The Pirates Having the Second Lowest Payroll is Fine...For Now
Before I get started, if you came here to give me an all caps response on how Pittsburgh Pirates' owner, Bob Nutting, needs to spend more, I agree with you. No matter what the opening day figure ends up being, John Perrotto of the Tribune says it will be baseball's second lowest, it will be a low number that is reflective of an owner who has historically deprioritized winning. With that said, he has done everything he can possibly do this off-season, short of selling the team, to get the franchise back on the right track. Now, with a new baseball ops department still operating under the albatross of Nutting's ownership, it's important they are smart with the money that is allocated to the payroll, and overspending in free agency isn't smart money.
Again, let me reiterate how justified you are in being frustrated with the spending (or lack of) patterns of this owner. You are going on three decades of Pirates' ownership who seemingly refuses to invest in the team, but Ben Cherington is going on three months. I try my best to disconnect the office of the GM from the office of the owner. The goal of the owner is to be profitable, and winning is one way to make that happen. The GM will be judged only on if he wins, and he gets to do it in one of the most difficult places in the league — in Pittsburgh under Bob Nutting.
Forgive me for this next bit, but after learning of the passing of Terry Jones, I've been thinking about Monty Python. Ben Cherington choosing to build a team in Pittsburgh (with Nutting's ownership) is much like building a castle in a swamp. "Everyone said he was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but he built it all the same, just to show them." Great line from a great movie. The point is, you can't build a winner in Pittsburgh like you can in New York or Boston. If you do, the castle will "burn down, fall over and sink into the swamp."
Ben Cherington is looking to build a sustainable winner in Pittsburgh, and in order to do that, he has to build the system to fuel the machine. He's already laid out the high-level process for how this machine will run, and that is to identify, acquire, develop, and deploy talent. Some of that talent could be deployed to PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Some of will be deployed elsewhere in return for other players via trades, but he needs the pieces and we don't have them right now.
The Pirates currently have a farm system that ranks in the middle-of-the-pack. That's not going to do. I'd much rather see him replenish the pipeline than overspend on a free agent. It is that farm system that will allow him to operate under the limitations that Bob Nutting's ownership presents.
The low payroll was one Cherington inherited, and it could work to his advantage. It's a clean slate. There are no immovable contracts, no one the team has invested so heavily in that they are untouchable. That may sound scary to some fans. It could mean that players you know well could be moved in exchange for ones you've never heard of, but those are decisions that we need to trust Ben Cherington to make. Again, he's three months into this. Bob Nutting may have lost your trust, but Ben has not. Also, had Cherington been given the green light and opened Nutting's pocketbook, who would they have signed that would have made a real difference in their 2020 World Series hopes? They certainly could have improved the team this year, but it may have come at the expense of players currently in the system and probably wouldn't have been enough to be real contenders in the NL.
That previous paragraph represents the first part of the headline, now for the second part. The Pirates cannot continually remain at the bottom of the league in payroll and expect that machine to run well. At some point, the players Cherington identified, acquired, and developed will need to be paid, and Nutting will need to pony up and pay them. I hear you scoffing at that last line, and I get it. But, it's exactly why the Pirates should not be winning bidding wars in free agency for players they don't know well. If payroll dollars are a scarce resource, and they are, we should be pushing for the Pirates to spend them on players we know can help us win, the ones our front office identified, acquired, and developed.
So, while we roll our eyes the next time Bob Nutting complains about the economic hurdles of a small-market team, let's not stop rooting for the guy who has to operate under those self-imposed hurdles. He chose to build to build the castle in Bob Nutting's swamp. So, maybe he has the blueprint. I'm giving him a year to see it.
Follow Jared on Twitter: @a_piratelife