Pittsburgh Pirates owner, Bob Nutting, addressed the Pirates' low spending while speaking with fans at PiratesFest. He said that the plan is to "make sure when we have an opportunity to really put the foot on the gas, we're able to do it." In other words, the Pirates are spending low now so that, when they have a team they want to spend on, they have the money to do it. That actually sounds like a perfectly reasonable strategy to me, but I'm not without questions or concerns.
First off, what does it mean for a Bob Nutting-owned team to "put the foot on the gas?" Have we seen that happen before? When I hear that illustration, I think of a Bugatti hitting 60 MPH in 2.5 seconds, but Nutting may envision a Volkswagen Beetle driving from stoplight to stoplight in town.
For example, in 2011, the Pirates' payroll was at a very similar position as it is today, right around $48 million. By 2015, it more than doubled to $99 million. It stuck around there for a few years, and now, as you know, the gas has run out. Is that what we have to look forward to?
Payroll peaked in 2016 (still just above $99 million), but was still a Gerrit Cole contract away from the league average.
A stingy owner could very easily, and somewhat correctly, say that doubling the team's payroll over the course of 4 years is, as he puts it, putting the "foot on the gas," and, if that is his mentality this time around, it is a perfect example of the disconnect between this owner and the fans. The fans would appreciate a 2x increase in payroll more if it didn't follow an equal decrease years earlier.
Right now, it seems as if Bob Nutting's approach to spending is much like a pendulum, they reduce it down so far so that they can reset and gain momentum to ramp it up again to whatever the self-imposed salary cap is at the time. Then, once again, bleed it out only to try again. This can work, but as we've seen, the pendulum doesn't always come back as quickly as we'd like. Sometimes, there are Chris Archer trades that halt the momentum. The point is, they can't miss with that approach and expect unending patience from the fans, because that payroll decrease isn't just a decrease in dollars from an Excel sheet, it's the departure of fan favorites such as Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. Gary Morgan pointed out a couple of weeks ago that he has not, in his lifetime, seen one of his favorite players begin and end his career with the Pirates. That's meaningful, and if the team doesn't have the success to counteract that negative, it's a real problem.
The second concern I have with Nutting's statement deals with the backward swing of that pendulum. When he says that he is willing to accelerate spending, to stick with the illustration, what's the capacity of the gas tank? How long is he willing to stick that out, and do we have to let the tank go to empty before we refill it? Can't we use the winnings from the success we had to reinvest and make the backward swing easier to bare? That's what the Cardinals have done. St. Louis is a smaller market than Pittsburgh, but they figured out a way to leverage their success. They use to have a below average payroll, but they steadily increased it, and now consistently spend among the top-10 teams. They still have some ebbs, but they aren't nearly as drastic as what the Pirates put their fans through.
Could it be that Nutting is willing to spend more, but hasn't had a general manager capable of managing talent to the extent that it is worth it? Sure. I've always felt that Neal Huntington was pretty good at acquiring talent, but very poor at managing (and developing) it once he had it. Until Ben Cherington was hired, Huntington was the only GM Nutting ever had under his ownership. Maybe Cherington can do better and entice Nutting to keep the foot on the gas longer, and to refuel more often, but, until he does, Nutting's promises are ones we've heard before and never saw come to fruition.
As I've said before, I'm fine with the payroll being where it is, because it's a starting point. I believe we are getting a bargain on the talent we have. I look forward to the point where Nutting presses the pedal down and gives some of those guys extensions, but we've seen all that before. I will be waiting for the next phase. What happens after that next team finishes their run? When are we going to upgrade the Beetle to something with a little more punch?
Follow Jared on Twitter: @a_piratelife