The Pirates announced that they were parting ways with GM Neal Huntington, who was one of the longest tenured GMs in baseball, having been in that role since 2007. He is another victim of the Pirates cleaning house after a massively disappointing 69-win season after winning 82 games last year, and they were projected by multiple projection systems to be an 80-win team. The team also has not made the playoffs in four years, and there is no sign that they will return anytime soon.
To Huntington’s credit, he succeeded in breaking the Pirates’ playoff drought in 2013 in what was then the league’s longest playoff absence at 21 years, thanks to developing a strong farm system and being one of the earlier adopters of sabermetrics among GMs. The team slowly got better until their big breakthrough in 2013, when they won 94 games after having not cracked .500 since their previous playoff appearance in 1992. This kicked off a three-year streak of making the postseason, the last of which saw the team win 98 games, though unfortunately that was not even enough to win the division because of how competitive the NL Central was in 2015. They lost in the NLWC game, as they had the year before.
It is no secret that Huntington’s job was severely hampered by owner Bob Nutting’s complete unwillingness to spend. Even in their first two playoff years this decade, the Pirates ranked in the bottom five in the league by payroll. In 2015, Nutting shockingly decided to spend money, and the Pirates’ payroll rose to nearly $100 million from below $80 million the year before, but that still ranked only 23rd in baseball. It is worth noting that the increased payroll coincided with that 98-win season.
Huntington just did not have much to work with, and neither will his successor. He was able to get by thanks to strong player development, but that advantage disappeared in recent years for one reason or another. Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, and Austin Meadows made huge gains after being traded, albeit to the two best teams when it comes to player development in the Astros and Rays. They acquired Chris Archer last year in a peculiar trade, and then he had his worst year of his career this season with a 5.49 RA9.
As Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchick discussed in the excellent The MVP Machine, player development is everything nowadays. In today’s baseball environment, GMs have to be able to develop organizations that excel in this area. That was likely a factor in the Red Sox dismissing Dave Dombrowski, despite the fact that he had won them a World Series last year, and then hiring Chaim Bloom from the Rays. I am sure the Pirates are disappointed that they missed out on that hire.
The farm system is in decent shape, but it needs to be improved for the Pirates to return to contention. One would think that a 93-loss team would have a high pick in the draft, but because there were so many terrible teams this year — remember four teams finished with greater than 100 losses — they are only picking seventh. Even if they go full tank mode, which is likely, there is no guarantee that they will get a high pick.
This team really needs a Bloom type, preferably from teams that excel in player development such as the Rays and Astros. Former Astros Assistant GM Brandon Taubman might have been a lead candidate if he did not value baseball more than being a decent human being.
(As an aside, I’d be concerned about bringing in anyone from the Astros’ organization for the GM role unless the person fully acknowledges the toxic environment there and vows not to replicate it in Pittsburgh.)
Let’s be frank: this is not an enviable opening for an incoming GM. It’s not just that the team is years away from contention. We all know that the biggest problem is Nutting, because we have no reason to believe that he will put money into the team once it becomes competitive again. He is one of the few owners in baseball that cares more about profits and less about winning than the Dolans in Cleveland. The Brewers are in a market that is even smaller than Pittsburgh, yet they spend more money on the team than the Pirates do.
I have said this many times before, and I’ll say it again: there is no reason to believe that any owner can’t afford >$200 million payrolls. The game has never been more profitable, and Nutting has no problem taking the revenue sharing from those profits and putting it in his pocket as opposed to investing it in the team. That $50 million that Nutting got from the sale of MLBAM? It went right into his pockets.
When a reporter fairly asked Nutting why he does not spend more, he actually had the audacity to say this:
I asked Bob Nutting a simple question. Tried to do it respectfully. Why not spend more? Here's what he said: pic.twitter.com/qvS15VvTvn— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) October 28, 2019
First off, he claims that the team is not using the “economic system as an excuse,” even though they have clearly been doing that for as long as Nutting has been in charge. Then he cries poor, even though he is worth $1.1 billion. If he wants to claim that the team itself is not making enough money, he can easily prove that by opening the books. He has never done so and likely never will, so I believe it is more that fair for everyone on the outside to be skeptical.
I don’t even want to think about what the legendary Roberto Clemente would say if he were alive to see the current state of this Pirates franchise. If Nutting does not care enough about the team to invest in it, then he should sell it to someone who does. With the skyrocketing values of franchises these days, he could probably get at least $1 billion for the team. That is pretty good considering he originally bought the team for less than $100 million.
Pirates fans, you deserve better. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen as long as Nutting continues to own the team.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.