Is Bob Nutting Bluffing?

I've been playing a lot of poker recently, so please excuse the long poker metaphor that follows. For those of you who aren't familiar with the game, feel free to skip forward to the sixth paragraph.

I was in the middle stages of a multi-table no-limit hold-em tournament today. I picked up pocket jacks, an excellent but vulnerable hold 'em hand, in middle position, and raised to two and a half times the big blind. Everyone folded to the big blind, who I knew to be a terrible and loose player. He called.

The flop came king, queen, two, which was bad for me because it meant my opponent had taken the lead if either of his hole cards were a king or queen. But he checked to me, so I bet about two-thirds the pot and he called. The turn was a low card that didn't worry me at all, and my opponent checked again. I checked also, not wanting to build a big pot with what was, at that point, a mediocre hand. The river was another deuce. He checked and I made a small value bet, hoping my loose opponent would call me with ace high or a low pocket pair. He promptly re-raised for a large portion of my stack.

This was weird. If my opponent legitimately had me beat with a king, he might have re-raised me on the flop, or at least bet the turn. If one of the low cards gave him trips or a set, his large re-raise at the end was too big if he wanted to get me to put more money in the pot, and anyway those hands were statistically unlikely. A queen was possible, but then why didn't he just call me on the river? That hand would have had some value, so if he had a queen he'd probably just call, hoping to see a showdown as cheaply as possible.

The bottom line was that his story didn't make much sense. It was possible he had me beat, but his river raise smelled like a bluff, and a bad one, from a player I already knew was loose and unskilled. So I called with my jacks. He flipped over ten-seven, an absolute zero of a hand, and started ranting about what a horrible player I was as I took down the pot.

Now, awesome stories about how great I am aside, Pirates fans' position with regard to Bob Nutting is very much like a poker game. Nutting holds a couple of cards, and for the past couple of years Pirates fans have been trying to guess what they are. And in poker, the first thing you do to guess if someone's telling the truth is to ask this: Does the story make sense?

When Nutting tells the story of what he's doing with the Pirates, it is indeed mostly coherent--the Bucs will build a core of young talent and then raise payroll when those players become costly, and when a few extra players could be the difference between a pennant winner and an also-ran. This is perfectly reasonable; the difference between a 70-win team and a 66-win team isn't great, but the difference between an 87-win team and a 91-win team is potentially enormous in terms of a team's playoff chances, so free agent complementary players have a lot more value if you already have an 87-win core. And the only good way for a team like the Pirates to build an 87-win core is to do it with young guys, who are much cheaper and generally better than free agents.

Nutting continues to say the right things about the draft:

We need another great draft. We've had two good ones, and we need to do it again. And again and again.

I'll buy that the Pirates actually will do this because, as Nutting says, they've already spent a ton of money in the draft twice in a row. The spending on the Latin American academy is another strong sign that there's an actual signal here, not just noise.

Elsewhere, Nutting claims that the Pirates are running an "orderly, systematic plan" from which he won't stray just to placate fans now by raising the payroll, but that he will increase the Bucs' payroll as the team matures. For now, I'll buy this, because it's exactly the right strategy and it's the strategy I'd pursue if I owned the team.

It is possible Nutting is using this strategy as a convenient excuse to keep payroll low. While I'm sure Nutting doesn't mind the payroll being low right now, though, I'm not sure I believe the strategy is merely a convenient excuse, because then the Pirates' everybody-gets-a-car routine in the draft the past two years doesn't make a lot of sense. If your goal is to be cheap, why dump a ton of money into the draft, which doesn't maintain most fans' interest after the first round? (And why, especially, would you dump a ton of money into the draft but not dump it into that one pick most fans care about, the way the Pirates did last year when they selected Tony Sanchez fourth overall and then tossed out tons of cash to interesting late-round pitchers?)

The more likely explanation is that Nutting simply doesn't believe that dramatically raising the major league payroll will be a good idea until there's a talent base to support it. This is clearly a defensible belief--a team like the Pirates could spend far more than it does now and still spend less than the Cubs or Mets, for example, so the smart thing to do is to build with young players, who are cheap, rather than engaging in a payroll arms race that the Pirates are sure to lose. Until the Bucs do have a good base of young players, spending a bunch of money in the free agent market just doesn't make a ton of sense, at least not as a general principle. (I say "at least not as a general principle" because it is true that it might not be the worst thing in the world for the Pirates to make a bit more noise with a veteran acquisition, the way the Nationals did with Alfonso Soriano, but only if the situation was right in terms of years of financial obligation, the player's willingness to come to Pittsburgh, the player's fit on the team, the cost of compensatory draft picks, and/or trade costs. Finding a star player who meets all those criteria would be difficult, to say the least, but the Pirates shouldn't rule it out completely.)

If we go back to the poker hand above, then, most of the information I'm getting from Nutting leads me to believe he really does have a king. I still have questions--he had a pretty sketchy history from several years ago when he was involved with the team while Kevin McClatchy was nominally in charge, and I'd like to see greater investment in Latin American talent (beyond just building the academy). Also, although the Pirates quickly found a probably superior replacement in Octavio Dotel, the Bucs' money-saving dismissal of Matt Capps was strange.

There's also the possibility that, unlike my opponent today, Nutting is a good poker player who's very skilled at telling lies. This is surely what some of you will believe, although it still doesn't explain why he has authorized tons of spending in the draft, or why he talks about the importance of the draft in nearly every interview he gives.

In general, the story Nutting is telling is a pretty good one, and I'm willing to adopt the tentative hypothesis that he really is serious about building a winning team in Pittsburgh. For now, that means a strong emphasis on young talent, and it's clear, at least to me, that Nutting is serious about developing young talent. His clear commitment to the draft demonstrates this, and so does the series of bold trades for young players that the Bucs have made in the past year or so.

But young talent alone is rarely enough, so we really do need to see more spending once a good core of players begins to mature, becomes more expensive, and needs to be complemented with other players. I'll buy that Nutting really does plan to spend more later, because the investments in the draft are a very strong indication of good faith, because his stated goal (developing a contender with a base of young talent) makes sense for the Pirates, and because his refusal to raise the payroll mostly makes sense right now. Is Nutting bluffing? Does he really only hold a worthless ten-seven? Maybe, but based on what we've seen so far, I wouldn't bet on it, and in this case, that's a good thing.

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