I was listening to sports talk radio Sunday night, and during an on-going discussion about the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the awesome year they are having, someone called in and, unlike previous callers, was a bit combative regarding an interview that a local reporter had conducted with Pirates owner Bob Nutting. He said, "next time he interviews Nutting, ask him when he's going to spend some money." The host pointed out some things that the caller didn't agree with because of his blind hate for Nutting, and this then opened up Pandora's box, and other callers and texters to the show started to chime in and wonder why the Pirates payroll is so low.
This is the kind of stuff that has always irritated me. I was driving at the time, and if my car wasn't so awesome and new, I might have punched it a lot out of frustration.
I'm certainly not a Pirates apologist, and I don't always agree with everything they do (see A.J. Burnett), but I'm not always right, either (again, see A.J. Burnett).
I'm definitely not a sabermetrics guy--my eye-lids tend to get heavy whenever that's too much a part of any baseball discussion--but I do think I understand the economics of baseball, and I'm pretty sure I know how a team like the Pirates needs to operate in order to succeed.
And you know what? Since 2008, under Nutting, president Frank Coonelly, and gm Neal Huntington, the Pirates have operated the team like they should, and IT'S STARTING TO PAY OFF! I don't know if there was any talk of a five year plan when the current regime took over--and if there was, I could certainly understand any uproar over such talk--but if there was an official plan, it is actually working! Here we are in the fifth year under Nutting and Co., and the team has one of the best records in baseball, and four of their recent number one draft choices are on the Major League roster and are vital contributors to the team's success.
You would think that would be good enough, and you would think that the old sentiment of "when's Nutting gonna spend some money" would be washed away in the excitement of a talented young team in the middle of a pennant race. But there are people out there who just refuse to enjoy themselves.
Who cares what the Pirates current payroll is? They have the best player in baseball right now in Andrew McCutchen. Would they have been able to get anyone like that in free agency? No. Teams like the Pirates get players like McCutchen by drafting them and developing them from within. The Pirates could never get a McCutchen as a free agent. If Cutch was playing for some other team and in the last year of his contract, him coming to Pittsburgh wouldn't even be a consideration. The experts would just speculate on who would win the bidding war between the Yankees, Angels and Red Sox.
Why should anyone care how much a team pays its players as long as the team is contending? Does it matter that the team's payroll is $63 million? You know who is one tick above Pittsburgh in the payroll department? The Rays, maybe the perfect model for a small market team. They draft well, they develop well, they don't give away their top prospects, and they've never signed Albert Pujols.
And because they developed a plan to compete as a small market team, they've been one of the major players in the ridiculously tough AL East for the past five seasons.
So, now that the Pirates have become a contender and have done so by using a system of drafting well and developing players from within, what do people mean when they say, "Spend more money"?
What do they want the team to spend more money on? It actually makes sense that a small market team with a handful of core players under financial control for a few more years would have a lower payroll. That's how it should be.
The Pirates did sign McCutchen to a six year, $51.5 million contract before the season. It's turning out to be a real bargain, and it guarantees that he'll be with the team through his early 30's. Is he making Pujols money? No. Would it make you feel any better if he was?
I know I could care less how much money Andrew McCutchen is making, but I sure love that .373 average, and the rest of his triple crown-like numbers.
The team actually has spent a little over $24 million on free agents and trades over the past couple of years (that's just on players that I actually researched). But with the exception of Burnett, who may actually be the Pirates' best starting pitcher, the players they picked up have just been complementary pieces. Why? Because that's all a team like the Pirates can actually hope for when signing free agents.
I know what you're going to say, "Why don't they just take that $24 million and sign one big time free agent?" Because, for one thing, no big time free agent is going to come to Pittsburgh, at least not yet. And even if the Josh Hamiltons of the world did want to sign with Pittsburgh, why would you want them to dedicate so much of their limited resources to one player? Just so you can say that they did it?
When it comes to the Pirates, you just have to hope that the young core performs the way its been performing this season so those complementary players actually serve a useful purpose.
What makes Rod Barajas, and his $4 million contract, a valuable and useful member of the team, despite his .212/8/19 stat-line, is being paired up with Michael McKenry behind the plate and his .248/7/19 stat-line. That's some pretty decent production from the catcher's spot. Can you imagine if Barajas had to start the majority of the games this season? He probably wouldn't seem as valuable.
What allows Clint Barmes, and his $5 million salary, to be primarily a defensive shortstop is the fact that most of the key hitters in the lineup have found their stroke. Barmes' .206 batting average can be absorbed a bit because he's playing in an infield with Pedro Alvarez, the 2008 first round draft choice who has finally come on to the tune of leading all NL third basemen with 21 home runs, and Neil Walker, the team's 2004 top draft choice who is quickly becoming one of the best second basemen in baseball. On a 90-loss team, Barmes would just be a poor man's Jack Wilson.
And Burnett's 11-3 record is impressive, but he'd probably be a .500 pitcher without the sudden offensive firepower and the fact that Brad Lincoln, the team's 2006 first round pick, is part of maybe the best bullpen in baseball. On a losing team, the 35 year old Burnett would still be valuable, but instead of being a mentor to the pitching staff and a clubhouse leader, he'd be a valuable trading chip at the deadline.
I could go on and on with examples, but you get my point. The Pirates are where they are this year because they've been able to build a young nucleus through their farm system. And they've been able to do that because Nutting gave the go-ahead to be more aggressive in the draft and in the international market.
But I know most people who don't like Nutting will never give him his due. But who cares about that anyway? Instead of worrying about the payroll, why don't you just pay attention to the standings? That's much more exciting.