(Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug; opening image credit espncdn)
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.
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.
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.
- SP Edinson Volquez– 60 ERA+ in 2013 (keep in mind the “average” ERA+ and OPS+ is 100) ($5MM)
- SS Clint Barmes– 58 OPS+ in 2013 ($2MM)
- C Chris Stewart (acquired via trade)- 57 OPS+ in 2013 ($1MM arbitration)
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.
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 deal. GM 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,
“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.
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!
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!
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.