Pittsburgh Pirates: Offseason insulting to fans and players alike

(Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug; opening image credit espncdn)

A night to remember; image credit mail.com

A phenomenal 94-win season.  A Wild Card victory over the hated Cincinnati Reds in the most electrifying atmosphere many fans witnessed in ANY sport, let alone the normally reserved game of baseball.  A hard-fought series stretching the eventual World Series NL representative St. Louis Cardinals to the brink of elimination.

For the Pittsburgh Pirates’ front office and ownership, it was nearly impossible to screw up this offseason in any way.  There was just too much positive momentum.

But old habits die hard, and for a franchise that has orchestrated a myriad of PR gaffes, cost-cutting maneuvers, and questionable talent decisions over the past two decades, apparently there was an encore kick to the collective crotch of the fanbase remaining.

Some lowlights of what is quickly becoming an offseason to forget:

1.  Any fans who truly believed ownership’s countless claims that…

  • a) when fan attendance went up, payroll would increase to competitive levels
  • b) when the Pirates were contenders, ownership would significantly increase payroll

…found out once and for all that this is not the case.  Attendance is up 40% since the end of 2009.  The Pirates ended the 2013 as legitimate NL pennant contenders.  And the 2014 payroll?  Currently 3rd lowest in all of baseball, behind only the rebuilding Houston Astros and Miami Marlins- both 100-loss teams in 2013.

Coonelly; image credit thebuccozone

2.  Frank Coonelly made headlines this offseason-as the club President usually does any time he speaks publicly- by claiming that the Pirates’ ROOT Sports TV contract placed them among the “top half” of all teams in baseball, despite every single other source outside of Coonelly listing the contract at no more than $18MM/year; among the worst- if not THE worst- recently-negotiated TV deal.  This leaves Pirates’ fans with two possibilities, both of them bad:

  • a) Either Coonelly is taking heat for failing to foresee the epic explosion in team TV deals, and so he’s trying to cover his own gaffe
  • b) The Pirates DO have a much larger TV contract, but aren’t putting any of it into payroll

Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette knocked this issue out of the park in December, so if you haven’t checked it out yet, please do.

A huge MLB cash infusion; Image credit userlogos

3.  And don’t forget about the additional $25,000,000 each MLB team is now receiving between 2014-2021 due to the new ESPN national MLB contract.  This also has not been added to the Pirates’ MLB payroll.  Currently, the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees are the only 2 franchises in baseball whose payrolls have decreased since the end of the 2013 season.  And the Yankees should be spared, as they’ve doled out about half a BILLION dollars in free agent contracts this offseason.

4.  The Pirates’ offseason expenditures on new additions and free agents?  $8,000,000.  And if OPS+ and ERA+ mean anything to you, it was not spent well.

Statistically, these were 3 of the worst regulars in all of baseball in 2013.  And for some reason, the Pirates aggressively pursued all 3 of them while allowing high-producing veterans to walk.

5.  Pirates’ ownership and the front office have managed to alienate key contributors to the 2013 Wild Card team as well.  The team made no offer to free agent OF Marlon Byrd, losing him without a fight to the cross-state Philadelphia Phillies, despite an .843 OPS (138 OPS+) from the resurgent 35-year old during the pennant chase.

Not much to clap about this offseason; image credit piratesprospects

But far more egregious was the club’s now public Sano-esque blundering through the offseason courtship of SP A.J. Burnett, who helped anchor the Pirates’ 2012 and 2013 rotations, posting a 3.30 ERA and NL-leading 9.8 K/9 in 2013.  Burnett publicly stated he’d either “be back with the Pittsburgh Pirates or retire.”  The Pirates took this good will- which would’ve been non-existent from a name free agent even 2 years earlier, mind you- and used it to low-ball Burnett all offseason long.

  • First, the team declined to offer Burnett a qualifying offer of $12.5MM (which still would’ve represented a pay cut from his previous contract, which the Yankees were helping the Pirates defray), costing the team a chance of 1st round draft pick compensation if Burnett signed elsewhere.
  • Then, it was just revealed that the Pirates offered Burnett no more than $8.5MM for a 1-year dealGM Neal Huntington was right about one thing: The Pirates aren’t paying “fair market value” to anyone.

Not only would $8.5MM represent nearly a 50% pay cut for Burnett, but it’s only $3.5MM more than the Pirates are now paying Edinson Volquez, fresh off of a scintillating 5.71 ERA season in which he led the National League in runs allowed.  You simply can’t make this stuff up, folks.

6.  And gone are the days when being a “small market” club is a valid excuse.  To quote my friend Mike, who sometimes contributes to these articles,

Coming to another small-market NL Central club; image credit brewernation

“The big market Brewers are paying Garza over $12M.  The Rays are paying $14M to Price, the Royals are paying $12M to Shields, the Twins are paying $12M to Nolasco, the A’s gave Kazmir $11M… how can the Pirates compete with all of these big market teams giving out these market contracts?”  (Note the “big market” sarcasm.)

The Pirates are the only club amongst their small-market peers apparently unwilling to pay an established veteran arm over $10MM a year.  And on only a 1-year deal as Burnett desired, the risk is very limited.

7.  Meanwhile, club President Coonelly also made headlines this month by convincing owners to adopt a new international free agent posting system, which not only puts limitations on posting fees, but will conveniently kick more of the eventual contract into “luxury tax” dollars which- I’m sure you didn’t see this one coming- is funneled to small-market clubs like the Pirates.

8.  Continuing on the financial front, this stat comes courtesy of my friend Vaughn, and the folks at Cot’s Contracts:

“Forbes magazine valued the club at $479M in March, 2013.
Bloomberg valued the franchise at $610M in October, 2013.

“Either Forbes was way off, or the Pirates success this past season added a [expletive] of value to the franchise.  I expect that the truth is somewhere in the middle of those, but still, that’s a huge amount of money their investment has increased in value.  And what do they do with that windfall?  Nothing.”

Keep in mind that the Kevin McClatchy-led ownership group (of which the Nuttings were a part) paid only $30MM cash for the team (also assuming $60MM of team debt) when purchasing it in 1996.  Even if you factor in the debt as part of the purchase price, the current owners are nearing a 700% profit on their investment.

 

Fans still waiting for owner Nutting’s competitive payrolls; image credit wtae

While many fans- this author included- optimistically hoped that owner Bob Nutting would follow through on his long-standing promises to invest significant payroll into well-timed free agent signings, vaulting the already-competitive Pirates into the NL’s elite, they’ve instead been hit in the stomach with the fist of a franchise seemingly clenching its exploding wealth more tightly than ever.

The Pirates have spent less on free agents this offseason than even many of their lean years previously.  Productive players for the 2013 club were either not given the courtesy of offers, or were insulted with queries not remotely indicative of their value.  Meanwhile, quality free agents reinforcements like 1B Mike Napoli were never considered, and the Pirates watched as fellow small-market clubs rejected the tired “poverty” excuse and made significant 8-figure additions.

Fans were given conflicting data from the front office about current revenue streams, and new influxes of cash were simply not addressed.

The franchise is worth more than ever, CNBC reported that Bob Nutting is MLB’s 10th wealthiest owner, and yet the Major League payroll remains buried in the basement, 3rd only to two rebuilding clubs staggering out of 100-loss seasons!

An exciting addition, but will he be enough? Image credit rantsports

Clearly, instead of using the team’s 2013 success as a springboard to significant additions, the Pirates have actually used this success as reason to spend comparatively less than ever.  The front office will use much of the season hyping the arrivals of excellent prospects like OF Gregory Polanco and SP Jameson Taillon, overlooking the fact that, were these farmhands added in addition to quality free agent signings, the Pirates would be among the National League’s elite.  The Pirates may be good in 2014, but they could’ve been so much better.

 

In the end, however, if we as fans don’t voice our discord, nothing will change.  Clearly, it will be an uphill battle, as enough followers are still so caught up in the euphoria of how the 2013 season ended that they’ve sleepwalked through the beginning of 2014.  The majority of the Pittsburgh media will look the other way.  And the majority of the national media doesn’t deem the Pirates’ payroll a relevant issue worthy of coverage.

The financial face of baseball is changing.  This offseason has bared witness to baseball’s first $30MM-a-year player, a massive explosion of local and national television revenue, and the list of teams with $100+MM payrolls at 11 and counting- already over 1/3 of the league!

Image credit dreamsreal

And through all of this, despite all evidence to the contrary, the Pirates continue to cry poverty, and wallow in concocted “small market” excuses that simply no longer exist.  There is more parody than ever.  There is more money than ever.  And if we as Pirates’ fans do nothing while this unfolds before us, we’ll have to hold ourselves partially accountable when stars like Andrew McCutchen eventually bolt for the greener pastures of free agency, because the Pirates still refuse to pay “fair market value.”

Thanks for reading.

 

 

  • Hambone62

    Very well stated and right on the mark. Although I am not as upset about the decision to let Byrd go as Polanco is expected to be in Pittsburgh by the middle of season, the Bucs did make a mistake, IMO, in not attempting to resign Justin Morneau to platoon with Sanchez at 1B. Indeed, the Bucs still haven’t found the left-handed compliment to Sanchez — unless you are counting on Andrew Lambo, which I am not. I guess there is still hope that the Bucs can swing a trade for either Ike Davis or Mitch Moreland at some point during spring training, such a trade will require sending assets back the other way, a situation that could have been avoided by simply resigning Morneau.
    Completely agree with the comments on AJ Burnett. The Bucs completely mishandled this situation. Not sure if this related to the alleged blow up by AJ at being passed over for the start in game 5 of the ALDS or not, but there is no reason why the Bucs shouldn’t have made a qualifying offer to AJ. A lot of the Bucs continuing success is IMO attributable to AJ’s arrival and time in Pittsburgh. He brought a swagger and attitude to the Bucs that had long been missing from the clubhouse. This swagger and attitute was subsequently reinforced by the free agent signing of Russell Martin last season. There is simply no excuse for low balling AJ with an offer you know he was going to refuse, and then spending (wasting) $5 million on Volquez.
    At the end of the day, the Bucs’ front office and ownership is all about making money, not spending money, and sadly, fans have been willing to accept this fact due in large measure to the success of the past season. The window for success for the Bucs is the next couple of seasons, and consequently, the time to spend on player salaries and free agents is now. Sadly, however, the front office and ownership continue to act like the sad-sack, Siberia of baseball, organization that it has been the previous 19 seasons.

    • leowalter

      Wake up buddy ! There isn’t an MLB orginization in existence that is in that business for anything other than making a profit. The days of the Stonehams,Busch and Carpenter families are LOOONG gone. If you think the Yankees are spending billions for anything other than making a profit.,you are in dreamland.

      • jameskrug

        Leo, I’d actually argue that a lot of teams- especially some of the larger ones ironically- are more concerned with WINNING and breaking even than they are bottom-line profit.

        The Yankees are actually a perfect example. Growing up as a kid, I hated what the “Yankees did to baseball.” But over time, and after being saddled with 3 rounds of Pirates’ ownership unwilling to spend on their team, I grew to appreciate how the Yankees would spend whatever it took to win.

        Their market is much larger, their TV contract is huge, but they also compensate by putting waaaaaaay more into the team. Investing $500,000,000 in one offseason alone is a huge commitment to their fanbase!

    • jameskrug

      These have been some phenomenal responses, and I really appreciate everyone reading and responding. Hambone62, I think you and I are in rare company in that we wanted Morneau BACK. He was incredibly disappointing during his short time as a Pirate, but I also believe that, in looking at his career totals, he’s a far better player than that, even post-injury.

      • leowalter

        As for Morneau being ” ..a far better player than that, even post-injury.” I would like for you to prove that,rather than just type words with no backup proof or accountability. Overall,I found your column to be rather lacking in most respects,as you seem to have no clue as to how MLB orginizations are operated in the 21 st century.

        • jameskrug

          Morneau 2012 OPS: .773 (112 OPS+)
          Morneau 2013 OPS Twins: .741 (104 OPS+)
          Morneau 2013 OPS Pirates: .681 (97 OPS+)
          There. That wasn’t so hard.

          • leowalter

            Jmes,this is rather easy also. Justin Morneau : 2013 Twins : 0.8 WAR ; Pirates : 0.30. Oliver 2014 Projected WAR : 0.0. The next five years have him in negative WAR territory. And you think it would have been smart business to pay him $ 6 million ??? If you do,I hope you aren’t running a business in this manner,you will be out of it fairly quickly. And don’t give me that stuff about the Yankees and the money they spend. Theyhave admitted themselves that with all of the lost business last season they were FORCED to spend all of that money to show the fans they were making an effort. And if they ran their scouting and developement program correctly,they would NOT have had to spend all of that on free agents.

          • jameskrug

            In that case, Leo- since it seems you feel I’m being too critical of Pirates’ management- since you think Morneau at $6MM would be a dangerous contract, can you share your thoughts on Edinson Volquez (60 ERA+) at $5MM?

          • leowalter

            Let me state first,I wouldn’t have paid him 5 mil. But,if he meets his projections,and they can get 180 IP and a 0.30 – 0.50 WAR number out of him,they will at least have a pitcher that carries what theylost with an AJ Burnette retirement. If you don’t think that is more important than paying Justin Morneau to slap singles to the opposite field,more power to ya. And another word of advice : to establish some cred with serious Pirate fans,( and I don’t include myself ) use sources other than Bob Smizik when making a case. He is so stuck in the old way of MLB he will never get out of the hole with those folks

          • jameskrug

            So if I understand you correctly, Justin Morneau coming off of a 103 OPS+ season isn’t worth $6MM, but Edinson Volquez coming off of a 60 ERA+ season IS worth $5MM?
            1. It’d be one thing if you were going to bag on BOTH signings, but since you’re making fun of Morneau while defending Volquez in the same breath, that tells me you’re one of the type to find a way to defend what the front office does regardless. I don’t really respect that type of argument.
            2. There’s actually quite a few more sources than Bob Smizik, if you click on some of the other links. I have multiple links from Fangraphs- which is very well-respected in the sabermetrics crowd- and multiple financial pieces from well-respected sources.

          • leowalter

            If you are saying that I ” made fun of Justin Morneau ” you are even dumber than I thought. Do you have a reading comprehension problem ? And as far as you quoting Fangraph stats etc,WOW ! I am really impressed.Congratulations on joining the 21st Century,unlike your favorite retired Pittsburgh sportswriter/baseball mind,Bob Smizik.

          • jameskrug

            If your only defense at this point is to resort to personal slander because your statistically inconsistent response is being rightfully picked apart, then there’s no sense in me wasting more time on this exchange. Good day.

  • BSORaiderErie

    This is one reason Baseball has lost revenue share and only the owners and players can do what’s right for baseball. Until there’s more openness and trust baseball will continue to lose shares to other sports. Big teams can write off too much and the small teams are always wanting more free money! This is our nature but not until MLB becomes more balanced and competitive will they grow the sport from day 1 and not only upto a Playoff run! The Pirates have a lovely location and stadium which could be sold out every game but nobody understands the ownership or trust them! Lou Brock made me a St.Louis Fan and I have been one ever since but living 100 miles from Buffalo, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. we see alot of money prblems from these small market franchises, in all sports, and some is the ownership! I don’t believe that the MLB owners want to even the playing field like the NFL and NHL?

    • leowalter

      As good a player as Lou Brock was,you are going to tell me that he was that much more dynamic then Roberto Clemente that you wanted to root for him and the Cardinlas rather than the Pirates and Clemente ? If so,I feel sorry for you.

      • BSORaiderErie

        I loved Roberto but everybody was a Pirate fan or some Indian fans but St. Louis was our farm team, the Erie Cardinals, and that’s probably why I picked over Pittsburgh and the Raiders for football because at the time there were 3 guys from Erie on that team and unlike today’s fans I’m still a Raiders and Cardinals fan along with Penguins and 76ers! I always get tense when we play the Pirates because they seem to do good against the Cardinals each time they play!

  • Paul Bossung

    Most of this article is well said, even if the die-hard Pirates fan in me gets upset with some of it.

    I did listen to Frank Coonelly’s interview regarding their TV contract and I gathered something a little different from what he said. The differentiating fact is that the Pirates’ deal with ROOT Sports is good considering the TV market size. Although PIttsburgh’s market is not one of the absolute smallest in the MLB, their TV market size is proportionally smaller due to subscriptions and geographic area.

    I am upset that a 1B option hasn’t been truly pursued and think that Edinson Volquez is likely a wasted gamble. However, I am not horribly upset about not having Burnett, even if the situation should have been handled better. Who knows, he might use his veteran status to enter the season later to limit his innings. Even before Taillon appears later this year and Volquez was signed, the Pirates have a solid starting rotation with Liriano, Rodriguez, Morton, Cole, and Locke or Cumpton as possible 5th starters. Also, the PIrates have consistently delivered pitchers from their minor-league system that seem to come out of nowhere. If the Pirates were to spend big money, pitching is not where it should be done, first-base is.

    Also, if the money isn’t being spent now, it likely will be soon. All of this young talent will garner more through arbitration of long-term deals. Alvarez is the best example of someone who, with an improved average, could demand a huge contract.

    Finally, the Pirates have plenty of room to trade and sign players at a bargain between now and the beginning of the season. The hopeless romantic in me looks forward to those events.

    • jameskrug

      Great detailed response, Paul! The nice thing about the fangraphs TV contract article linked in the piece is that fangraphs breaks it down by relative market size. So while we shouldn’t expect the Pirates to get anything close to the Dodgers or Yankees, there are multiple similarly-sized franchises that are getting in the $30MM-40MM range per year, as opposed to the Pirates’ $18MM.

  • NorCalBuc

    Watching the season Francisco Liriano had, I see the possibility of Edison Volguez turning in a decent year for a number 5 starter. Also at number 5, we have others such as Locke, Cumpton, Irwin, and Pimentel. Soon, Taillon will be at PNC, to join Liriano, Cole, Morton, and Rodriguez.

    I’d say our pitching is in good hands. So, I feel the Brewers (Garza), Twins (Nolasco) and A’s (Kazmir) are pretty stupid for paying these guys that much.

    They were a finalist for the services of James Loney, His is the only signing that made sense. Jones, Morneau, Napoli, and Byrd were all smart decisions from this F/O, IMO.

    After our 97 win season last year, and the “award” this month as the number one farm system, I’m more than willing to go with the decisions of Mrs Nutting, Coonelly and Huntington.

  • Doc

    Seriously if both AJ and Sano have good years, and the Pirates flounder…. you will NEVER HEAR ANYTHING ELSE IN PITTSBURGH!

  • Jamie S

    QO to Burnett would have been over $14 million, not $12 million (not to split hairs). I do think it was short sighted not to offer him a QO. It would have put pressure on AJ to make a decision months ago, and would have kept the door open. AJ as a leader of the rotation turned around the team almost single handedly… I hate to pay players for what they’ve done but I think in this case not offering him a QO when he made the good faith statement of saying Pirates or bust was low class for the Pirates front office.

    That said, Volquez shows some of the key indicators as Liriano (high K rate, high GB rate and a walk rate that could improve with more aggressive first pitch strikes) and may experience a turn around with our defense and Martin framing his pitches. I’d much rather see them take a chance on Volquez for 1 year than commit to 3 or 4 for somebody like Ricky Nolasco or Scott Kazmir.

    But yeah, 1b is still a mess, and the Pirates lack of aggressiveness coming off such a great season with such a large influx of revenue is pretty inexcusable when that position is such a glaring weakness. However, there’s still over 2 months til opening day. Once Kendry Morales signs it’ll be interesting to see if any trades open up. Adam Lind or Mitch Moreland would sure look good platooning with Gaby at 1b.

  • Donald Goldvarg

    The most glaring omission this article didn’t state is the abandonment of Garrett Jones by the Pirate ownership. They never even bothered to tender an offer to what has been one of their most productive players over the last five years, save for a brief slump the second half of the 2013 season.
    Jones averaged 20 homeruns and 72 RBI’s over that time and provided solid defense at both first base and right field on an alternating basis game to game…which is not an easy thing to do on the major league level. Now the Pirates have really no one capable with a proven track record like Jones who can handle either position this year! What unbelievable stupidity. Garrett Jones was a first class player who helped this team immensely over his short tenure with the club. He deserved far better treatment than what he was accorded by this lame PBC ownership and management. They will deeply regret having made such a cheap and outlandishly poor decision.