There was a time when the Pittsburgh Pirates were the last team any free agent of note would ever sign a contract. Unfortunately, it wasn’t all that long ago, then a catcher named Russell Martin took an offer from Neal Huntington to be the cornerstone of his young club. A veteran who had options on the table from several clubs including the LA Dodgers and the Toronto Blue Jays, the team of his beloved homeland Canada. Neal, overpaid for Martin to be quite honest, but this wasn’t just a typical free agent signing, you see the Pirates had put themselves in a real pickle, nobody wanted to sign with them.
It’s a problem that has played out here over the years several times leading to other attempts like Derek Bell, famous for Operation Shutdown, and Matt Morris, far past his prime and out of options but still had a name Dave Littlefield felt he could sell to the fans.
Surely the Pirates need to spend more money but at times there is nobody out there who wants it, at least not from the Pirates. This can be cyclical, and history shows it has been here throughout the years. The difference here in the Burgh is simply put, when the cycle comes around and players actually want to stay or join the club, they fail to put up what is needed.
After signing Russell Martin, the Pirates were building a team. A real team with potential, led by Andrew McCutchen. He was a real leader and the talent was unmistakable. He was showing flashes of the way this club was building and acquiring AJ Burnett to lead the pitching staff showed the Pirates weren’t here to be the punching bag of the NL Central anymore. They sure weren’t, they went on the most successful run since the early 1990s.
Following the first Wild Card season the Pirates wanted another piece to compliment AJ, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and a promising rookie Jameson Taillon. Rumors swirled about who the target would be and ultimately the Pirates settled for a journeyman reclamation project named Edinson Volquez. It worked, but the Pirates were still coming up short on the big name they really needed. This story played out over the next few seasons and led directly to the club pulling the trigger on a blockbuster deadline deal to bring Chris Archer on board.
You see, the club was so desperate to land a big name and get back to the position they sat in when Martin was signed. A time when the market believed in what the Pirates were doing, and how they were operating. It hasn’t worked out at all as the team planned but, at the time, it was a very nice sign that once again the Pirates were done being the punching bag.
Now its 2019, damn near 2020, and the Pirates could find themselves right back where they were before the fateful day Russell said yes. Look no further than the sentiments recently shared by Starling Marte in which he expressed his openness to being dealt to the Mets.
Here’s the direct quote translated from Spanish:
“If I had it in me, I would leave at this point because the caliber of players that we have is not enough to compete in a World Series. The Mets have everything. It would be a great opportunity to play with them.”
Now, you can say “Shut up Starling, you’ll play here and like it” or “Good, he didn’t hustle every single time anyhow” but both of those sentiments miss the point entirely. Look at what he actually said, the caliber of players that we have is not enough to compete. That’s not small. That is the exact sentiment that players the Pirates attempt to sign must overcome in order to come and play in Pittsburgh. How can you convince those prospective free agents that Pittsburgh wants to win a World Series with them as a piece needed to get there when your biggest piece, your shiniest jewel himself wants out?
This is the result of the club putting itself in a very difficult position. Its one thing for the fans to lose faith, that can happen for any number of reasons and, let’s face it everyone, we can be very reactionary. It’s a whole new level when the players themselves want out. They had an opportunity to stop this and I could argue it would have been a bad baseball move, but this status they enjoy right now in the league is potentially worse. They could have extended Andrew McCutchen. Yes, he was on the downside of his career. Yes, the move returned some fabulous talent in the form of Crick and Reynolds. Yes, they would have needed to increase payroll a bit. But you know what, Cutch wanted to be here and would easily have signed a career ending contract with your Pittsburgh Pirates.
That’s culture. That’s never letting your face of the franchise leave. That’s earning the trust of your fanbase and the trust of, and this is arguably more important, the pool of free agents. As it stands now, there are plenty of players available and sure the Pirates could sign any number of them. However, if you ever want to compete for the Madison Bumgarners of the world, the Yasmani Grandalls, the Pirates will have to overpay and handsomely at that. Because there is quite frankly nothing short of grossly overpaying for the services of an aging star. It needs to work out better than Bell and Morris did and that’s easier said than done.
I would tell you that Marte would be a perfect person to extend and show the league they mean business, but I feel that ship may have sailed, walking back statements like that will be hard especially in the face of a new management team that won’t want to seem weak. A desperate situation becomes more so, and the Pirates need to face it head on.
As we discuss the ever-decreasing number of targets the Pirates could or should go after, keep in mind the added level of difficulty the franchise has created for itself. There is more than money at play especially when it comes to veterans that want that one shot at the ultimate prize of their profession, because right now the Pirates can’t offer that and the list of players that think they alone can change that reality is even smaller than the Buccos’ budget.
Edit: The article was edited to correct an error that had Chris Carpenter, and not Matt Morris, as being added to the team by Dave Littlefield.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007