The high-water mark of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 21st century came on the night of Oct. 1, 2013, as 40,487 fans clad in black and gold rang PNC Park with chants of “CUE-TO, CUE-TO.” On the mound stood Reds ace Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati’s choice to start the NL wild-card game against a Pirates team that was making its first postseason appearance in 21 years. But in the second inning, he’d run into trouble, surrendering a solo home run to Marlon Byrd that brought out the chants. A few minutes later, Cueto, while facing Russell Martin, dropped the ball while transferring it from glove to hand. The chants grew louder. On the very next pitch, Martin rocketed a ball out over the left-center wall for a home run. The chants became deafening.
It had been two decades since Pirates fans had anything at all to cheer about, much less a playoff team. Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati that night to advance to the Division Series, then took a 2–1 lead on the Cardinals. The Pirates’ first trip to a pennant series since 1992 was one win away. But then the wave broke as the Cardinals rallied to win the series and move on to the NLCS. The Pirates made the playoffs the next two years but ran into Madison Bumgarner in the former and Jake Arrieta in the latter and lost in the wild-card game both times. Pittsburgh slumped from 98 wins in 2015 to 78 in ’16 to 75 last year. That wild October night receded further and further into the distance.
Now the hope of ever getting back to those heights seems to be a lifetime away. Over the course of 48 hours from Saturday through Monday, the Pirates didn’t just punt their 2018 chances by trading Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen; they also announced that sustained contention in Pittsburgh is a pipe dream. In trading both players—Cole to Houston, McCutchen to San Francisco—ownership declared the current team’s window of opportunity shut and moved on to sowing the seeds for the future. But it’s hard not to feel like, even as the team was coming off that magical 2013 run, the Pirates didn’t do enough to keep that window open as long as they could.
Few teams could boast as impressive a young core as the 2013 Pirates. McCutchen, Cole, Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, and Josh Harrison were all homegrown stars under 30, with top prospect Gregory Polanco joining them in 2014. The pieces were in place to build something special and sustainable. But winter after winter, the small-market Pirates refused to spend or sacrifice prospects. The winter after the wild-card win over the Reds, Pittsburgh’s only addition of note was journeyman starter Edinson Volquez. A year later, it was the low-cost veteran combo of A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. And the year after that, coming off 98 wins and a second-place finish in the NL Central, the offseason consisted of letting Alvarez walk and trading Walker to the Mets while signing bargain-bin options like John Jaso, Ryan Vogelsong, and David Freese.
To do so little when given McCutchen, Cole and more is a baseball crime. The next step was within reach, but every time, the Pirates pulled up short, choosing instead to spend little or stick to the status quo. Contrast that to their fellow small-market also-rans, the Royals, who similarly turned a fecund farm system into surprise contention but also chose to go for it when they had the chance, landing Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto at the 2015 trade deadline, cost be damned. The result: the first World Series title in Kansas City in 30 years. Pittsburgh, sitting on its hands year after year, will enter 2018 on a 39-year title drought.
And you can expect that streak to go on indefinitely, because Pirates ownership has made it clear that spending what it takes to make the team a contender isn’t ever going to be in the cards. Here’s what Pittsburgh principal owner Bob Nutting told reporters on Monday night after trading McCutchen:
Reading that response, keep in mind that Nutting is a billionaire who owns a newspaper conglomerate and is the chairman of a ski resort in Pennsylvania. Keep in mind that, before the 2017 season, Forbes valued the Pirates as being worth $1.25 billion. Keep in mind that the Pirates are revenue sharing recipients, and that their $109 million payroll in 2017 was 25th in the league, some $50 million below the MLB average. Keep in mind that, in 2010, the AP reported that Pittsburgh—which opened that season with the lowest payroll in baseball at just $39.4 million—made $29.4 million in ’07 and ’08. And keep in mind that, at some point this year, every MLB owner, including Nutting, will receive $50 million from the league, no strings attached, as part of its sale of a majority stake in BAMTech to Disney (on top of the $33 million each already received in 2016 for a minority stake sale).
Does that sound like a team that needs to be counting every penny, or that can’t find a way to put the pieces around McCutchen and Cole to compete for a World Series? Those two players will make just under $22 million combined in 2018, a pittance in today’s market, yet Pittsburgh decided that was a financial bridge too far. And from the way Nutting makes it sound, nothing would have changed that. A team worth a billion dollars and with nearly $300 million in revenue last year chooses to hide behind cries of poverty. A billionaire complains about how the game is rigged against him and chooses to cut payroll, deal away stars, and play next season on the cheap (the Pirates have a mere $70 million on the books for 2018). In the battle between the fans and the bottom line, the money won.
Therein lies the real tragedy of the Pirates dealing away Cole and McCutchen. After two decades of irrelevance and stupidity and stinginess and losing, after watching top-10 draft picks get wasted on Bryan Bullington and J.J. Davis and Bobby Bradley, the Pirates had finally unearthed true franchise stars. Here was a gift beyond belief—and the Pirates wasted it. They had the chance to break through, to build teams around McCutchen and Cole that would contend for years. But instead, they’ve torn it all down because it would’ve cost too much.
All across Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania, kids and adults alike are taking down McCutchen posters or bundling up jerseys and trying to talk themselves into believing that the next Cole and McCutchen are just around the corner. But there are plenty more who recognize this as the usual song and dance from a team that refuses to try, that just gave away the face of the franchise to save a few million dollars and will be nigh unwatchable for who knows how long, and that the next McCutchen will be shipped out, too, the moment his price gets too high.
McCutchen loved the city of Pittsburgh, and they loved him back. He was their superstar, the one who was going to carry them back to glory. Instead, they’ll watch from afar as he toils for another team, thousands of miles away from the home that should have been his forever. They deserved a better ending than this—and a better future than the one Pirates ownership has condemned them to.