012, Pirates fans would've thrown a parade after an 82-win season.
Pittsburgh's well-chronicled run of futility was impressive in length and scope. The Pirates lost three consecutive NL Championship Series in the early '90s, then went more than 20 seasons before authoring another winning effort. When the Pirates reached the postseason again, in 2013, they won the Wild Card Game but were outed in a five-game Divisional Series. Pittsburgh lost the subsequent two Wild Card Games, running their grand total of postseason games to eight.
Comparatively, the franchise's history of frugality has received less attention. The Pirates ranked in the bottom-five payrolls in each season from 2004 until 2013. They've ranked higher than 24th just twice since 2000, with the most recent occurrence coming back in 2003. The Pirates' average payroll has exceeded $90 million over the last four seasons -- a far cry from the $50-million range they used to gravitate toward -- but that's not as impressive as it sounds when the league-average payroll checked in around $135 million, per Cot's Contracts.
With McCutchen and Cole off the books, last season's Pirates were once again bottom-five in payroll. Now, it appears they'll sink further. Barring a surprise spring addition, the Pirates are slated to enter the year with the second-lowest payroll in baseball, below $70 million. Only the Rays will spend less.
There should be no question as to whether the Pirates can afford more. Unlike the Rays -- themselves shamefully below last season's payroll number -- the Pirates have a gorgeous ballpark, perhaps the best in baseball. They receive significant revenue-sharing funds each year, and soon the club will negotiate a new local television broadcast deal. "No one knows what the finances are exactly, obviously that's all speculation, but we know every team got that $50 million payment last year and know that revenues are just skyrocketing across all of baseball," said Brian McElhinny, who ran the Raise the Jolly Roger blog. "It would stand to reason that their revenues are still in good shape and that they can afford more."
McElhinny and other fans aren't the only ones who think so, either.
Last winter, Scott Boras took Nutting to task for prioritizing profits to winning. Boras noted that the Pirates' franchise value has greatly increased ("Where else can you increase the value of your franchise to $1 billion and not have to win anything?"), and claimed the Pirates had generated $280 million in revenue in 2017. There's no way to verify that figure, but this wouldn't be the first time the Pirates have put the bottom line atop their priority list. Leaked financial documents from a decade ago had the Pirates as profitable despite their miserable on-the-field existence.
Nutting's explanations for the Pirates' stingy ways often leave something to be desired. For instance, he said the Pirates didn't consider signing Manny Machado -- a move suggested externally due to Pittsburgh's payroll and proximity to the postseason race -- because he was concerned the salary disparity between Machado and the rest of the roster would harm clubhouse chemistry. The Pirates have used their players' salaries as a shield before, hand-waving off concerns about payroll by noting how much of their roster was making the league-minimum. That the advantage of having a cheap core is being able to use the additional budget space to buttress the roster seems to have been ignored or overlooked.
Nutting isn't the only one whose logic is hard to track. Team president Frank Coonelly used last year's Oakland Athletics as evidence that the playoffs can be reached by low-payroll teams. The reality is, the A's won in spite of their tight budget. Oakland entered the season viewed as a darkhorse contender -- if the A's young pitching took a step forward, the thinking went, then they had a chance to compete. No one, including the A's themselves, expected the club to compete with a rotation featuring Edwin Jackson, Brett Anderson and other blasts from the past. Probabilistic thinking -- baseball's new buzzword -- suggests the Pirates aren't going to be the new A's because the A's success cannot be replicated or sustained.
The improbable can and does on occasion happen, but that doesn't mean it should be the basis of an offseason.
Few markets have enjoyed as much pro sports success as Pittsburgh has over the past decade-plus. The Penguins have made the playoffs every season since 2006, winning three Stanley Cup Finals along the way. The Steelers have made the postseason 12 times in the last 18 years, winning two Super Bowls and losing another. Those runs have helped solidify Mario Lemieux and the Rooney family locally as something closer to saints than legends. Nutting and the Pirates are the third wheel, then, and that makes for unfortunate comparisons.
"In the NHL and NFL, it doesn't really matter what city you're in -- it only really matters if you're a smart team, if you're doing things the right way, if you're putting together a good team. In baseball, it's totally different," said Williams, who lives in Florida and also follows the Rays. "You look at teams like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay, and when it comes to baseball you see their chances are so slim. But then you look in football, you look at hockey -- teams are in Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, and nobody talks about small markets, nobody talks about their chances being so low of winning. If they're smart enough, if they've got a good enough team, you expect them to have a chance of winning from day one."
The Pirates are viewed as being smart enough. Every fan interviewed for this article made a point to distinguish between Nutting and general manager Neal Huntington, whose baseball operations department is viewed as solid to good. The belief is that Huntington's most confusing moments -- like the Nicasio relinquishment -- have been forced from above. When Huntington is left to his own devices, he and his team of quants and scouts are prone to finding solid, undervalued players -- to the point where some are concerned the organization has become too reliant on finding hidden gems.
The past two winters have enhanced that fear. The Pirates were infinitely more active on the free-agent front this offseason, but that meant guaranteeing less than $5 million combined to Jordan Lyles and Lonnie Chisenhall. Even if the pair live up to their modest ceilings -- back-end starter and platoon outfielder -- they're unlikely to make the impact needed for the Pirates to reach the postseason.
As it stands, the Pirates are projected to finish five or six games out of a playoff spot, per the projections offered at Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs. The Pirates, almost by definition, are in the exact spot where teams historically are most willing to spend more money in order to lock in those extra wins. The Pirates just don't seem motivated to make the most of the situation. Instead, they're likely to repeat the same cycle of developing an inexpensive core then trading players away once they earn more money without ever taking advantage of the cheap years.
Is it any wonder then why the fan base feels dejected? "I feel worse about them now than when they were the worst team in baseball," said Alex Kirshner, a lifelong Pirates fan and a college football editor for SB Nation. "Why is it that the Brewers were able to sign Lorenzo Cain and trade for Christian Yelich and the Pirates were just sitting around, content to not sign a major-league free agent," he explains, "when they have an 80ish win team they could've made into a 90ish win team?"
To make matters worse, the aforementioned boycotts and petitions don't seem to matter. Why would they? Baseball's shifting economic landscape means that fan rebellions are almost toothless. They're poor public relations, but teams are getting rich off television deals and publicly financed stadiums, not gate revenue. Besides, as one Pirates fan suggested, there seems to be a convenient pattern in place: the team lowers payroll, the fans revolt and go to fewer games, and the team can then lower payroll further citing poor attendance. All the while, the team is making money hand-over-fist without having to worry about the on-field results.
This isn't just a Pittsburgh story, either -- or won't be. Other fan bases are or will soon begin to ask themselves why their favorite team won't invest more money in the name of winning games, or what they can do to make their voices heard. In the interim, they'll accept that their front office is smart enough to make do with a tight budget. They'll read quotes about how their team will spend more resources when the time is appropriate, and about how the team has a Process and a Plan to build a Sustainable Winner -- one that would be disrupted by splurging for expensive veterans, be it by using cash or prospects.
And then, inevitably, those fans will feel like the Pirates -- disdainful and distrustful of the enterprise. "The whole 'bear with us while we build a foundation so that we can put ourselves in position to raise payroll and put us over the top' only works if the fans believe the team is working on good faith when they make promises," Lackey wrote. "The problem for Pirate fans is that we've sat through it before and accepted those arguments on good faith in the past and don't really seem to have received much in return."
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