“The Pirates aren’t trying to win”

Comparing the Pirates to the Yankees is just stupid. The Yankees are an attraction in their own right in the biggest media market in the world, in a city with a robust tourism industry. Thousands of people from all over the country vacation in New York during the baseball season and decide to take in a game at Yankee Stadium as part if the experience. As beautiful as PNC Park is, I don’t think nearly as many people would do the same in Pittsburgh, even if the Pirates became a perennial playoff team. The Yankees also have their own television network, and face a much more competitive environment for attracting consumer entertainment spending. It’s just apples and oranges, and faulting the Pirates for not operating like the Yankees is like saying I don’t have more net worth because I don’t manage my finances like Warren Buffett.

Club executives vehemently disagreed with that assessment. Yet the numbers show Pittsburgh hasn’t spent as much as its opponents — and hasn’t won.

Would it be facetious to point out that correlation does not equal causation here? It would? Ok, then I won’t. But of course, that is what’s going on because, even if they acknowledge it later, right here the writer is ignoring low payroll teams who have had or are having success, as well as high payroll teams who aren’t. And even if they’re not directly making the argument, they’re certainly implying that the Pirates aren’t winning because their payroll isn’t higher.

The Pirates’ strategy of building with prospects rather than with proven players was illustrated this month when they paid nearly $12 million for amateur draft picks, putting them at or near the top of baseball, and raising their draft expenditures to $31 million for the last three years.

They also spent another $2.6 million for 16-year-old Mexican pitching prospect Luis Heredia, the highest price they’ve paid for an international prospect. General manager Neal Huntington, who was hired three years ago, said the team has a plan for the future and is in the middle of executing it.

Again, you get a bit of loaded language here, describing the trade-off between prospects and “proven players.” Of course, proven players are generally either not available, because teams don’t want to trade the productive players they have under contract, or are very expensive on the free agent market. Almost by definition, it’s nearly impossible to “build” a team with “proven” talent, in any sport.

But the most obvious example of the  writer stretching to make their point is this rather hilarious graf:

To cut payroll, the Pirates have shed former All-Stars Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth and Jack Wilson in trades, along with nearly every other player who was arbitration eligible — or close to it — or free agency: Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, John Grabow, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Damaso Marte, Nyjer Morgan, Ronny Paulino and Sean Burnett.

They also dealt slugger Jose Bautista to Toronto for a backup catcher who has since left their system, and cut NL All-Star closer Matt Capps without getting anything in return because he sought a $500,000 raise.

I rather like how the author characterizes the first group of players as “former All-Stars” without bothering to note how many of them might not have made it if not for the requirement for every team to be represented in the game, but then, I’m a bit of a fan of trying to decide whether AP writers are more prone to ignorance or chutzpah in their writing.

But, of course, this is where the case against the Pirates kind of falls apart. Yes, they’ve gotten rid of basically every player their fans have recognized over the last decade but, a) the Pirates weren’t winning with those guys anyway, b) for the most part those players haven’t gone on to set the world on fire with other teams. And the final pair may be even worse. Matt Capps is a mediocre relief pitcher who was set to be overpaid. Non-tendering him was a good sign that the Pirates front office finally has some clue what it’s doing, and won’t just toss away money. Noted slugger Jose Bautista might be killing the ball this year, but prior to hitting 40 home runs so far this season, he’d never hit more than 16 and his career best slugging percentage was a decidedly non-Ruthian .420. It’s hard to fault the Pirates for not anticipating the rather remarkable break out Bautista has had this year.

At the end of the day, it looks to me like the AP writer is just pandering to common fan sentiment. Fans generally want their team, especially losing teams, to pour every drop of revenue back into the team. I tend to think that’s short-sighted. After all, looking at what’s available that the Pirates could spend money on, how is an extra $20-30 million going to significantly help them this season?  We can argue about how much is enough, but personally I tend to think that the flexability that goes along with holding onto cash rather than spending it just for the sake of spending it is a better avenue towards long-term success for re-building, small-market, franchises. But it’s perfectly understandable why fans of struggling clubs don’t necessarily see things the same way as I do. What’s not understandable, or right, is for journalistic outfits like the AP to write shoddy articles like this one to grab eyeballs by pandering to fan sentiment.

About Brien Jackson

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

10 thoughts on ““The Pirates aren’t trying to win”

  1. The better question is what have they done to improve the ball club at the ML level? Nothing. Of course they haven't, it costs money. They can make a larger profit by continuing to sign young prospects and hope to catch lighting in a bottle for a few years like the rays of the past few years. The big difference however is how they handle their young guns, the rays have locked up longoria, zobrist, etc. If longoria was on the pirates could you really make an argument that they would lock him up? No they would probably deal him for 3-4 mediocre high upside players who will all eventually fizzle and guess what? NOT GET PAID! Leading to more profits by the owners.


    If your sole intention is to make the game more even and fair, screw salary caps, we need a salary floor.


    Its all about the money, heck, its the name of the site.

  2. Yeah, I don’t see what the big deal is. What about this isn’t something we already knew? We knew they were receiving a lot of MLB subsidies and had a low payroll, so we knew they were making a big profit. And didn’t the player’s union already look into this and clear the Pirates after taking on the Marlins? If what should be the team’s biggest enemy clears them, shouldn’t that say something? None of that NY Times article brings anything new to the table.

  3. Great points all Brien.  This article struck me as almost as pointless as those that argue the Yankees spending makes for an unbalanced competition for World Series competition.  I'm sure when the author punched the numbers into Excel his argument seemed pretty strong but anyone who has crunched a spreadsheet can tell you — numbers don't tell the whole story.


    This actually struck me as one of those, "Slow News Day" space filler articles that could have been written last year albeit for updating the numbers — or maybe changing the team or player names.

  4. Mark,I agree completely;if the union got a look at the Pirates and decided they were on the up-and-up with regards to their use of revenue sharing dollars, that's good enough for me. Again,I get why fans want bad teams to put all of their revenue into payroll, but that's not necessarily a good way to go about building a roster.



  5. The question for me is why aren’t more small-to-mid market teams paying attention to what the Rays have done?  Yes for a while they were a team that got abused in the AL East, but that hasn’t been the case for a few years now.
    It doesn’t seem like their formula should be _that_ hard to follow, and yet the Royals and Pirates can’t get any positive traction and basically come off feeling like annual farm teams for other teams in the league.

  6. Mike (non-Nagle version),

    The real test for the Rays comes next year.  Their franchise player, Carl Crawford, is eligible for free agency this winter.  Considering he’s one of the best players in baseball today, especially when adjusted for his comparative youth at the age of 29, one would think the only way the Rays can keep him is to cease being a low-spending team.  So either they lose him and prove the problem of economic inequality one way, or they somehow find the dought to keep him and prove it in another.

  7. I think what really should’ve come out of this financial MLB mess is that revenue sharing is awfully broken.  I saw a piece on ESPN today but didn’t have the time to read it; wonder if it is worth discussing?