The Pittsburgh Pirates fan base is bleak right now, no question about it.
Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, cornerstones during the Pirates’ resuscitation years, moved cities this offseason, sucking the life out of a usually vibrant feeling among fans when pitchers and catchers report. But these moves shouldn’t detract the arrival of a new season.
In fact, call me crazy, but I’m giving Bob Nutting, Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly a vote of confidence for their handling of the franchise.
I’ll get into that, don’t you worry.
Trading McCutchen, the face of the franchise for nine years, took some marbles.
Just look at the backlash management is receiving as a repercussion, even prompting a disgruntled fan to create a Change.org page urging Major League Baseball’s removal of Nutting as the team owner. The petition is approaching 60,000 signatures, nearing the amount to fill PNC Park twice.
You can see where the majority of fans stand on Nutting and company.
Rewind a few years, back to the glory days of 2013 to ’15, and the perception surrounding the billionaire owner came off a bit differently.
This is when I agreed with the fans’ judgment on Nutting.
The struggles of 2016 and ’17 weren’t management’s fault.
Guys like Cole, Josh Harrison, Jung-ho Kang, Starling Marte, McCutchen and Gregory Polanco were the investments during these years, along with much of the crop that still exists in the Pirates organization today. And like 2013, ’14 and ’15, Huntington and Nutting would’ve invested at the deadline if the Pirates were true contenders.
Changed the culture
The Pirates were nothing but a novelty every summer since the 20-year collapse. When Nutting and Huntington teamed up and took over team control heading into the 2008 season, righting of the ship began to take place.
Management, maybe unpopular, shipped out the likes of lovable figures such as Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson and so on. Whether we want to admit it or not, moves sending overpaid players out-of-town gave the team flexibility to acquire meaningful veteran once the young stars were ready.
Struggles ensued, oh, yes, but who takes over a team that hasn’t won in 20+ years and automatically turns it into a winner? Nobody.
By 2011, five years after Nutting took over team control and four after Huntington cleaned out all the deadwood, the Pirates were able to recapture the hearts of baseball fans in Pittsburgh far and wide. Remember, meaningful games like taking two of three from the Red Sox laid the pavement for what was to come during the playoff stretch.
Just look at this crowd reaction — gosh, if someone says Pittsburgh isn’t a baseball town, they’re lying to your face.
Oh, how glorious the three-year playoff streak was down at the ol’ ballyard.
It’s crazy to me how easily we forget about the investments this management team made to ensure a winning culture in Pittsburgh.
Without an investment in A.J. Burnett — paid $16.5 million a year in 2012 and ’13 — this team probably doesn’t reach the success level it did. What about Francisco Liriano, who helped mold Cole and win the 2013 Wild Card? The Pirates paid him nearly $20 million over three years. Russell Martin, a support anchor for the pitching staff, made $15 million during his two-year stint.
I could go on… Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau, etc., and this is just 2013.
A lot of the guys who played key roles on the Pirates were paid, like it or not.
Year after year, other than a blip in 2016 (or Vogelsong offseason), the overall payroll heading into every new season increased:
Opening Day Payrolls
2014: $78,111,667 million
2015: $88,278,500 million
2016: $85,885,832 million
2017: $92,362,832 million
Don’t take the easy way out, bashing Nutting for being cheap
We need to face facts: No way, no how was McCutchen worth the $14.5 million left on his deal for 2018. His numbers since 2015, offensively and defensively, continuously diminished year after year.
There’s no argument in regards to his defensive decline, but outside of a scorching hot month of June and above-average July, McCutchen’s numbers were lackluster at the plate too.
From a baseball perspective, not emotionally charged, trading McCutchen made complete sense.
I can say the same for Cole.
Sure, Cole’s play isn’t declining on the field, but the return for him was the kitchen sink and some — a high potential third baseman, a mid-rotation arm who could project better, a hard-throwing bullpen arm and a mid-level prospect.
All day I could provide multiple reasons for why these trades make sense. That’s not, however, the purpose of this column.
We’re lucky McCutchen spent the majority of his career in Pittsburgh. Take the Kansas City Royals for example, who went all-in in 2015, none of their key players remain on the roster. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain all no longer reside on the team.
So for the naysayers saying they should’ve indulged, sold the farm and spent like a big-market team, there’s your reason why it didn’t happen. McCutchen, Cole and others would’ve been out of town years ago.
Pirates fans need to sit back and trust the process. As legendary announcer Greg Brown mentioned following these trades, this crew righted a sinking ship once and can do it again. I’ll keep my faith in this management team.