The One Issue Pirates' GM Cherington Can't Escape
Houston Astros short stop, Carlos Correa, said in an interview recently that he is done talking about the sign-stealing scandal. Not a chance. He will be asked about it plenty more times between now and the end of his career. Pittsburgh Pirates' general manager, Ben Cherington, also has a topic on his hands that he won't be able to escape any time soon, and that is the Pirates' payroll.
If he isn't sick of answering questions about it now, he soon will be. It's the topic on the forefront of Pirates' fans' minds, and that's not changing until the figure does. That figure currently sits at around $52 million, which will put them firmly in the position of 28th (out of 30) lowest in the game. Only the Marlins and Orioles will spend less this season.
It was the question every Pirates' fan wanted to know the answer to when Ben Cherington was hired, and it's only gotten louder since. In his introductory press conference, Cherington assured fans that he believed he would have the resources he needs to build a winner, and on Sunday, a few months into the job, he echoed that sentiment.
"I really think the total investment in the baseball operation is not ‘just enough’ but really competitive with the rest of the teams in the major leagues. We want to make investments in technology and people. The budget structure is there to be able to do that. The reallocation of those resources may change over time, but I’m really confident and feel good about the resources being there when we need them."
In other words, Cherington is saying that the Pirates are competitive when it comes to the spending on the people who are building the team, and they will have the flexibility to reallocate those resources to the player payroll when the time is right. This is right in line with Bob Nutting's comment about "putting the foot on the gas."
I wrote two weeks ago that it would be nice to know what car Nutting envisions himself in when using that illustration, and Ben Cherington's comments don't help much there. When Cherington says that he believes he will have the resources to build a winner, how resourceful is he? Maybe he views himself like a real life MacGyver and he can create something spectacular from just about anything. However, to keep with the illustration, MacGyver's inventions were never built to last. There's only so many times that something made from a gum band, a paper clip, and some sulfuric acid that was just laying around can work. That has been my main concern; more than the 2020 payroll, it's can Ben Cherington sustain a winner? I should say, can Ben and Bob Nutting sustain a winner.
There's no doubt the Pirates can build one; that's been done as recently as five years ago. In 2015, the Pirates had the second best record in baseball (2 games from having the league's best mark). Unfortunately for them, the Cardinals were number one, and that put the Bucs in a one-game playoff against the best pitcher in baseball at the time. So, I have no problem with the Pirates' ability to build a winner, but I question how long it can last.
Cherington is taking a gradual approach to building this team, starting with the young core and adding from there. It's very different from his method of building his last championship team. When he was general manager of the Boston Red Sox he spent over $60 million in a single off-season. That injection of new talent propelled the Red Sox to a World Series championship. That invention was much like the MacGyver illustration, however, it didn't last. The very next season they lost 91 games, and spelled the beginning of the end of Cherington's tenure in Boston.
The point is that it's going to take a partnership from Cherington and Nutting to make this work. Ben is building the prototype from some paper clips, hole punchers, and hand sanitizer that he found in Bob Nutting's office. When it works, it's up to Nutting to supply him with better material to scale it. I don't think that it's necessary that they compete with the Yankees and Dodgers when it comes to spending, but they certainly need to continually raise their self-imposed salary cap.
Going back to that Pirates' team of 2015, it sure felt like a time to "put the foot on the gas." The Pirates hovered around $100 million during that three-year window, and quickly shed salary over the next few years to a point now where they are about half of that. I can tell you from being immersed in the discussion around the Pittsburgh Pirates that fans don't have the patience for that model anymore. This new approach needs to be towards something sustainable, something that allows fans to grow up watching a player in PNC Park live out his career, get his number retired, enter the Hall of Fame, all as a Pirate.
I have faith in Ben Cherington to make good on his end of this, but will watch with skepticism when it becomes time for Nutting to put his foot on the gas.
Until then, like with Carlos Correa and the Astros, we should keep talking about it. We can provide Cherington some grace who, like Dusty Baker in the Astros' press conference, is answering for a problem he didn't create, but we shouldn't let the fact that we demand more be forgotten.
Follow Jared on Twitter: @a_piratelife