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Gaming the System

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Where I try really hard not to yell at clouds.

Pittsburgh Pirates v New York Yankees
Grow them, then buy them.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

We all know the refrain: the Pirates will never win anything because Bob Nutting is cheap.

It never fails to amuse me that paying lavishly for free agents is not only tolerated now, but expected. “Buying championships,” once an epithet, has become part of the business of not only baseball, but all sports. General managers wheel and deal, hoping that buying that particular guy will magically unlock the gate that leads to triumph and champagne showers.

Does it work? Occasionally.

Winning the World Series is the ultimate goal in MLB. Every team has that goal. As I wrote last week, no one sets out to suck. I’m stating the obvious here, I know, but follow along anyway.

No matter what the payroll is, teams start with the arrangement they believe will get them wins. Things, however, have a way of happening. That flashy free-agent acquisition on which a team placed so much hope blows out his knee in the second week of spring training and is out for the season. The young flamethrower that showed such promise last year is suddenly throwing everywhere but over the plate. The formerly reliable slugger seemingly forgets how to hit anything but pop-ups. All of those things happen. A lot.

But then there are the teams that just happen to start pulling things together. Everyone stays healthy, and health is by far the most important key to success. The pitching may not be spectacular, but it’s reliable. And even if it’s only by one run—and as long as a team scores one more run than the other team, it gets the W—the team starts winning consistently.

And if all that happens at the right time, and the team gets into the postseason, which is the actual season, good things can happen.

Now I fully expect people to moan and complain and throw out statistics. However, what every sports team does every year is gamble. Bob Nutting is gambling in a different way. Could he throw out the big bucks? Technically, yes. But why should he if he doesn’t have to? After all, the Tampa Bay Rays, which had the the lowest payroll in MLB, made it to the playoffs last season. That’s what he’s hoping for. But here’s Ben Cherington, who has experience with both high and low payrolls. I believe he’s aiming to develop a home-grown star, then convince Nutting to pay that guy the big bucks to stay in Pittsburgh, then in turn start enticing free agents. That’s what the Angels are doing with Mike Trout right now.

And in case you missed it, the Angels, with the tenth highest payroll last year, won a whopping three more games than the Pirates. Do you think that was their ultimate goal?